The Freshman 15 was never a big concern for Aaron Briggs. He was enrolled in a boxing class that met three times a week and discovered that he loved the sport. “I value the release,” he said. “The class was just about showing up. But then I realized how great it was for my stress.”
“Now, it actually helps me get by here,” he added, referring to the additional boxing sessions he’s attended since his freshman fall.
Briggs is, in many ways, a typical Yalie. He’s a sophomore from California, a biology major and a fan of the school’s athletic program. The catch? Briggs doesn’t go here. He’s a student at our fellow Ivy up in Hanover, where students are required to take a year’s worth of physical education classes and complete a 50-yard swim test to graduate.
The unfortunate reality is that Briggs probably wouldn’t have discovered his passion for boxing if he came to Yale. We got rid of our PE requirement over fifty years ago. Most Yalies do not participate in organized sports, and working out is seen as secondary to other things: polishing that literature essay, working at the Af-Am House, writing articles for a political journal, drafting a CIPE fellowship application.
At Yale, we prize academics over almost everything else. We consider our intellect to be our greatest asset, and rightfully so. We are an academic institution first.
But no one can deny that Yale’s responsibility extends far beyond academics. That is why we live in entryways and residential colleges — so we get to know one another. It’s why the University sponsors many service clubs — so we learn the value of kindness. And it’s why we are required to go to CCE workshops — so we better understand how to communicate.
Our motto of “lux et veritas” is often interpreted narrowly to suggest the search for knowledge, but it has a personal dimension, too. We are supposed to find the “light” in us, not just as contributors to society, but also as human beings. A large part of that mission means learning how to live well — and to live well is to be physically fit.
So my proposal is this: bring back the PE requirement. Mandate students complete two PE credits to graduate. Treat these credits like an additional distributional requirement, but grade them Cr/D/F. And like Dartmouth does, design classes so they span every conceivable interest: speed walking and salsa dancing, Aikido and lumberjacking.
The PE requirement will inevitably add to an already strained budget. But choices reflect priorities. If Yale’s job is to teach us to both think and live well, its allegiance must be to a truly comprehensive education. Other parts of the budget will inevitably shrink, but I’d rather see trims in other areas. Plus, I’d be willing to bet that most alumni would be extremely supportive, verbally and financially, of this requirement.
But shouldn’t students, you ask, have the freedom to not work out?
The short answer is no. Yale forces us to do many things, academic and non-academic. With our distributional requirements, we’re forced to explore different disciplines. By living on campus freshman and sophomore years, we’re forced to interact with other members of our college. These rules abridge freedom, but enrich the college experience. In Yale’s view, and in my view, these tradeoffs are worth it. There are other schools, like Brown, that place freedom over structure. But when students choose Yale, they choose an institution that already values structure over freedom.
Plus, Yalies need some extra incentive to get healthy. The Freshman 15 might start as a joke, but it too often becomes a reality. In high school, many of us played varsity sports, but in college, few of us exercise regularly. Workouts, for most, are sporadic, and come in bursts and fits and starts. Former athletes become couch potatoes, and in the process, adopt a lifestyle that is objectively bad.
The entire idea behind a PE requirement is to create a program that forces people to overcome the inertia of going to the gym, allowing them to structure regular workout sessions with their friends. We want more people to experience what Briggs did at Dartmouth.
We currently have a sorry state of affairs — and Yale can turn it around. And it must, too, if it truly cares about its students.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a sophomore in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .