I had to smile when I saw last week—hat tip to Chad Orzel for highlighting it—that Williams College has finally eliminated the swim test as a graduation requirement.
I remember the swim test well. Even in the ’80s, it seemed arbitrary, anachronistic and silly. We had to take the test during orientation week of freshman year. That involved students showing up in swimsuits with mixed-gender groups of their new peers, which occasioned a bit of self-consciousness among many. We had to do one lap in the pool on our fronts—dog paddle, front crawl, breaststroke, whatever—and one lap back on our backs. If you didn’t pass, you had to sign up for a remedial swim class. (Because they didn’t grade on form, I passed.) None of us knew why the requirement existed. Apparently, at this point, even the college doesn’t know; its origin story has been lost to history.
For those who don’t know, Williamstown is on the opposite end of Massachusetts from the ocean. It’s landlocked. The school song—“The Mountains”—gives a sense of the topography of the area. But we had to pass a swim test.
I was surprised it took until 2022 to repeal the requirement. According to the story in the college paper, the winning argument wasn’t based on the obvious preposterousness of the requirement; it was based on race. Proportionately more students of color failed the swim test than white students. The counterargument, as relayed in the college paper, was that swimming is a valuable life skill. Even in 2022, and even with the disparate racial impact having been documented, that argument still convinced over two dozen faculty to support the requirement. The argument boiled down to “it’s good to know how to swim; therefore, we should require it.”
That’s a glaring non sequitur, but a common one. “X is good, therefore it should be required.” Implied in that argument is that if you aren’t willing to require it, you must not fully appreciate its goodness.
Um, no. Not even close. But that sort of error is widespread.
A while back, The Boy asked me what my opinion was on the legalization of marijuana. I responded that given the harm that the war on drugs has caused and that opiate addiction has caused, legalizing marijuana as an alternative struck me as reasonable. He looked surprised and responded that he didn’t think I smoked.
I don’t. And now that it’s legal in my state, I still don’t. As I explained to him, that wasn’t the question he asked. I make a distinction between my personal preferences and what I think should be required or forbidden under the law. After all, I offered, there’s no law preventing me from eating nothing but KitKats at every meal. I would oppose such a law on the grounds that it would be unduly invasive. That’s true even though I don’t eat KitKats at every meal and don’t want to. The distinction between personal taste and public law shows respect for differences and allows room for freedom.
Yes, the ability to swim is a good thing. As is the ability to iron a shirt, to change an engine’s oil or to pick a growth stock. If we required passing tests in every useful skill, nobody would ever finish a degree. We have to make choices. My sense is that those choices should be based on the mission of the institution and on a concurrent sense of humility. Every new requirement is a new barrier; the burden of proof on barriers should be high.
So, bemused kudos to Williams for eventually doing the right thing, even if it took decades longer than it should have. And thanks for reminding us, even if unintentionally, that just because something is good doesn’t mean it should be a requirement.