Sink or swim. Those are the two options quite literally facing Columbia College seniors as they approach graduation.
It is a simple task—get into the pool, swim to the far wall, swim back, and then swim to the far wall once more. To many, it is just a blip on the radar, one more form that needs to be signed in the paper trail toward a diploma. Yet as a junior watching seniors approach the end of their time here, I began to wonder where the swim test came from—and the answer proved much more elusive than you might think.
A quick search on the Columbia website does not bear much fruit—the swim test schedule is readily available, as well as descriptions of the P.E. requirement (which includes the swim test), yet an explanation of the origins of the test or the reasoning behind it is nowhere to be found. A Google search produces several blogs that speculate the beginnings of the infamous test. Still, though, no definite answer arises.
It is a mystery which I think warrants a serious investigation. The test is no joke—just ask Mortimer Adler. Adler, who earned a doctorate from Columbia, taught at Columbia, wrote over 30 books, and was the chairman of the Encyclopedia Britannica, was denied a bachelor’s here due to his inability to fulfill the swimming requirement. (Sixty years later, the denied pupil, by then known as Dr. Adler, received an honorary degree from the University.)
It is, seemingly, a mystery. A cursory survey of classmates, teammates on the soccer team, and even the renowned managing editor of this very publication failed to yield a satisfying answer.
Sifting through the blogosphere, several potential explanations appear. To guide me through fact and fiction, I turned to Dr. Ken Torrey, the associate athletics director for physical education and a 30-year veteran of the Columbia Athletics Department.
The first story goes something like this: The son of prominent alum X drowns, prompting the alum to donate in the son’s name to Columbia under the stipulation that a swim test be required in order to receive a diploma. At Harvard, the rumor was that Eleanor Elkins Widener, a wealthy widow of two victims of the Titanic accident, included the swim test as a stipulation when she donated the Harry Elkins Widener Library in 1915, which is doubtful, as the Crimson’s test did not originate until the 20s. Another version of the tale has an extremely wealthy individual donating to not just Columbia but to Cornell and MIT as well under similar conditions.
Indeed, Columbia is far from alone in including a swim test in its curriculum. Aside from the Big Red of Ithaca and the Beavers of Boston, the list includes Notre Dame, Swarthmore, Bryn Mawr, Dartmouth, and the University of Chicago.
Unfortunately, Dr. Torrey debunked the tale. He did point to the period as one in which swimming was not necessarily as common as it is today.
“Back in that time there were not a lot of public pools, so there were many more people taking beginning swimming courses,” Dr. Torrey said, noting that there are still many students who enroll in those classes today in preparation for the test.
The other common anecdote is a more entertaining yarn, one (it appears) that is repeated by Columbia tour guides. A University president long ago decided that, as the school is on an island, students need to be able to get off the island in the event of some sort of catastrophe. This explanation has the added benefit of explaining a particularity of the swim test—as SEAS seniors know, engineering students are exempt. Apparently, some enterprising engineering students petitioned the school to avoid the requirement. The reasoning: Engineers in all their practical ingenuity could build a catapult or boat or some sort of contraption to save them the trouble of swimming off the island.
In light of that exception, I’m not sure why our comrades at MIT would have to prove their aquatic prowess, but it is surely a story which I hope is true simply for comedic value.
Dr. Torrey offered a more pragmatic answer, explaining that once upon a time SEAS students did have a swim requirement as well. Roughly 25 years ago, there was an effort by Columbia College students to have the swim requirement removed. While the faculty ultimately voted to retain the test, SEAS students—thinking the CC requirement was removed—successfully petitioned to have their swim test taken out of the curriculum.
So while we now can answer to the discrepancy in CC and SEAS’s swim requirements, the basic origins still need to be accounted for.
Another explanation I came across is a lot simpler: During WWII, the federal government mandated that undergraduates across America learn how to swim before earning their diplomas, a rule whose remnants echo across collegiate campuses like ours (and MIT, Cornell, and the others) to this day.
According to Dr. Torrey, this is also a myth, although it has at least some basis in reality.
“It is a fact that during World War I and World War II a lot of people drowned before they could get to the beach, so it reinforced the need for swim classes and requirements,” Torrey said.
A different reasoning is more practical: To justify the maintenance of the pool and to encourage usage of the facility, the school began to require students pass a swim requirement.
Even with all of these stories swirling about, it turns out that the swim test’s origins are actually not known precisely. According to Dr. Torrey, the best guess for its original date would be sometime around the turn of the 20th century, right around the time University Gym was built.
Ultimately, it is not a fully satisfactory answer—although I would love to see what the equivalent combative requirement would have been for graduates of yesteryear. Dr. Torrey, though, insists that when it comes to the seniors hopping into the pool in pursuit of their diplomas, it is not all fun and games.
“We’re able to take people who aren’t that water safe and coach them up and talk them through some emergencies,” Dr. Torrey said. “We’re interested in you being water safe and hopefully being able to enjoy aquatics activities.”
Zach Glubiak is a Columbia College junior majoring in history. He is a member of the varsity men’s soccer team.