I, like many others, received a letter from the physical education department reminding me that I needed eight physical education classes to graduate. To date (I’m a sophomore), I have completed two classes.
Now, I will finish all eight; I do intend on graduating. In fact, I hope to have six finished by the end of second semester. I do not, however, think that we should have the requirement at all. It is inconsistent with other requirements which Williams demands of its students.
It seems the main rationale for the PE requirement rests on the “sound mind, sound body” ideal. The requirement can be seen as doing two things: keeping students healthy and exposing students to the different activities that one can do to keep healthy. By requiring students to take PE classes, Williams in some way ensures students will have done some type of exercise. Hopefully, this introduction will lead students to continue to exercise and take care of themselves. One might go so far as to say the divisional requirements and peoples and cultures requirement function in somewhat the same way. Williams insists that its students have a modicum of exposure to any number of fields and ways of thinking.
I think that the physical education department does a good job of offering a diverse set of electives, which do expose students to a wide range of activities. From Nautilus to yoga to Williams Outing Club electives to granting certain exemptions for those who play sports, the department allows for a wide range of interests and time schedules.
Yet, there are some things which Williams does not â€” and should not â€” require of us. And I think that PE fits more into this category than the divisional requirements category. There is a clear difference in my mind between ensuring that students have taken three semesters of physical science and ensuring that students have taken eight quarters of physical education. (An interesting side note is that I will graduate Williams having been required to take three semesters of physical science and four semesters of physical education.)
The difference comes from the fact that while I see it as the College’s responsibility to ensure that I have exposed myself to different ways of thinking, I do not think that it is the College’s responsibility to care for my health. Williams, for example, does not require me to go to the Health Center on a regular basis to make sure that I am caring for myself. I am not required to eat three meals a day, nor vary my diet. I could smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and still graduate.
The College is not responsible when students drink irresponsibly. Even if a student were to severely hurt himself because of heavy drinking, the responsibility falls to the host of the party, not to the College itself.
I suppose there might be a situation where a health emergency forced the College to act in some way. Perhaps the “lice epidemic” of last year was a good example of that. Besides having extra health care staff on hand and visiting entries, the College had the washing machines and dryers in dorms function free of charge.
But it hardly seems that lack of physical fitness is a health emergency at Williams. Each afternoon the Lasell gym is full, teams practice and students jog around campus. It seems as though most Williams students are keeping healthy without any requirement at all. Without such a dire need for the College to take action on behalf of the students’ health, the requirement seems superfluous.
I think the College does expose its students to opportunities for physical fitness through the facilities that we have. Such exposure should not become mandated. In the same way, there are any number of non-academic pursuits â€” exposing us to new types of thinking and, in accordance with President Payne’s focus on civic virtue, helping us to interact as citizens â€“ which should not be mandated. Again, the school does not require me to do community service, to vote, to attend tonight’s WCDU debate or to read the newspaper. We are not even strictly required to take part in any of the First Days activities at the beginning of our first year at Williams.
The College attempts to strike a delicate balance between prescription and choice in what it requires of students. I have argued on these pages for increasing the prescription in some areas of curriculum. The physical education requirement, however, does not fall in line with the rest of the College’s educational mission.