Like Morgan, I too am closing out my college career. Graduating from Ohio University– and from most public universities, for that matter– is nothing short of a bureaucratic obstacle course. A college student's final days are filled with deadlines, payments, and "convenient" online forms waiting to be filled out. To me this seems a far cry from the early days of the academy– times that were filled with tradition, wisdom, and professors who admittedly may have gotten a little too close to their students. Little by little, we are losing some of the great traditions that have distinguished higher education. Currently we're losing another one of these traditions: the great (or, for many, the obscure) "swim test." 

     A swim test is basically what it sounds like: a university-administered test, mandatory for graduation in which students display their physical fitness. Once a large part of the college experience, swim tests are now required for graduation at a handful of colleges in the United States. Notre Dame, MIT, Cornell, Columbia, Hamilton, Dartmouth, Swarthmore, and Washington & Lee are the only traditional universities and colleges among the holdouts. The remainder are military academies. And as recently as 1977, 42 percent of universities had some sort of swimming requirement, according to a survey by Larry Hensley of the University of Northern Iowa. The question remains, why swimming? Swim tests were developed to meet the physical and social needs of graduating seniors. They sprung up well before the age of health clubs, yoga studios, and "wellness centers." Over time, we saw the introduction of choice into physical education. Now students choose from Frisbee golf, archery, and (my favorite from the Ohio course catalogue) "water-skiing, competitive." 

     So what's wrong with choice? Shouldn't college students be able to get a good physical education and at the same time choose for themselves what courses to take? My libertarian sensibilities would incline me to agree with this critique, but I can't embrace it wholesale for the following reason. Simply put, the academy does, and should have, a special place in society. It should not be blindly beholden to the laws of supply and demand. For many, the swim tests are a time for bonding in which students cheer on one another. A Cornell professor observed, "Where else at Cornell University twhen somebody passes a test is the whole class cheering?" In an age in which we are fenced off from one another with our exclusive gated communities, our monster SUVs, and our omnipresent iPods, don't we want something that can bring us together?

     There is a strange double standard in the academy today. On one hand, we sharply criticize the "myth" of American individualism; while on the other hand we take on the Burger King approach to higher ed: "College– Have it Your Way!" I think this approach is quite problematic. At some level, the university must make valuative judgements about its curriculum, otherwise the next big major may be Bread and Circus studies. Case in point: Ohio University just lost its only environmental law class because of a lack of student demand. Its replacement? Sports law.

     This is a heavy charge, to be sure. Our problems go far beyond the loss of the swim test; they are existential problems with which academe must wrestle for quite some time. We need to ask some big questions. What should a college degree mean? How much should we allow students to shape cirricula? And finally, what should be higher education's role in contemporary society?

     I can answer one question, though. I personally wouldn't mind swimming a couple of laps in order to graduate. So long as the event is not sponsored by Pepsi and emceed by Ohio's "Attack Cat."

Daniel Corbett     

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