Some of my favorite writers––Mencken, Postman, Muggeridge––are all critics of what is referred to as the “education system.” If I could write like those guys, perhaps I, too, would write a broad takedown of The Man. With humility, I’ve lowered my sight on a smaller, though plumper and much slower-moving target: Physical Education.
P.E. avoids broad social criticism by being, I think, taken for granted as horrible. Social expectations for P.E. are final-round-of-limbo low. Imagine, for example, a concerned mother making an impassioned plea to the school board about the poor performance of the district’s phys-ed program. There would be a collective eye-roll; sugar-rich soft drinks would be prohibited from campuses; and discussion would move back to the string of student suicides and replacing the German language program with Chinese––how practical.*
However our schools fall short, classes besides P.E. at least have some superficial intention to edify.
In U.S. History class, for example, students learn some history. We gloss over some unsavory events such as the American eugenics movement and nearly everything the C.I.A. has ever done. But one course can’t cover everything and for what’s leftover there’s always Howard Zinn.
Likewise in English Literature, students are asked to read the classics, which surely have some educational value. And feedback from teachers can last a lifetime. A memorable comment on one of my papers: “You should try reading the book next time.”
P.E. requires no such educational pretense.
I do remember taking an occasional written exam in P.E., which you might recognize as something of an oxymoron. To my memory, those written exams tested students on the rules of the sports we played: How many downs to progress ten yards? How many strikes ‘til you’re out? How many wombats in a standard cricket match if the buzzer doesn’t go off?
Tests about rules speak volumes about our culture, of course. What did you learn in P.E. class today, Billy? How to follow the rules!
There is a superfluousness of educating children in the rules of sports, as though we were training the next generation of referees and judges.** Physically-inclined children learn the rules of sports through media and play. To illustrate, I share below a brief story my childhood friends like to recount about our sixth grade basketball B-Team. Understand that “sixth grade” means that I was 12 and “B-Team” means that I was a mediocre basketball player.
The opposing team was shooting a free throw with just seconds left on the game clock. My team led by one or two points. The free throw rattled out, and I jumped to grab the rebound. Upon landing, I was pushed––no foul called––and began to fall out of bounds. I had seen this moment play out on TV hundreds of times, so I called a timeout. We won.
My point is that kids gain a precocious understanding of rules and sporting nuance without intervention. This is social game theory probably written more elegantly by someone like James Carse or Eric Berne: If you don’t follow the rules nobody will let you play. No written exam required.
There were other exams in P.E., too––exams with absolutely nothing to do with education. These physical exams remain one of the most puzzling events from my childhood.
As every child learns, the government has some interest in how close you can come to touching your toes, how high you can jump, and––most infamously––how fast you can run a mile.*** The last of these exams seems to be so important for American children that they must run one mile at the beginning of each P.E. class nearly every day from the ages of 13-18. Upon age 18, the government loses all interest in how fast you can run. Which is a shame, because I’d like to show them that I can run really fast.
In other countries P.E. data is actually put to use. I dated, for a while, a Chinese woman who, at nearly six feet tall, was a statistical anomaly. In middle school she was already tall enough to be spotted by the omnipotent Chinese P.E. authorities, so she was placed in a special school for athletes. This was how she became––for a few years at least––a hurdler. Seriously.
But back to the United States: the arbitrary exams and data gathering, the awkward uniforms, the uncomfortable locker room changing in front of peers, the “I used to be someone” teachers, the meaningless mile-length runs. It all takes you back, doesn’t it?
These things are a deeply embedded part of American culture. Yes, P.E. is absurd––we get it. But it’s P.E.! What would become of teen movies if we could no longer have 30 year old actors in gym class scenes?
But P.E. class doesn’t have to be like this.
Another story about an ex-girlfriend, this time from Colombia. (The whole point of this website, by the way, is to paint a picture of myself as a very-knowledgable, very-cosmopolitan, very-seductive most-interesting-man-in-the-world. And because of this, Dear Reader, I reserve the right to make up any facts that help me tell a story. But this story is true.)
Anyway, this Colombian woman and I were one day comparing notes about our musical schooling. In the U.S. it is common to have an option to attend band, orchestra, or choir class. And in my cultural myopia, I assumed that in Colombia, too, music students had the option to take “band” class, and thus learn the trumpet, trombone, clarinet, or tuba. But my romantic interest told me that while she had taken a band class, she had learned to play la clave.
As with music, a look around the world teaches you that there are a lot of ways to teach P.E.
In China, for instance, there is the tradition of zaocao, or morning calisthenics. When I was teaching in China, every morning at around 7 a.m.,**** this would happen:
I still get a bit uneasy hearing that man count to eight repeatedly in Mandarin.
In Japan, as I understand, judo is sometimes included as a part of the P.E. curriculum. This led to the greatest moment in democratic history:
It would, of course, be impossible to implement a judo curriculum in American schools. By the time I finished elementary school it was prohibited to play tag while on concrete––grass only! It is impossible to see the American cult of safety embracing students learning to uchi-mata each other, no matter how physically educational it would be.
I should address the irony of someone like me writing a criticism of P.E. I was––OK, am––a jock. Growing up P.E. was often my favorite class of the day. My gym teachers and me were bros. Sometimes they were my coaches; other times they just looked the other way when I showed up late. I remember feeling like the Fresh Prince of P.E.
“Hey Teach,” I’d say, “I like sports; you like sports; did you catch the Niners game? Nice.” And then I’d crush some nerds in badminton.
But there’s more to the story: my artistic side––think “Oz” from American Pie. And upon reflection, any real physical education I received from schooling came from my involvement with the theater program.
While P.E. may have been the rules class, theater was the break the rules class. The most memorable theater unit we had was a few weeks of musical improvisational theater. The way to do musical improvisational theater is to discard the rules of rhyme and rhythm: In musical improv, everything rhymes.
In theater class, students learn to use and move their bodies for different purposes. In other words, they receive physical education.
A common warmup exercise in theater groups, for example, is to learn to represent different states or statuses on command: Start walking, now walk like the mayor of your city, now the President, now like a turtle, now like a shelf! How do you walk like a shelf, you might be wondering… Head down to your local improv class to find out!
Once I was asked to perform a short monologue as The Taming of the Shrew‘s Petruchio. My teacher asked me to portray an ultra-manly alpha male. Afterward he schooled me in a dozen ways my physicality had fallen short––a rather humbling moment for the class’s football jock. But I learned.
I remember, too, practicing the wonderfully physical Suzuki method. To this day I don’t really understand what we were doing when we made ourselves into Suzuki Statues, but this video should give you an idea.
Another time a French mime named Bili visited us for a few weeks. Despite being a titan of physical education, Bili neither boasted nor bragged.
Finally, in my participation in the school musical, I received my first exposure to dance.
OK, so it wasn’t really my first exposure to dance, because I should give credit where credit is due: middle school P.E. class.
In middle school P.E. there was a unit dedicated to square dancing. Yes, some bright mind in phys-ed thought leadership decided that the ripe age of 13 was the appropriate age for students to be forced to square dance with one another. “Kids, now that none of your clothes fit and that you have body odor that you’re unaware of, we believe this would be an appropriate time to dance with one another.” Thanks, State of California.
If I’m being honest, I’m still a bit scarred from the experience and––despite being a “dancer” today––I would probably turn down an invitation to go square dancing this weekend.
It didn’t help, I’m sure, that our P.E. teacher had no interest in square dancing. Remember, American P.E. teachers are ex-jocks. They’re the “watch football on Sunday mornings” type, not the “out dancing until 1 A.M. on Saturday” type.
In retrospect, though, I think our square dancing P.E. teacher must have taken a kind of sadistic pleasure in seeing a group of punky 13 year-olds have to do something so uncomfortable for them. 13 year-olds are smart, of course, but it would take extraordinary precocity to lean into the absurdity of bureaucratically compelled square dancing. Had I been that P.E. teacher, I would have been laughing maniacally on the inside watching those teens muddle through something so needlessly painful.
My English teachers of old liked to harp… So What? And given that this is my blog, I’m certainly entitled to say F*** your “so what” and send you back to Reddit or wherever you’ve come from. But, Dear Reader, you’ve read this far and so I think you’ve earned something.
The inspiration for this essay was my own experience as a P.E. teacher. I am not a public school gym teacher, of course. I have been teaching dance to adults. But each time I have tried to reflect on my experience as a teacher, I think of the missed opportunities of my own physical education.
I believe that dance, the martial arts, and theater are areas in which American P.E. has been woefully inadequate. And it seems to me that there is the potential for phys-ed to actually have “a moment.”
With all the talk of remote-learning and post-COVID education reform, perhaps P.E. should be part of that discussion, instead of being left out because of its status as an educational afterthought and a cultural hangover.
What does it mean for P.E. that:
-More and more students are being homeschooled?
-Online education is taking off and will surely get better and better?
-Public schools are “safety first” institutions, run by liability?
-COVID is here to stay?
*Or perhaps this was just my high school experience?
***Honorable mention for the pernicious swimming test, in which still-growing teens adorn bathing suits in front of their peers and an unfortunate lot have to reveal that they never learned to swim.
****It may have been later than 7 a.m., but it always FELT like 7 a.m.