In considering the role of physical exercise in schools, we have to keep our eye on goal. We state that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, and so if we are arguing for some form of physical training to be included in education, then it must come within the pale of this goal. So how does physical training cultivate wisdom and virtue?
I will deal first with virtue, as I think its points are more obvious.
1. Self-control is developed in physical training if it anything close to training. Just kicking a ball around might not reach up to such a virtue, but as soon as we bring in the notion of competition, keeping track of scores, developing skills, playing as a team, etc. we are at the level of needing to control oneself for the accomplishment of the objective. I think this is by itself a very compelling reason for having athletics in a school setting. Self-discipline is at the heart of the Christian scholar, and sports/physical training develops this in spades.
2. Unity is obvious in team sports, but even respect and manners (sportsmanship) should be taught and learned. They are left behind in our dying culture, but good schools would still teach such and seek such.
3. Courage is also quite predominant in physical activity, and definitely a needed virtue in our time.
Perhaps wisdom is less clear. Many would use the cliché of “dumb jock” to argue against my position. But I of course disagree with the following thoughts.
1. At its heart, wisdom is applying what I know to what I do. I learn the rules of a sporting activity, but then I go out on the field and attempt to practice those rules, learning as I do so how hard it is to convert theory into practice.
2. Wit or “quick thinking” or “thinking on one’s feet” is often the sign of someone who is developing wisdom. Sport takes speed of thought as well as action.
3. Practicing something over and over in one’s mind and with one’s body is forming habits of thought and action that are necessary for #1-2 above. In sport we call this practice the “fun” of drilling. I suppose one could say that the mental stamina that is being built by running “suicides” translates into so many other parts of life as to constitute a veritable training ground for wise living.
4. Compassion should be the clear result of Christian physical training. The fact that every athlete must agonize on the field, fighting his body into submission, should, when coupled with Christian humility, cause empathy and compassion in fellow athletes. The manners addressed with virtue come from a wise mind that sees reality on the field – “We are all in this world together.”
I admit to blogging on this subject because I am so deeply concerned at the bizarre oddity of living in a culture that worships the star athlete but does not seem to seek in those athletes or in themselves the wisdom and virtue that athletics historically was supposed expected to develop. If I am not making sense, juxtapose “Sports Center” with “Chariot’s of Fire.” Would you rather your child learned at the feet of almost any current superstar or Eric Liddell? My choice is quite clear. I feel a whole paper coming on in my heart and my head. We need to think about these things and pursue them earnestly.