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HARRINGTON: Keep Jefferson out of the gym

Emphasizing Jefferson’s commitment to exercise can have negative effects on University students

When exiting the Aquatic & Fitness Center after a difficult workout, you would expect to feel accomplished. However, I — along with many other students — instead regularly face feelings of shame and inadequacy. Lining the wall of the AFC and every other gym on Grounds in prominent letters is a quote from University founder Thomas Jefferson: "Give about two hours everyday to exercise, for health must not be sacrificed to learning. A strong body makes the mind strong." At its sight, you ask yourself, “did I really work out for two hours today?” Invariably for me, the answer is no. While the shame at failing to live up to Jefferson’s ideal is illogical given the busy lives many students pursue, the plaque’s suggestion of their inadequacy is unwarranted. Take down the quote.

Reminders of Jefferson are ever-present on Grounds, from calling ourselves students at Mr. Jefferson’s University to bidding good night to him after streaking the Lawn, to students attributing ridiculous quotes to him and administrators citing his actual words throughout the Teresa Sullivan resignation/reinstatement incident of 2012. This pride in our founder can problematically lead to our holistic reverence of him. According to University Guide Service Historian Alice Burgess, “People are uncomfortable talking about his less popular ideas or practices, especially surrounding slavery; but it’s something that should be talked about… I think that in the Guide Service, we do try on our historical tours to ‘take Jefferson off the pedestal.’”

Placing the quote at each gym actively reinforces students’ tendency to indiscriminately revere Jefferson: not only does it suggest students should consider Jefferson’s advice to be worthwhile, but it also suggests they should spend two hours daily following it. While it may have been a cute idea to put a Jefferson quote in the lobby of each gymnasium, the words irresponsibly advocate that a true Virginia student should “do it all,” rather than encouraging moderation.

The Jefferson quote is particularly problematic because its locations place the words out of their historical context. While exercise is both the pursuit of gym-goers and the subject of the quote, these two concepts of exercise differ widely. When Jefferson wrote this advice to his nephew Peter Carr, his two hours of exercise typically consisted of his daily walking. As he aged and could no longer walk even a mile, he counted his horseback riding as such instead. For a student who finds that he didn’t run, swim, erg or stair-step for two hours that day or on any other day in his recent past, this contrast may not be evident. He may be beginning a 20 minute walk home, but considers his daily exercise as having already ended.

Furthermore, promoting Jefferson’s supposedly ideal time prescription for daily exercise problematically caters to the mindset of many individuals facing an eating disorder, described as “a numbers-driven disease.” The problem of data driving unhealthy eating habits has been especially realized in the effect on patients of apps that quantify all facets of their lives. In a 2013 New Republic article, Dr. Kimberly Dennis estimated that 75 percent of the young adults in her clinic now use their phones to enable or encourage their eating disorders. Even if this quantification doesn’t lead to student eating disorders, its effect is a far cry from the spirit of stress relief and moderation Jefferson meant to encourage when he advised Carr to take breaks from his studies to walk. While Jefferson claimed to “give more time to exercise of the body than of the mind,” student mimicry of this lifestyle is laughable.

Lastly, I object to the presence of the quote because the students inside University gyms are not those for whom Jefferson’s exercise standard is helpful. This is a population mostly composed of first-years (as many upperclassmen use facilities in off-Grounds apartment complexes) who are already overwhelmed by the perpetual presence of students running all hours of the day. It is harmful to suggest they are not just failing to meet the standard of their peers, but also that of Jefferson. As for Jefferson’s preaching that health ought not to be sacrificed for learning, this sentiment would be much more effective if communicated to the silent, stressed studiers on the first floor of Clemons Library.

The raised letters and elegant design of the quote suggest its words should be considered valuable, laudable and true. Yet as Burgess explained, “Jefferson was a man of his time,” and a flawed one at that. In this academic culture where allocating time for exercise is a difficult and often enviable habit, Jefferson’s outdated and flawed expectation prevents his message from serving as accessible advice to anyone. By removing the quote, the University could both encourage student well-being and help reduce the uncritical student view of Jefferson that allows his words to be damaging today.

Elaine Harrington is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at e.harrington@cavalierdaily.com.

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