I recently read an article by Derrick Z. Jackson, a columnist for the Boston Globe, that brought to mind something that has troubled me for many years: namely the de-emphasis on physical education in the schools today.
Jackson and I, and presumably many others our age, remember when physical education was not a course option; it was an absolute requirement, as much a part of the educational curriculum as English, math and social studies. Everyone took it during elementary, junior high and high school. We were all better off for it.
Whether or not you were athletically inclined, your overall health benefited from the physical exercise you took part in during gym class. Those who were athletically inclined often translated their love of physical activity into a lifelong commitment to keeping fit, and many went on to teach "Phys Ed" to others.
Most of us who are in our 40s and older remember calisthenics, laps around the track and various individual sports we played during our 45 or 50 minutes of gym. We remember "suiting up," going through workouts and feeling sweaty but exhilarated afterward. For some, Phys Ed ranked among the most memorable experiences of our youth.
Unfortunately, fewer and fewer students experience that feeling today. In Jackson's column, he laments that many states have drastically reduced or even dropped Phys Ed requirements. And, in some states where Phys Ed has been de-emphasized, fitness test results are alarming. In California, for instance, 77 percent of fifth-, seventh- and ninth-grade students failed fitness tests.
According to Jackson, Phys Ed is becoming "fizz ed." Many schools nationwide have installed soft drink machines, and students are consuming those sugar-laden beverages at fearfully high rates. This, he notes, could be contributing to the explosive growth of diabetes and obesity among children.
In years gone by, if a kid wanted to hone his baseball skills, he joined Little League or got together with his friends at the schoolyard or sandlot. Kids sharpened their skills with teams at the local gym or playground. Basketball courts were commonplace. Today, according to one of the experts quoted by Jackson, "Kids don't go to the playground anymore."
Phys Ed and playground and gym sports taught kids the importance of working together toward a common goal -- winning the game -- as well as learning good sportsmanship and teamwork. In some cases, such as volleyball, it encouraged parity and gender respect between the sexes. Kids just aren't getting that experience much anymore, and that is sad and tragic.
The solution obviously lies in the hands of the schools. I hope that soon this awful trend can be reversed. Otherwise, our young people are at risk of getting "soft" and increasingly unhealthy. Obviously, this is not a situation in which the world's most powerful and stable nation wants to find itself, especially as more countries look to us for leadership and guidance. We need to set a good example and, to do so, we need to restore Phys Ed to its former place of importance in our schools.