Sunday, March 06, 2011

The debate over PE in schools and physical unfitness: many sides to the problem

Robert McCartney has a story on p C1, Metro, of the Washington Post, Sunday March 6, “Help trim the fat: Gov. McDonnell: Sign the P.E. Bill”, encouraging the GOP Virginia governor to sign a bill mandating more time for physical education in most grades.  The link is (website url) here.

Today, the media reports a lot on obesity in children, and high school and college students, and blames time in front of the computer.  When I substitute taught earlier last decade, it seemed to be very much a an economic class and sometimes ethnic thing. People whose genetic background includes Native American heritage (including Mexico and Latin America) are more susceptible to overeating in a western diet (they have more diabetes), because their ancestors lived off of what they could catch on the land, and were genetically “adapted” to relative food scarcity before Europeans brought a more sedentary culture to the "New World".  (The same thing happens when previously healthy wild animals that hunt or forage for a living and do well at it are fed processed food by well-intended people wanting to "tame" them.  There's no intended analogy; it's just a metabolic fact, as well as a theme in science fiction; here's a typical explanatory link.) On the other hand, people from “upper middle class” backgrounds with well-educated or  economically and socially “successful” parents did, indeed, tend to look much fitter. (Stable marriages and two-parent families do help with fitness.)   So I don’t think Facebook is to blame for this one, any more than television would have been in the 1950s (when teachers implored us, “Read, don’t watch television” but sometimes assigned certain TV programs as homework). And, as Alternet points out repeatedly, often our "economic system" isn't fair. 

When I went to junior high school (grades 7-9 then) and high school, physical education was mandatory in grades 7-11, but not for seniors. It was taught as “Health and Physical Education”.  In grades 7-9, it was 3 weeks on and off of each. Teachers grade relative to ability, so I got A’s and B’s despite poor athletic performance. In high school, it was more geared to performance, and I got C’s, but PE was not counted as part of the grade point average.  10th grade spent a third of the year on classroom Health; 11th grade was all PE.  I actually got a D one quarter in the 11th grade when we did tumbling.  We always did touch football, soccer, basketball, track and field, and softball (which I liked: I once hit a homer in gym class and pitched a shutout!  -- 4-0; I still remember the game).

In the 1950s, gym had a slightly different meaning, with a Cold War on, and a draft; there was a presumption that every male had a moral obligation to be ready to “do his part”.  I didn’t face the draft until age 24, after grad school, but I got recycled once through Special Training Company (STC) at Fort Jackson, SC (Spring 1968), because of PT problems, but pulled out of it.  After Basic, I was in better shape than at any other time in my life. (What was called the PCPT, of Physical Combat Proficiency Test, a 500 point test of five events back in the 1960s, is now the APFT, or Army Physical Fitness Test, link here.  Probably most young adults who can disco dance all night without substances are physically active enough to pass it.)

It’s interesting to think about PE today in the context of adoration of big league sports.  Pro football, facing a lockout, has to deal with the ethical problems of repeated concussion injuries to its players. In baseball, we try to sell Tommy John surgery to teenagers (I’ve even gotten Internet ads for it on my computer and site).  But, yes, I hope Stephen Strasburg comes back before too long, and think that San Francisco Giant’s World Series hero Tim Lincecum is fun to watch.


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