THE BLOG
08/09/2009 08:56 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Pentagon Takes Over P.E.

On the East Coast, when you think of San Francisco, we often imagine a progressive oasis where ideals of peace and community take precedent over mindless jingoism and division. That's why I was deeply shocked to learn that the San Francisco School Board voted 4-3 to allow Junior ROTC -- military training -- to be available as an option for physical education in the San Francisco public schools.

The historic mission of P.E., dating back to the nineteenth century and the instituting of public school athletic leagues, is to promote teamwork, fellowship, and healthy habits that will last a lifetime. To put it mildly, there are few things less healthy than war.

To see JROTC put forth as a viable option in San Francisco of all places, is particularly eye opening, given the state of school budgets around the country. Physical Education programs are being phased out from coast to coast as emphasis and resources are put toward standardized testing. When budgets become over-stretched or underfunded, physical education classes, along with music and art, are immediately demanded to walk the plank. This is what drove me from teaching in D.C. public schools; the imperative to teach to the test and little else.

The idea that the programs of the Pentagon could serve as some sort of replacement for real physical education is Orwellian. Sure, young people are often desperate for structured physical exercise to break up the monotony of the school day. But why not instill in them the love of participating in sports instead of the military? The two are not synonymous.

San Francisco school board member Rachel Norton wrote on her blog that she supported the JROTC option because it is a simple question of expanding exercise options for our kids. She wrote on her Web site, "So I'm sorry, but I think it's important to allow students as many alternatives as we can if the outcome is that they will ultimately learn how to respect themselves, respect their bodies, and make choices that lead to a healthy, long, and fulfilling life." Leading "a healthy, long and fulfilling life" and patrolling Afghanistan don't exactly go hand in hand.

There are several other problems with Norton's argument.

The first is that a recent study by the San Diego school district, done to support efforts to give P.E. credit to JROTC cadets, showed instead that students who take part in JROTC actually fall physically behind their classmates in the basic exercise curriculum, according to Rick Jahnkow of Project YANO (Youth and Non-Military Opportunities.)

One reason for this is that JROTC is not taught by actual physical educators. In this era of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes, that should hardly be taken lightly.

The second problem with Norton's logic is that she entirely ignores -- if not obscures -- the political dimension of her decision. Proponents of the JROTC option want more militarism integrated into education. They want the Pentagon in the public square. As Marc Norton (no relation for Rachel), a leading opponent of the JROTC/P.E. option, wrote to me, "What is revealing about this fight over P.E. credit is the way that JROTC boosters have abandoned their rhetoric about giving students a 'choice' to be part of the military program. Now it is all about promoting the program, pumping up the program, luring youth onto a military track, particularly low-income youth and youth of color, using P.E. credit as the bait."

Oftentimes, San Francisco acts as a beacon when it comes to both healthy lifestyles and promoting peace. It's deeply distressing to consider that the San Francisco School Board could be dragging the schools of the United States in the other direction.

First run in the Progressive.