This actually isn’t hypothetical, because it happened to a classmate in my college phys-ed class. About a third of our grade was based on overall physical fitness (our ability to run the mile-and-a-half, life weights, and so on), a third based on participation (were you at least trying?) and a third based on classroom work. That second part was also based on physical fitness, to some extent, because you started getting docked whenever you stopped jogging or when you had to call it quits for lack of physical fitness. The classwork was dreadfully easy. Obviously, for someone not in good physical shape, the fitness tests were hard.
My friend-for-a-class Ned was in overall pretty good shape (well, much better shape than me – and I was not a smoker at the time). The thing is that he was a smoker. He could start and stop at will and so for the fitness tests (most specifically the running test which was the hardest) he would actually stop smoking for a few days before the run. So on the jogging test, he kicked my posterior and actually came in 7th (out of 30). He beat me by some margin on every physical test.
When we got our grades, though, I got a B- and he got a C. When he talked to the instructor about this (I was with him to verify that we showed the same effort in class), she said that she docked him because he was a smoker. She’d seen him smoking first thing after class or before class. He smelled of the stuff. In her mind, his smoking was indicative of a lack of commitment to physical health. Ned’s counterpoint was that it was none of her business. He ran the laps, lifted the weights, and did everything he was expected to do. On what basis could she dock him points? She said that his “participation” grade was low because he really wasn’t giving it his all (usually working at the same pace that I did). If it weren’t for the cigarettes, she said, he could have done more. And since smoking was his choice, he lost participation points. And yet I (Will) didn’t, Ned argued, despite showing the exact same effort.
The difference, she argued, was that what was a greater effort for me was less of an effort for him. It’s graded on a curve.
He argued that he was then being punished for being in shape (in terms of effort) more than I was being punished for being out of shape (in terms of fitness challenge performance).
She shrugged it off, saying that physical fitness was about appreciating your body and that there was no sign that somebody didn’t appreciate their body like smoking, and so ultimately he deserved a worse grade than he got. Did he want that? The conversation ended there.
So, the question is, should phys-ed be able to punish someone for being a smoker if it doesn’t show up in their ability to practice and perform? Even though I later became a smoker, I can actually somewhat appreciate her perspective on the matter. Smoking, as compared to excess weight (my problem at the time) is a more binary decision. And as difficult as it is to quit smoking, the quit-success is much higher for smoking than dieting is for overweight people.
On the other hand, it seemed pretty apparent to me that this declaration was pretty arbitrary. She was punishing him for a habit that he found disgusting. Nowhere was it written down that smokers are penalized (beyond the physical toll it takes). Presumably, if it had been written down, he would have at least taken more care not to show up smelling like smoke. Maybe he should have done that anyway to be considerate, but being considerate is not a factor in his grade.
Of course, all of this comes back to the difficulty when it comes to grading people in PE. In no other college course is “effort” graded directly, nor should it be. Or maybe it is, since that’s what attendance grades and a lot of homework assignments are. Ultimately, though, most of your grade is supposed to come from the degree to which you demonstrate mastery over the subject matter. That’s hard to do for PE because you can understand the subject matter of running very, very well and yet still not be able to do it. It’s difficult to make up for lack of ability (over the course of a single semester) with determination and discipline. Most classes, determination and discipline are going to be, if not sufficient to overcome all, at least sufficient to overcome some of it.
And, ultimately, being able to run the 1.5-mile over a period of time isn’t really what people go to college for. Even classes like Comparative Folk Dancing offer something in terms of learning how to communicate ideas (regardless of the frivolity of the subject-matter). I suppose the ability to take care of oneself physically does matter to future employers, but that has to be viewed as a lifetime project and not something you’re going to pick up in class. It’s easy to translate term papers into something useful in the business world, but more difficult to translate squats.
All of this is of course contingent on viewing college as vocational training. I suppose if you disagree with that on a fundamental level, you can view phys-ed as a more abstract good. Of course, those that view college as a sort of a self-improvement thing apart from vocational training are also the types who hate jocks for all of the wedgies they got when they were younger.
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