To all my comrades who hated (or still suffer) gym classes: take heart. It was much worse before. Physical education in centuries past was sadistic, sexist, and just plain weird. Be thankful that you never had to go through these eight PE nightmares.
1. Dodgeball was more extreme.
Let’s start with the stereotypical nightmare of gym class for dweebs: Dodgeball. Or, as it was sometimes called, Murderball or Killerball. Many schools have now banned the dodge ball (to the chagrin of manly sports journalists), or use softer, softer hunter bullets in place of the rubber missiles leaving the welt in the 80s.
But even the dodge ball of my youth was soft compared to previous versions. A 1922 physical education guide, published by Junior ROTC, describes a version of the dodge ball where one team stands in a circle and the other team assembles in the middle. The outside team then hits the inside team with medicine balls. Yes, medicine balls, those big rocks bound in leather which, at the time, weighed 7 to 12 pounds. (The game was also slightly different in another way: the inside and the outside team swapped places to see who could knock down the opposing team the fastest.)
In a way, it’s better than another activity that the manual recommends on the same page, a “Game“called” Swat right. “It’s about students hitting each other with a swatter and then running in a circle. Really, that’s the whole game.
2. The gym class was pretty sexist.
As with most things in the past, gym classes were terribly sexist. While girls were allowed to exercise, they were subject to severe restrictions. Consider the “exercises” suggested by the 1856 book Swedish physiology and gymnastics for students and families. This includes teaching girls how to reverence to their partner after doing a stretch together, also how well put the hand in the crook of a boy’s elbow. Such a healthy workout! Not to mention the often unwieldy full outfits that girls had to wear while exercising. The above exercise outfit dates from around 1893 and was actually considered progressive because it was less restrictive than the others. Like the Metropolitan Museum of Art describes it: “The middy-style blouse and bloomers allowed movement and completely concealed the female figure, while the balls at the end of the waistband could be used as accessories in Swedish gymnastics.”
3. The gym class in ancient Sparta was all about survival.
Go ahead and thank Ares for not having had to undergo a physical education class in ancient Sparta. In the warmongering Greek city-state, the boys assisted a program called “agoge”. The first step, for about 7 to 13 years old, was like a combination of five years of basic training, fraternity hazing, and a Bear Grylls show. The students were given little clothing, had to make their own beds (like actually building them from reeds), and were kept half-starved. Food theft was encouraged, but if you were caught you would be beaten and whipped for your lack of skill.
4. You had to dance in the square.
Square dancing has been a staple of American gym classes for decades, from the 1920s through the 1980s. And what, you ask, is the problem with that, other than a slight stupidity? Well, the incentive to teach square dance in gyms arose out of racism and anti-Semitism. Truly. As this fascinating article on Quartz details, Henry Ford, a notorious racist and anti-Semite, worried about the damaging effects of jazz, which he saw as music designed by Jews and blacks to corrupt America and lead people to sex and alcohol . He promoted square dance as a healthy savior and campaigned for it to be included in physical education classes. According to the article, in 1928, nearly half of American schools taught square dancing and “other forms of old-fashioned dance to students.”
5. The children had to take the presidential fitness test.
In the 1950s, President Dwight D. Eisenhower worried about studies showing that young Americans were falling behind in fitness, a concern shared by John F. Kennedy and later Lyndon B. Johnson. In 1965, Johnson announced the creation of the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards Program (which incorporated the work of the three presidents), indicating that “It is essential that our young people develop their physical capacities as well as their mental aptitudes. Sport and other forms of active play promote good health and help provide our country with strong young citizens up to the challenges of the future.
According to Vox, critics said the test was better suited for military training than assessing the fitness of young people. When President Obama replaced the test with the Presidential Youth Fitness Program, students had to do push-ups, sit-ups, endurance running, and a formidable flexibility test known as the V-sit and Reach.
And they had to do everything in front of their peers and put up with the judgment of the teenagers. “The test was totally upside down”, a physical education teacher Recount NPR in 2014. “We knew who was going to be last and we embarrassed them. We pointed out their weakness.
6. Rope climbing was one thing.
If you’re over 40, you might remember the climbing ropes hanging from the gym ceiling, sometimes up to 30 feet. The activity, which has largely been discontinued, has been enthroned in 2013 in Physical Education Hall of Shame, which called it a “perfect storm” of regrettable features including “low turnout, the element of danger, the thin ‘made for trial’ carpet under the rope, the inattentive lookout, the rope burns on their hands and legs, and the grand spectacle of a student trying to climb while the rest of the class sits and watches. (The Hall of Shame was an annual article published by the Journal of physical education, recreation and dance. Other entrants include Red Rover and, of course, Dodgeball).
7. A gym program was basically Crossfit for kids.
As Jake Rossen of Mental Floss writes, a California school’s gym program in the 1960s was “not as famous as it was notorious: it often demanded more of students than applicants entering the Naval Academy. “.
The La Sierra High School curriculum required students to complete a high-intensity circuit of push-ups, pull-ups and an obstacle course. At the basic level, students did, among other feats, six push-ups. The physique of the Marine Corps only requires three pull-ups. The program became more controversial as the 60s got more hippy. As the director of a documentary on the program said to Mental Floss, “People started to come forward unclothed for physical education as a form of protest.”
8. Finally, there was the great scandal of postures.
One of the strangest and most disturbing chapters in physical education was the obsession with posture in elite colleges in the 1950s and 1960s. other large schools were to be photographed. And they weren’t ordinary photos; They were nude photos, with pins stuck to various parts of their bodies. If students were judged to have poor posture, they were sent to posture remedial classes.
But it gets stranger. It seems the main purpose of the photos was to provide research for a pseudo-scientific study of the correlation between body types and personality. The practice has been exposed in a 1995 New York Times item, which lists many of the people in the photos, including Hillary Rodham Clinton, Meryl Streep, and George HW Bush. Many photos have been destroyed, but some still appear occasionally online.