I had to laugh when I saw last week – a hat-tip to Chad Orgel to highlight this – that Williams College finally dropped the swimming test as a graduation requirement.
I remember the swimming test very well. Even in the 80’s, it seemed arbitrary, non-violent and stupid. We had to take the exam on New Year’s Orientation Week. It shows students wearing swimsuits with a mixed-sex group of their new peers, which created some self-awareness among many. We had to do a lap in the front pool – dog paddles, front crawl, breaststroke, whatever – and a lap on our backs. If you do not pass, you will need to sign up for a remedial swimming class. (Because they didn’t grade the form, I passed.) We had no idea why the requirements existed. Apparently, at this point, not even college knows; Its original story is lost in history.
For those who don’t know, from Williamstown Sea to the opposite end of Massachusetts. It’s Landlocked. The school song – “The Mountains” – gives an idea of the topography of the area. But we had to pass the swimming test.
I wonder if it will take until 2022 to repeal the requirement. According to the story of the college paper, the winning argument was not based on the obvious irrationality of necessity; It was based on race. Proportionately more students of color than white students failed the swimming test. The counter-argument, as published in the college paper, is that swimming is a valuable life skill. Even in 2022, and even as unequal racial influences are documented, that argument still persuades more than two dozen faculties to support the requirement. The argument goes, “How to swim is good; Therefore, we need it. “
This is not a glamorous sequel, but a simple one. “X is good, so it should be needed.” The implication of this argument is that if you are not willing to need it, you must not fully appreciate its goodness.
Um, no. Not even close. But such errors are widespread.
A while ago, The Boy asked me what I thought about cannabis legalization. I responded that the damage caused by the war on drugs, and the addiction to that effect, made me think it was reasonable to legalize marijuana as an alternative. He looked surprised and replied that he did not think I had smoked.
I do not. And now that it’s legal in my state, I still don’t. I explained to him, not the question he asked. I distinguish between my personal preference and what I deem necessary or prohibited under the law. After all, there is no law that prohibits me from eating anything but KitKat at every meal. I would oppose such a law because it would be unnecessarily aggressive. That’s true though I don’t eat kitkat at every meal, and don’t want to. The difference between personal taste and public law shows respect for the difference and gives opportunity for freedom.
Yes, the ability to swim is a good thing. Such as the ability to iron a shirt, the ability to change the engine oil, or the ability to pick up growth stock. No one will ever be able to finish a degree if we need to pass the test in every useful skill. We have to make choices. My feeling is that these choices should be based on the mission of the organization and a contemporary sense of humility. Each new need is a new obstacle; The burden of proof on the barrier should be greater.
So, congratulations to Williams for doing the right thing in the end, even if it took decades longer than that. And thanks for reminding us, even if unintentionally, something good doesn’t mean it should be a necessity.