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Yue Wang '12: A more serious commitment to physical education at Brown

Adding to the numerous buzzing construction sites on College Hill, the ongoing project of the new aquatics and fitness center seems to appeal to everybody. For varsity athletes, it means a permanent home for the swimming and water polo teams, a much less crowded strength and conditioning area, separated lockers for teams, etc. The Brown community at large will also enjoy extended hours for swimming, more dance studios and more fitness centers. All these efforts are said to make the Brown athletic complex more attractive to both varsity athletes and other members of the Brown community.

Is that really the case? While one may concede that the improvement of facilities will make the varsity athletes — whose physical training makes up a huge part of their life on campus — better off, I suspect that adding a new athletic center doesn't mark a significant change of direction from Brown's long history of inertia and complacency about providing good physical education for the rest of the student body.

Whether you know it or not, along with Princeton, Yale and University of Pennsylvania, Brown is one of four Ivy League colleges that do not fund students' recreational sports. By contrast, Dartmouth, Columbia and Cornell offer mostly free physical education classes. They even enforce physical education requirements — which count toward academic credits — as well as a mandatory swim test by the time of graduation. By funding and mandating recreational sports for the whole student body, those colleges are promoting the idea that sport is an indispensable part of a liberal education and that exercise is as important for average students as it is for athletes.

How different, then, is the situation at Brown? To begin with, we have to pay fees to take physical education courses. Starting next semester, the use of gyms will probably incur more fees that will appear on our bills. Even in paid courses, there seems to be pandemic and even systemic mismanagement of the courses and indifference to students' needs. Some instructors simply fail to show up without any notification in advance or explanation afterwards. In an extremely frustrating incident, a friend of mine went over to the Olney-Margolies Athletic Center to attend a yoga class at the beginning of last semester. The class gathered three times without the instructor ever showing up. It took numerous phone calls to the physical education office before she was finally told the course was canceled.
For yet another sign of how physical education is ignored at Brown, one needs only to look at the scheduling of the classes, which usually conflicts with our academic schedules. In this spring semester, for example, many physical education classes meet either during lunch time or at hours crowded by other classes. This makes enrollment in a physical education class at Brown more difficult.

Solving these long-existing problems, not increasing the number of dance studios or fitness rooms, will determine how attractive physical education is to Brown students. By charging students for the use of gyms and building another giant sports center, the school seems to indicate that recreational sports and physical education takes a higher priority than before. Yet, by ignoring factors such as a lack of funding for physical education classes, chaotic management and schedule conflicts, the administration is sending us conflicting messages about the importance of exercise and physical fitness.

Of course, the amount of time and energy that is invested in sports and exercises is ultimately decided by individuals. Coursework, jobs, extracurricular activities and — let's be honest — laziness all influence our willingness to exercise. But an administration truly committed to physical fitness and the health of the student body should at least take steps to provide the ease and comfort that may encourage student participation in sports.
Right now, these are the obvious initial steps to consider: First, the University should fund physical education classes, even if they do not make them mandatory; second, the physical education department should work with the Dean of the College to come up with a schedule that permits greater compatibility between academic courses and PE classes; finally, more reliable instructors and staff can make attending a PE class a more pleasant experience.

Over two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato offered the following advice regarding exercise: "Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it." This piece of ancient wisdom still holds true today. If Brown really believes that exercise matters for its students, it is high time to address the real problems plaguing the program instead of concealing them beneath the grandeur of a new sports center.

Yue Wang '12 is a political science and German studies concentrator from Shanghai. She can be contacted at yue_wang (at)



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