All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1993

For Your Own Good

Professor Clites teaches at Tusculum College.

During the last half century more and more experts have appointed themselves to make us do what is good for us or, as they usually say, “It is for your own good.” Sometimes they try to force us to bend to their will by exerting social pressure. Frequently they do it by obtaining the power of government to make us do their bidding.

The paradoxical thing about their goals is that not all of them are bad for us. If these experts did not foster a rebelliousness in us by insisting on bending us to their will, we might even do some of the things they feel we must be compelled to do.

A simple and personal example is the matter of exercise. When I was growing up, children often walked many miles a day to organize a baseball game on a vacant lot or at a city park. Then they would exercise for hours on end throwing, swinging a bat, running between the bases and in the field, and playing all sorts of games. They did not do this because it was good for them. The exercise was a by-product of doing what was fun.

As time passed adults got involved. The involvement took at least two different forms. One was organizing children’s fun into Little Leagues, into which adults insinuated themselves. Often they purchased expensive equipment for the players. They took away the spontaneity by grouping the kids into teams determined by the adults, by setting up leagues, and by scheduling when the children could have fun, i.e., when they could play. Often they would make the play still more like work by scheduling practice sessions to which they would require the kids to come if they were to be allowed to “play.” By then what was taking place was no longer children’s play, nor was it fun for them. Adults planned it, supervised it, and, worst of all, got so emotionally involved in it that some of the kids actually began to hate to engage in this form of play.

Next came school intervention in children’s recreational exercise. One favorite childhood activity was shooting basketballs at hoops nailed to a tree in the backyard. I used to play basketball in my early teens. About that time government school officials decided that students needed physical education, as well as the Three R’s and other mental types of education.

At the small high school which I attended in the ninth and tenth grades the physical education teacher was also the basketball coach. He did not change the pattern of play unduly from what we had done on our own. The class usually had about 15 students, so he would allow us to choose up three teams of five players, put two teams on the floor, and set a given number of baskets as “game.” Then the side that had been “sitting it out” would take on the winners. The only other way that the coach would intrude would be to change the odds, if necessary, such as shirts would win with five baskets and skins with three.

This intrusion was minor, but it was “the nose of the camel under the tent.” Soon word came down from central authority that we could not just play. We had to engage in organized exercise in the form of calisthenics. We were to do, in unison, situps, pullups, kneebends, and various other things that were supposed to be good for us. (It has since been determined that such exercises are not always good. Kneebends in particular sometimes cause considerable damage.) Most students began to hate physical education and, as a by-product, exercise in general.

I moved to a larger high school in another state for eleventh and twelfth grades. There every physical education period was organized, and we had a teacher who acted like a drill sergeant. Besides calisthenics we were forced to box, wrestle, and engage in several other activities whether they interested us or not. We were never allowed to do what we wanted.

Fifty years have passed since I voluntarily shagged flies and shot baskets for enjoyment. Those youthful activities provided far more exercise than what modern fitness authorities recommend, and no one had to force me to do it. That is the point. Dislike of coercion by parents, schools, or other government agencies is the reason that children today do not get what some expert has determined to be adequate exercise.

We didn’t need a President’s Council to tell us how much to exercise. Nature told us.