August 24, 2009

The One College Requirement that Unites Us All

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Four quantitative reasoning and physical/biological science courses for all Arts and Sciences students. All PAM majors must cover nine Human Ecology credits outside of their major. Each and every ILRie will spend a semester with Professor Gold and labor law.
However, there is only one requirement that bonds all Cornellians who hope to ever escape East Hill, baccalaureate degree in hand:
Seventy-five yards of watery peril.
Indeed, the only shared experience every Big Red undergrad is guaranteed to have by graduation day is successful completion of the infamous Cornell Swim Test and two physical education courses.
With the expansive influence of College Board, even freshman writing seminars, a staple in colleges across the country, can be waived with an acceptable score on an AP test. But although I lettered for six years in varsity swimming, nothing would excuse me as an incoming freshman from “One lap on your front, one lap on your back, and one lap any way you want” — as if some demon spawn of swimming had an additional way of traveling successfully through the water. And no, being an American Red Cross-certified lifeguard won’t excuse you either.
Admission into any of Cornell’s seven schools and colleges certainly means top SAT scores, a pristine academic record and a laundry list of “enriching” extracurricular activities. Yet, save the embarrassment of having to forego skeet shooting or sailing for PE 1100: Beginning Swimming, none of the brilliant and bright-eyed Cornell freshmen will survive Orientation Week without surviving three lengths of the pool in Teagle Hall.
According to the Swim Test’s own website (yes, it exists,, the nautical challenge originated in 1918 only for female students, as swimming was deemed a skill all women should possess. By the onset of World War II, the test was expanded to men, and the university’s faculty determined that it would remain as a permanent graduation requirement because they felt swimming was an important life skill to have.
No doubt, every Cornellian feels overextended, perhaps even disrespected, by some of the obscure and esoteric academic requirements they are forced to meet. Despite Arts and Sciences’ extensive breadth requirements, all Government majors must take four 3000-level classes “related” to Government. All business-minded AEM students must take physics or chemistry. Nutrition majors have no choice but to endure “Introduction to Anthropology.”
As if the academic pressure in Ithaca was not intense enough, an irrelevant requirement can push the stretched-thin student over the proverbial edge. Yet, amidst these archaic academic preconditions that fill page after page of curriculum pdf files, consider this an ode to one requirement that Uncle Ezra may have gotten right.
After all, what use is a well-rounded Ivy League education if an afternoon on a fishing boat invokes a fear of an imminent, watery doom? If every engineering student must overcome semester after semester of chemistry, physics, biology and math, a family pool party should be as stress-free as the nanotech lab.
Despite the logic behind this storied Cornell tradition, every fall there is a guaranteed demographic of students and their parents who are not only surprised to find out about the required Swim Test, but horrified by the prospect of it.
As the campus tour cliché goes, college is a time to challenge and push oneself beyond the limits of what they thought possible — not only in the classroom or on a keg stand at a fraternity party, but yes, even in the chlorine. With obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates in America skyrocketing, most notably among children and young adults, there is no questioning the potential health advantages of forcing every 20-something on campus to enroll in aerobics, jogging or squash.
The Swim Test and physical education classes may even be something of a “subtraction by addition” requirement. With every human development major stuck in the library studying for their (somehow) required statistics class, a bit of requisite fresh-air does a body, mind and soul good. As the Swim Test website’s own “History of the Test” reads, “it’s great exercise for a computer-bound generation.”
Perhaps Uncle Ezra’s irrelevant and archaic requirements aren’t so outdated after all.