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[Detail] Cover of "How to Dance," 1878

Historical Comprehension: Physical Education

Engaging children in regular physical activity became a standard public-school policy in the early twentieth century. Physical culture, the predecessor of physical education, grew in prominence among late-nineteenth-century educators of "female gymnastics" such as walking, riding, and dancing. These exercises provided female students with physical activity and often refuted popular notions of proper behavior for young ladies. Manuals such as "Coulon's Hand-Book" (1873), also include discussions of exercises with weights and elastics.

In the twentieth century, instructors continued to emphasize the athletic value of dance. "The Perfect Art of Modern Dancing" notes, "Physiologists have for many years regarded dancing as one of the finest of gymnastic exercises, and declare it to be superior to all others in its beneficial effect upon the carriage and manner," (page 1). "Dancing as a Means of Physical Education," on the other hand, supported dancing as an educational exercise and a "safeguard against the evils of over mental education," (page ).

Frank Clendenen extended these arguments favoring the athletic value of dance in "The Art of Dancing" (1919) when he declared that the victory in World War I was due to American efficiency and physical excellence:

The world of today needs stronger men and women--men and women who are 100 per cent strong. We have just won the greatest war known in history, a war that was won by efficiency, and physical excellence. Realizing this to be a fact, let us ask ourselves if we are all in the proper condition physically? Are our schools properly preparing our sons and daughters for our daily battles? . . . The writer believes that much good can be accomplished by our Dancing Masters teaching our children corrective exercises and insisting that the public schools instruct the child in Nature Exercises and Esthetic Dancing.

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Such sentiments were echoed in the adoption of physical education into the United States' education system. Some schools, however, allowed unhealthy competition to diminish the overall benefits of their physical education programs. In the 1929 study, "Public Dance Halls, Their Regulation and Place in the Recreation of Adolescents," a survey of recreation programs for children identified one of the hazards of league competition when educators sought to field championship teams in their programs and "The physical director in [one] city said that he could not promote an adequate program of physical education in the schools because he had to produce winning high-school teams or he would lose his job," (page 39).

  • Why did schools incorporate physical education programs into their curriculum?
  • What changes in gender and social roles in the late-nineteenth century might have made this possible? How might the perceived benefits of physical activity have, in turn, contributed to these changes?
  • What was the role of dance in the establishment of physical education for children, and for females, specifically?
  • What does a child gain from a team sport that he or she might not acquire in an individualized activity?
  • Do you think that the pursuit of a team sport is worthwhile if it threatens to reduce the experience of other students in a school?
  • How have the reasons for including a physical education component in school curriculum changed with time?  Is physical education still considered a "safeguard against the evils of over mental education?" Is it still valued as a preparation for daily and military battle?