Memorial Day. This day has been called the most solemn American holiday. The last Monday in May was originally called “Decoration Day” and set aside to commemorate the soldiers who died in the Civil War but now includes all American soldiers who have died in battle. Memorial Day became a national holiday in 1971…while it marks the beginning of our summer and the end of spring, it’s more than just a good BBQ and cold brew.
To those that died in battle–it’s the ultimate sacrifice paid in FULL. No returns. No exchanges. The life has been given. To the whole United States of America, the national efforts of supporting the soldiers during an all out “world” war was also a sacrifice.
World War? Sounds obsolete. Not possible in today’s politically correct world. Nothing like that can happen today. We are not willing to make those kinds of changes again…let’s look back at history and see what it says about war efforts…it just might surprise you–or even shock you.
California. The extremely liberal state sarcastically called “The Left Coast” by some. Let’s go there…back to California in 1942. Even better, let’s go into the California school system and see how they were “physically educating” children to support the national war effort.
“In times of war, physical fitness becomes imperative for men entering armed forces; it is almost as important for a civilian population which must provide the materials of war.”
-Integration of the War Effort and of the Long-Term Program in California Secondary Schools (November, 1942)
While those who died in battle paid the ultimate sacrifice in full, those at home also made significant sacrifices to support a national effort in “All for One and One for All.” In World War II, America was a nation of ONE–all pulling together. When everything was on the line and death and destruction were knocking loudly at our door–this is how fast things changed…even in a state like California, and even in the public schools. Let’s see how California educators viewed “physical education” during the second Great War. In November 1942, California published as part of its war effort integration plan, “…a democracy does not begin to analyze its physical fitness of the adult male population for military service until crisis arises.” On December 7, 1941–crisis arose, and here’s what happened based on survival of the fittest:
Suggested changes to California Physical Education for war effort:
- MASS CALISTHENICS: Introduction of Mass Calisthenics, relays, and stunts as a portion of the daily program in the junior and senior high schools.
- INTRAMURAL PROGRAM: Increasing leadership in both junior and senior high schools so as to provide for widespread intramurals.
- COEDUCATIONAL PLAY: Elimination much of the coeducational play with the possible exception of certain types of dancing.
- BALANCED ABILITIES: Developing some form of pentathlon or decathlon of physical activities suitable for all age groups, thus requiring student to test themselves periodically.
Let’s break it down. Mass calisthenics historically has been THE fastest way to condition the most amount of people in the least amount of time with the least amount of equipment and instructors. It was formalized and organized–by design. During this era, it was still considered by most of the public to be “the real way to achieve physical fitness.” There was a strong emphasis upon leadership which the intramurals sought to partially fill. The “play emphasis” in PE that occurred post WWI is not efficient in times of war–it does not provide optimal fitness; therefore, it was being removed ASAP. The competitive spirit was thought to be taught through the pentathlon and decathlon events–and it was supposed to teach an “organic vigor” required for war effort at home and abroad. The fitness product of all this was quite explicitly stated as, “be of such a nature as to stimulate competition as a preparation for fitness to fight.”
Sound harsh? Ask American GIs in Pearl Harbor. Ask the Jews in concentration camps. When everything is on the line–sacrifices of many are required and quickly. It will never happen again right? History never repeats right?
But wait! There’s more. One of the prominent physical educators of this era was Frank Griffin. After touring 14 military training facilities, his summary was in brief, “A greater competitive spirit is needed. Many recruits lack this attitude.” Griffin also found our upper body strength to be significantly lacking because of American’s over reliance upon “sports” to produce fitness instead of a well-rounded physical education program grounded in the basics.
How do you build in competitive spirit and bodies that move well enough to survive and win a war quickly “in” times of war? DAILY Physical Education.
Griffin provided California with these recommendations and put them into practice in his own program…
Five foremost elements of physical education:
- ENDURANCE POWER
- COORDINATION AND SKILLS
- COMBATIVE SPIRIT
Students were tested and put into groups based on ability and achievement. While sports and games and play was part of classical PE, it was not supposed to be “all” of PE. In times of war, you return to the basics if you want to win. What are the basics of PE? Gymnastics, tumbling, acrobatics, calisthenics, gravity training with apparatus, obstacle courses, and all with strict attention to form and precision for control and safety of movement. Strength, Fitness, and Posture tests were given periodically to chart progress. Running was performed 3 days per week. Combative spirit was gained by personal contact sports like football, boxing, wrestling, and hand-to-hand combat activities. Good “life” skills when a nation is at war.
“It has been said that ‘if our free democratic world is saved it will be saved not just by machines and guns, but by our capacity to produce a higher type of human being, whose will and purpose are superior to that of the enemy.” -Rose Stelter
How does a school system produce this higher type of human being with a greater and more noble purpose? Interestingly, by having a quality physical education program. This idea is nothing new–it goes back to ancient Greece. We just tend to forget about it until there is a military crisis threatening our very survival.
In addition to the “physical” education required for the war effort in California, their school system also ramped up their efforts in math and science as a great effort was required to supply the soldiers in the field by thousands of men and women at home making their share of sacrifices in education, agriculture, manufacturing, electronics, and more.
“We know that we must seek out and encourage any and all course which seem likely to develop our students into citizens with informed, intelligent, purposes and constructive attitudes.” -Los Angeles School System (November, 1942)
The Los Angeles school system even had a special unit of study for 12th graders called, “United We Stand” and “Victory Unit” so students could learn the effects of war, civilian defense, geography of the war, and problems of the peace. The purpose of this unit was, “to insure that every graduating senior will know why we are fighting, what we are fighting, what his own responsibilities are now, and what they are likely to be during the peace settlement.”
Yes, all of this in California and even in Los Angeles. In extreme times when men and women are dying on the battlefield, this is how our nation got it “right” on the Left Coast.
To all who died in battle…Memorial Day 2016. Sacrifices were made–some paid in full and others at home in education and industry. When America stood as ONE…WE WON…and for a far higher purpose than the enemy.
-Ron Jones, MS
CA Credentialed Physical Education & Health Science Teacher
*Special thanks to Shane Hylton on historical consultations regarding Memorial Day and military history.
Historical Reference: Integration of the War Effort and of the Long-Term Program in California Secondary Schools: California Society of Secondary Education Monograph Series. (November, 1942)