Physical Education (PE) may have been a minor Department at the University of Notre Dame, but as the presence of The Rock on campus suggests, it has been, and continues to be, a traditional and generally useful division of the university. Now it appears that the Freshman Year requirement for one credit in PE in each semester is scheduled for oblivion, to be replaced by a mandatory “First Year Experience.” One might have thought that the latter would happen automatically; but of course in these times some experiences must be pre-shaped. And so, instead of instruction in and practice of handball, swimming, and gymnastics, for instance, all in the Freshman class will be properly exposed to two credits of themed in-forming concerning orientation, health and wholeness, success in the classroom, discernment, spiritual life, mind-body awareness, and community standards and cultural competence.
Sounds like “PC” replacing PE.
Who could object to such wholesome fare as the themes foreshadow, however, even though they do not appear either amenable to the rigor of disciplines or necessarily integrated? In some respects they appear to resemble compensatory courses such as remedial reading; but in an age of familial, ecclesial, and societal disintegration, instruction in such themes may be increasingly necessary. And at the very worst, they can be integrated into the intellectual warehousing of the young that a sophisticated and specialized society finds necessary in order to keep a coming generation off the genuine labor market indefinitely, while pleasantly extending adolescence. Certainly all the issues surrounding the deeper meaning and practical necessity of such themes have been roiled around and thoroughly masticated by the best committees that University administrative echelons could pre-form. In addition, there is always the fear of falling behind the advanced practices of the university’s dreaded peers to be taken into consideration—a fear that tends to press down on any indigenous imagination like a cope of lead.
But the familial, ecclesial, and societal malaise imported into the university in a slightly mutated form with each freshman class cannot be dispelled by “classes on wellness, cultural competency,” and—ominously—“much more.” No matter how sharply focused any theme may come to be, attempting to dispel that malaise by such means would be akin to trying to dissolve a fog by throwing a hand-grenade into it (to use T. S. Eliot’s phrase about the difficulty of responding to the skepticism of Montaigne). Perhaps the best manner in which to attack the fog of student, faculty, and administrative vulgarity, materialism, utilitarianism, libertarianism, specialization, and skepticism would be to create a “freshman experience” focused on genuine philosophy, rhetoric, and theology, plus an immersion in an historically and aesthetically defensible liturgy. But my! How they would fight over such modifiers!
At any rate, there will be an inevitable struggle on the part of some faculty members and departments to get a piece of the action of the Freshman Year Experience. This will be particularly true the more indistinct the boundaries of the themes turn out to be. In the absence of strict oversight of the First Year Experience, is it unreasonable to expect that the content of at least some themes will degenerate into sheer “soul-butter and hogwash,” to use Twain’s description of a small-town minister’s sermon?
Of course, Notre Dame is no small town, and our “ministers” have advanced degrees. But oleaginous matter and swill are not restricted to the un- or poorly-educated. Nor is the academic genus without species of raptors; and where the corpse of PE lies, they will descend, no matter how dense the fog about the body. The appetite for the politically correct can be nearly boundless among the academically undernourished.
Dr. John Lyon