Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/March 1898/Physical Training in the Colleges

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



IT is a conspicuous fact that within the last two decades of the present century our foremost colleges and universities, with few exceptions, have been providing for the physical training of their students by the erection of gymnasia which in many instances rival the other buildings on the campus in size and cost, and by assigning the direction of the work done in them to some officer supposed to possess special qualifications for his position. In such recently founded institutions as Leland Stanford and Chicago Universities, the chair of physical training has been among the first to be filled, and the gymnasium has followed close upon the library.

The wisdom of this new departure in college education is apparent. Many a student is physically defective when he enters upon the course of study. The general muscular development of thirteen out of the last one hundred men examined at Oberlin was noticeably poor, eighteen were flat-chested, more than a third stood with head and shoulders drooping forward and abdomen protruding, an equal number were flat-footed, and nearly as many carried one shoulder considerably lower than the other. Deficient mobility of the chest walls, irregularities in the heart's action after exertion, nutritive disorders, abnormal susceptibility to colds, evidences of exaggerated nervous irritability and of faulty muscular control are frequently observed.

The conditions of college life, too, favor physical carelessness. The current sets strongly in the direction of mental effort. The scholar's ambition is aroused, his circle of interests widens, he realizes the need and the possibilities of intellectual attainment. Under the urging of teachers the successful student is likely to apply himself too continuously to his books; the poor student, or the one who is unused to study, may be compelled to exert himself to the utmost in order to keep up with his mates. Social distractions make their demands upon spare moments, and outside interests multiply as the end of the course approaches. The claims of the body for a reasonable share of care and training are easily overlooked, unless there is some organized attempt to enforce them.

It is during these very years of student life, moreover, that the growth period of the body comes to an end. This growing period is the impressionable one. The bones are being consolidated, the chest is taking on its final shape, respiratory and circulatory power can still be increased, the nervous system is wonderfully responsive to training, and the possibilities of attainment in muscular control are at their highest. Never again can correct habits of carriage and action be so easily established, and the human machine be brought so completely under the control of the will and made its ready servant.

Student athletics, although they form an important part of the necessary physical training, are not sufficient. So far as they go they are invaluable, drawing the student out of doors and away from the routine of school life, and affording exercise made vigorous by the stimulus of competition. They help to counteract influences that tend to overrefinement and effeminacy. They demand and develop presence of mind, alertness, physical courage, self-control. But even the size of the playgrounds which they require makes it impossible that they should reach all the students in any but a small institution. They attract the most proficient, not the most needy. They have their place in the fall and spring, but must be given up entirely, or only occasionally practiced, during the four or five months of the year when the temptation to physical inactivity is greatest. They leave untouched some of the commonest physical defects. They are largely lacking in careful supervision, system, gradation, adaptation to individual needs. They can be compared to the student's general reading, rather than to his serious study. In a word, though they yield the recreative and hygienic results of physical training, they are lacking in the corrective; they are educational, but only in a haphazard sort of way.

Amherst College, in 1860, was the first in America to establish upon a sound basis a department of physical training, placing at the head of it a thoroughly educated physician, a member of the college faculty, with the title of Professor of Hygiene and Physical Education. Dr. Hooker, the first incumbent of the chair, was succeeded a year later by Dr. Edward Hitchcock, whose period of service has been an unbroken one from that day to this. Nearly a score of years passed before Harvard College (1879) became second on the list, by appointing Dr. D. A. Sargent assistant professor of physical training and director of the Hemenway Gymnasium, which had been erected at a cost of more than a hundred thousand dollars. Within more recent years the same thoroughgoing provision has been made by Bowdoin, Cornell, Oberlin, the Universities of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and "Wisconsin, Leland Stanford University, and a number of smaller institutions. Yale has two associate directors of the gymnasium who are physicians, but they are not given entire charge of the department. At Brown and the University of Chicago the department is well organized, but is not under medical direction. Few of the other colleges of recognized standing are without a director of the gymnasium, but too often they have been content with the erection of a showy building, instead of looking to the organization of an efficient department; it has not been put upon an equal footing with other departments of instruction and expected to do the same quality of work; the same grade of general culture and special preparation has not been exacted from its head.

Of the colleges for women, Smith, Vassar, Wellesley, Bryn Mawr, and Mount Holyoke all have college physicians, in most cases giving instruction in physiology or hygiene, or both. Each has in addition a director of the gymnasium, but only at Bryn Mawr is she a medical graduate. None of these directors is given the rank of professor in the faculty, but they are better qualified for their positions than are many of the male directors. The Woman's College of Baltimore is the best organized, with a professor of anatomy, physiology, hygiene, and physical training, and two instructors in physical training.

The completion of the Hemenway Gymnasium at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1879, marked the beginning of the present era of gymnasium building in American colleges and universities. The example of Harvard was followed during the next decade by Amherst, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, Bowdoin, Williams, Lehigh, Bryn Mawr, Vassar, and some others; and among the large number added to the list since 1890 are Yale, Wesleyan, Brown, Kutgers, Colgate, the Universities of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Leland Stanford, Smith College, and the Woman's College of Baltimore. The cost of the better class of these buildings ranges from ten thousand dollars to two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the average being not far from fifty thousand dollars.

A typical gymnasium of the period may be described somewhat as follows: It is built of brick or stone, several stories high, with a basement. The large main hall, containing the bulk of the apparatus, is open to the roof, unobstructed by posts or pillars, surrounded by a suspended gallery for the running track, and crossed above by iron beams to which the swinging apparatus is attached. On the floor below, or in the basement, are lockers in which the clothing worn during exercise is stored between times. Here, too, is a very important feature, the bathing equipment, consisting commonly of a plunge bath, tubs, and a considerable number of shower and spray baths. There are also the director's office and examining rooms, rooms for special developing appliances, or for boxing, wrestling, and fencing, perhaps bowling alleys in the basement, a "cage" for indoor baseball or tennis, an athletic trophy room, and others for the use of janitors, for the heating and ventilating plants, fuel, etc. The whole building is heated by hot water or steam. The apparatus in the main hall is partly portable, including wooden and iron dumbbells, Indian clubs, and wands; there are pulley weights, arranged to exercise all the principal groups of muscles, and adjustable to suit all grades of strength; fixed or "heavy" apparatus, comprising such forms as the horizontal bar, parallel bars, ladders, ropes, poles, swinging rings, the horse and buck for vaulting; and provision is also made for a variety of simple throwing and running games.

Before the student enters the gymnasium he is generally called upon to submit to a physical examination. In some schools this is required of every student, whether he goes to the gymnasium or not; in others it is optional for all, or confined to those in actual attendance. Its extent and thoroughness vary with the training and character of the examiner and the time at his disposal; but there is a general uniformity of method throughout the country. The most complete form includes (1) a record of certain facts of family and personal history which may explain abnormal conditions, if these are present, and direct attention to probable tendencies. Among such facts are the nationality and longevity of grandparents and parents, the environment and health of parents, the father's occupation, diseases common in the family or thought to be hereditary, personal injuries and diseases, habits regarding physical and mental work and recreation, sleep, life in the open air, the use of stimulants and narcotics; (2) a systematic inspection of the whole body, recording such points as apparent temperament, general muscular development and condition, the position of head and shoulders, deviations from the normal curvature of the spinal column, shape and mobility of the chest, proportionate development of various groups of muscles, and abnormalities of whatever sort; (3) a medical examination of the heart and lungs; (4) a series of about fifty measurements of weight, height, various lengths, breadths, and depths, the girths of trunk and limbs at different levels, followed by tests of lung capacity, and of the strength of large muscular masses—for example those of the chest, back, front of thighs, upper arms, and forearms.

In many instances, and especially where the director is without medical training, the examination is much less complete, and covers little more than a few facts of history and a series of measurements and tests. These may be of value as a means of interesting the student in his own development and furnishing data for future comparison, but by themselves they are almost worthless as an index of physical health and proficiency, or as a ground for special instructions. They need to be supplemented and explained by inspection, and by other means of examination and diagnosis. But if the work has been thoroughly done, the director has at hand a valuable fund of information to be used in framing advice suited to the needs of the individual, and the study of hundreds of such cases together may yield important deductions concerning the characteristics of the student class. In this way a variety of graphic charts have been prepared, upon which the measurements and tests of the individual can be plotted, so as to show at a glance his relation to an imaginary standard. It is true, however, that much of the chart-making hitherto done has been of trifling scientific value, based upon insufficient data, or the result of superficial methods. This study of men in masses should not lead to the neglect of the individual, who, after all, must be compared with himself', with his own latent possibilities.

There is so much diversity in the methods of physical training employed in our colleges and universities at present that a satisfactory summary is difficult to give. As elsewhere in this paper, where names of institutions are used by way of illustration no attempt is made to furnish complete lists. A few schools, like Bowdoin and Leland Stanford, allow credit for work done in the gymnasium, just as for any course in the laboratory or classroom. Regular attendance during the four years of undergraduate life is required at Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, University of Chicago, Bryn Mawr, Smith, Vassar, and the Woman's College of Baltimore. The requirement extends only through the junior year at Mount Hobyoke and the women's department at Oberlin; through the sophomore year at Wesleyan and the University of Wisconsin; and is confined to the freshman year at Cornell, Dartmouth, Williams, and Wellesley. Attendance is altogether optional at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Michigan.

The nature of the work done can be shown with tolerable accuracy by the selection of certain types. The results sought at Amherst are hygienic and recreative, rather than corrective or educational. The men meet by college classes, each of which elects its captain. The characteristic feature is a memorized series of exercises with wooden dumb-bells, set to music and executed by the entire class under the leadership of its captain. The men are required to be present and to take part, but beyond this there is little attempt at discipline. They have a good time, all the functions of the body are stimulated by the vigorous exercise, and the spirit of class rivalry, intensified by a system of prize exhibitions, insures a degree of proficiency. The use of the fixed apparatus is optional, and not much is made of prescription work for the individual. This plan, while it has given general satisfaction at Amherst for many years, has not been introduced into other schools to any extent. It owes much of its success to the peculiar conditions existing there, and to the personality of the beloved director, Dr. Hitchcock. Some of the features have been adopted at Cornell, where, however, the work has to be combined with a system of military drill.

The conditions at Harvard are quite different. The number to be provided for runs up into the thousands. The system of electives abolishes class lines, and forbids an arrangement of the schedule which would leave certain hours free for exercise. It therefore becomes next to impossible to group the men for graded instruction, and prescribed work for the individual has been adopted as offering the best solution of the problem. Dr. Sargent's series of widely known and used pulley weights, adapted to a wide range of wants and strengths, was devised to render more efficient the making and carrying out of these prescriptions. While such a plan is admirably suited to the needs of Harvard, it has been a mistake to introduce it so extensively into schools where the age of the pupils renders more constant supervision and direction desirable, and where instruction can be given in graded classes, with the added incentive that comes from working in company with others. The use of the so-called developing appliances secures results which are corrective, and in a measure hygienic, but they lack recreative and educational qualities.

What has been said of Harvard will apply in the main to Yale, though there the interest in athletics overshadows all else. At Bowdoin a system of applied athletics, or competitive gymnastics, is the distinguishing feature. The freshmen, in addition to their prescribed corrective exercises, are given a preparatory discipline in military tactics and Indian-club swinging. The sophomores receive class instruction in the elements of boxing and wrestling, with supplementary squad work on the fixed apparatus (horizontal bar, parallel bars, flying rings, etc.), the squads being arranged in three groups graded according to strength and skill. The juniors learn to fence with single-stick and broadsword, and the seniors with foil and mask. The results sought are clearly educational, as well as corrective and hygienic. The work at Brown, though it differs in details, can be referred to the same type, except that military drill is required in the fall and spring of the freshman and sophomore years, under an officer in the United States army.

Where the work is required only during the early part of the course, or for a term or two, it is in too many instances unworthy to be called scientific or pedagogic. It is usually a combination of prescribed exercises for the individual and memorized class drills with light apparatus, together with optional use of the fixed apparatus. It has, to be sure, some corrective and hygienic value while it lasts, but is likely to grow monotonous, and is dropped before it has accomplished much in the way of genuine training. It can not be too strongly insisted that proper grading of classes, careful selection and arrangement of teaching material, progression in each lesson and throughout the series of lessons, and skillful adaptation of methods to meet local conditions, are of fundamental importance in physical training, as they are in other phases of educational effort.

Some surprise may be excited by the statement that at the present time the most painstaking and satisfactory work is being done in the colleges for women, but it is probably true. The college officers are as a rule more alive to the importance of the department, the teachers are with few if any exceptions graduates of normal schools of gymnastics which require two years of study, and the disturbing element of athletics does not enter so largely into competition with efforts at systematic physical training. At the Woman's College of Baltimore the system employed is purely Swedish, and the instruction is given by two graduates of the Royal Normal School of Gymnastics in Stockholm. The same system is employed, though less inflexibly, at Smith College. Bryn Mawr and Vassar have a combination of individual work' and class instruction with light apparatus, making most of the former. The work at Mount Holyoke is somewhat the same, but more varied. At Wellesley athletics receive a relatively larger share of attention.

It will not be out of place to refer, in conclusion, to a source of instruction and suggestion almost unknown to the great majority of the directors of American college gymnasia. We in this country have been greatly benefited by the study of Swedish gymnastics; but any one who comprehends the wealth of the German literature of gymnastics, and the extent and variety of the experience of which it is the outcome, must regret the fact that it has been hitherto so generally overlooked. It offers an inexhaustible storehouse of material which will be found especially helpful in planning courses in physical training for advanced classes in our institutions for higher education.


Matthew Arnold, though best known as a literary man, did equally valuable work in education, with which he was closely connected for a long series of years as inspector; and Sir Joshua Fitch, in his biography of him, credits him with having exerted a real and telling influence on schools and done much indirectly to raise the aims and the tone of teachers; and, the biographer says, "if he saw little children looking good and happy, and under the care of a sympathetic teacher, he would give a favorable report, without inquiring too closely into the percentage of scholars who could pass the examination. He valued the elementary schools rather as centers of civilization and refining influence than as places for enabling the maximum of children to spell and write, and to do a given number of sums without a mistake."
  1. Read before the Physical Education Department of the National Educational Association, Milwaukee, July 9, 1897.