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Friday, October 22, 2021

Column: Blame it on the lecture

I’ve learned something after taking economics courses for two years: when a resource exists in short supply, there’s always a tradeoff. Given so much energy, should you get rest before your midterm or throw back a couple energy drinks and come out of the gate swinging? With only a couple dollars, should one buy four tacos from the Silo, or splurge on one crepe? Should you go to the ARC and work on chiseling that rockin’ bod, or should you rock your paper due next week?

As college students, we can’t do everything. This is especially true of the last tradeoff. What you might not know is that the institution of education was deliberately set up to reinforce the tradeoff between physical activity and intellectual pursuit.

At some prehistoric point, our bodies adapted to a continuous motion of activity. Whether you were hunting or gathering, you were always moving, burning calories and building strength. Survival of the fittest. Fast-forward tens of thousands of years and we’re suddenly overweight, sitting in front of our computers. The evolution from constant activity to perpetual sloth is not explained by convenience, as one might expect.

Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci, writing at the beginning of the 20th century, argued that bodies are kind of like history books and oracles. They store a long tradition of oppression, as well as set our possibilities. To Gramsci, education and labor require different bodies. While the laboring body needs only energy and movement to complete a manual task, the educated body needs the control to suppress hyperactivity in order to think, sit down and read a book, or write a paper. In some sense, this is how the bodies of the working class were oppressed – they didn’t have the concentration to keep their bodies focused in school, so they were damned to menial wages for life in a factory. While Thomas Hobbes might school you on your philosophy paper, his trips to the ARC would be nasty, brutish and short.

If you aren’t a fan of 20th century social critique, writers in the 21st century have come to the same conclusion by their own way of reasoning. Boston College professor Peter Gray writes that education is about learning workplace order, training yourself to endure long hours of dull work at a desk, in front of a computer.

Taken this way, high school teaches us to be present on time and follow authority in a closely monitored environment. College builds on this, giving future workers practice in completing more complex tasks assigned in a considerably freer environment.

Gray goes further, claiming that this has always been the function of school, dating back to the roots of civilization in the creation of agriculture. When adults finally got the idea that exploring, curious children did not make great workers in the crop fields (where repetitive, unskilled labor produced more efficient yield), school was institutionalized to literally beat the wonder out of children. When fields gave way to factories, labor continued to demand the same controlled body, unburdened by energy to seek more fulfilling, natural forms of movement.

Let’s fast-forward again – education holds the same character. The 18 hours a week I spend in lecture (not to mention the time spent preparing for class) is 18 hours a week I don’t have to hit the ARC.

So there you have it: If you care about your future, dial down the physical activity. But if you value your health, consider the minimum wage. Please keep reading before you jump in front of the next bike.

The tradeoff at the fore of this column is a false dilemma.

The point here is that you can rationalize anything, like a decision to skip exercise. Sure, there’s a compelling sociocultural story that places our lack of physical activity in historical narrative, but the truth is that physical activity and intellectual pursuit are not at odds with each other. Neuroscientists have been finding that exercise streamlines the uptake of oxygen, blood and glucose to the brain. Blood vessels in your brain actually grow after repeated exercise, and this process stimulates cognitive ability. In other words, you can rock both your bod and your midterm.

RAJIV NARAYAN will be gettin’ his environment on at the Cool Davis Festival this Sunday. If you want free food and entertainment too, let him know at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.

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