Swim tests are an inappropriate requirement of university students
Among the last groups against which there is prejudice in this country is the unhealthy, the so-called “unfit” who are not up to physical standards. This stigma manifests itself in higher education in the form of physical fitness tests mandated at some universities. Specifically, several Ivy League schools and colleges along the East Coast require swim tests, an antiquated practice largely implemented in the early 20th century. The University of Chicago announced this month that it would drop this test, in addition to its entire physical education requirement. We believe other schools should follow Chicago by taking the evolutionary step out of the water and abandoning tests in the pool.
Non-military institutions still requiring a swim test include Washington and Lee University, Notre Dame, MIT, Swarthmore College, and the Ivies Columbia, Cornell and Dartmouth. The swim tests vary by the time at which they are taken. At some schools, students are forced to swim at enrollment; at others, just some time before graduating. Tests can range in difficulty and be timed or untimed. Students who don’t pass must often take courses in swimming instead.
The justification for these tests is predominantly historical and based on precedent. Zach Glubiak, a history major at Columbia wrote last year in the Columbia Spectator — the university’s student newspaper — that “the swim test’s origins are actually not known precisely” at his institution. Glubiak also pointed out some of the quirks that exist at Columbia. Engineers, for instance, are exempt from the test because engineers once convinced administrators that their ingenuity to build bridges and ships would prevent them from ever needing to learn to how to swim. This is apparently a story still told by Columbia tour guides while their non-engineering peers are flailing around in the pool.
The only other reason these institutions cite for why they require swim tests is that swimming is a skill necessary to learn to avoid drowning — as if the non-swimmers among us face the immediate danger of drowning.
What these schools neglect is that many students are simply unable to swim. Although the disabled are exempt from the test, out-of-shape students are not. More seriously, the co-ed nature of many of these tests can offend religious students. Moreover, studies have found disparities in swimming ability based on class and race. In fact, in 1973 one minority student at Amherst College drowned in the pool during testing.
The mistaken belief of these swimming tests — or the courses taken by those who have failed them — is that making people swim could be a helpful method of teaching. But forcing someone who cannot swim into the pool will bring resentment more than instruction. Those who want to learn how to swim should be able to do so on their own terms and not in a public display of embarrassment. For the sake of individual discretion, contemporary standards and physical inequality, those universities still asking their students to take some laps in the pool should drop such an inappropriate practice.