A Different Kind of Physical Education

by / editorial (3) in Opinions /

We often discuss the need for more community engagement as a student body. We’ve devoted barrels of ink and hours of our time to panels, papers, and symposia. Yet all of that leaves us with little more than a general agreement that something needs to be done differently. We would like to suggest a concrete solution to this problem: the implementation of a Community Education (C.E.) credit to be completed by every student before graduation.

The Weigh the Waste initiative launched by Molly Shane ’13.5 and Cailey Cron ’13.5 this year takes a look at the food waste produced in our dining halls by getting volunteers to scrape the extra food from student plates before putting them on the conveyer belt to the dish room. That this is not a step performed by students themselves on a daily basis speaks volumes about life here at Middlebury. In this community, we are divorced from much – if not all – of the work that keeps our lives comfortable. When we put food on our plates, we don’t consider the work required to cook it. When we finish eating, our dishes become somebody else’s problem. We don’t cut the grass outside our houses or trim the trees along our paths. Staff members mop up after our parties and take away the beer cans overflowing from every receptacle. Breaking a glass in the dining hall is met with mocking applause and a blue-uniformed staff member rushing to sweep up the shards while the student who dropped it continues on to their meal. At Middlebury, the only responsibility that many students have is their classes and their laundry, and some don’t even do the latter themselves.

We do not intend to ignore the many students who do have campus jobs, but few of those fall into the category of maintenance, grounds work, or cleaning.  This should feel strange to us. This should feel uncomfortable. At home, we play a part in these essential tasks, and we will once again find ourselves thrust into them after graduation.  That labor is what gives us ownership in our living space and pride – or shame – in its state of repair. That labor is the difference between a home and a hotel.

Although for students, Middlebury is a transitory space, it should feel like a home for our short time here. The implementation of a C.E. credit that would replace the second required Physical Education credit would endow students with an extra appreciation for this campus. While physical fitness is an important life skill – and one at which Middlebury students excel – it is no less important than an awareness of the work that goes into maintaining a habitable space. If golf, tennis or sailing are pastimes that can last a lifetime, the tasks performed by Middlebury staff members are no less critically important and often more physically demanding.

The C.E. credit would allow students to participate in one of these many tasks, whether gardening, scraping plates, or changing light bulbs. Like the P.E. credit that it would replace, it would require a minimum of eight hours of commitment – hardly a crippling burden to a chronically overcommitted student body. Seven colleges around the country currently form a consortium of institutions that require students to work at least ten to 15 hours per week, regardless of financial need. While a change to the working college model would be drastic, a lighter work requirement would serve to increase student ownership in their living space and to allow them to gain an appreciation for the hard work done by our many staff members without threatening their jobs.

A C.E. credit would also help to abate many of the challenges that we often blame on a lack of respect by the student body. A sense of ownership provides a better incentive to preventing vandalism than offers of free pizza. Students tasked with trimming the trees could watch them climb upwards over four years and feel the same anger as Landscape Horticulturist Tim Parsons when their branches are stripped in careless drunken shenanigans. Students who roll up their sleeves and wash dishes in Proctor might better appreciate the pressure created by cups that disappear faster than they can be returned to use. Students who help mop the floors of Atwater suites on Sunday mornings would feel disgust and contempt at the messes left by their peers.

These problems will never be fixed by abstract calls for dialogue and community without investment. Ownership creates respect, and respect creates change. We call on the SGA to petition the administration to implement a Community Education credit requirement that would help to create a community that feels like home rather than a well-manicured holding tank. This requirement would represent a major leap forward to a Middlebury College that truly integrates students into their community.

Listen to Opinions Editor ZACH DRENNEN read this editorial.