Institutional Boredom

You can raise the floor without lowering the ceiling. When I was in high school, I remember gym class being a massive disappointment. I went to a tiny middle school (we didn’t even have a cafeteria; we ate at our desks in the classroom), and I was excited about going to the larger high school that served several towns (because our town was too small to have one). One of the things I was excited about was actual physical training.

In every movie I’d ever seen about high school, gym class was a grueling boot camp of rope-climbing, push-ups, stuff like that. Despite the negative picture this was meant to paint, I was amped for that stuff. I wanted the physical challenge!

Instead, we stood around and played the laziest games of frisbee imaginable. It was a joke; it was 45 minutes of “activity” that was only physical in the loosest possible sense. No one ever so much as broke a sweat. At one point I finally asked about it – why was our “phys ed” so lazy and poor?

The roundabout answer I received was that people complained about the more grueling stuff, so it was removed from the curriculum. At one point they did make the kids run laps, lift weights, climb ropes, and all that good stuff. But the kids who needed it most were also most likely to complain about it and eventually, the school caved. Now nothing more than gently tossing around a frisbee was ever asked of anyone.

Now, I actually don’t care about that. I don’t care at all about what other people do – I have zero opinion on what schools make kids do, and I didn’t then, either. What I cared about was that in the process of lowering the standards of physical education for everyone, they also lowered the ceiling of what was possible. It wasn’t important to me that the class wasn’t forced to lift weights and climb ropes. What was important to me was that I wasn’t allowed to. I had to stand around and throw the frisbee with everyone else. We had some of that stuff – a weight room at least, even if the rope was long gone – but you couldn’t use it unsupervised, which in practical application meant it never got used. So instead of using my allotted 45 minutes per day on things that would actually have improved my physical health (not to mention enjoyment!), I had to spend 45 minutes of pure horrified boredom.

There may come a time when you, as an individual, have to decide on the standards for a group. You may have some incentive to lower them, and I won’t judge you for it. But make sure that when you have people who actually want to go above the bare minimum for those standards, you let them. Institutional boredom is a thing – but let people escape from it.

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