The Necessity of “Gymnastic” in Classical Education

Competitive sports provide an integral part of a robust liberal arts education. Within the classic Greek paideia, physical training (referred to as “gymnastic”, and understood to include music and more) played a central role in the child’s formation. According to Ravi and Jain, authors of The Liberal Arts Tradition, “the disciplined physical training of gymnastic and the aesthetic, affective, and emotional training of music are foundational to the acquisition of both the moral and the intellectual virtues.” Sports, like music, focus on the cultivation of the body and soul. Failure to nurture the capacities inherent in either is a failure to cultivate the whole person.

Most likely, readers of this Journal would readily agree with the foregoing. However, I’d like to move the discussion a step further and make both an educator’s and a mother’s case for the excellence of rugby to fulfill an essential component of “gymnastic” in a liberal arts education. In this regard, we may find ourselves in less familiar territory. My website review of the 38 high schools on the Cardinal Newman Society Honor Roll Awardees reveals three schools with rugby programs, while almost all the schools include healthy offerings of football, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, and other competitive sports.

For schools invested in the liberal arts paradigm, sports mean more than just a chance to win divisional titles. Perhaps this explains why educator Donald Levine seems to mourn the loss of the true spirit of “gymnastic” in the history of liberal arts education. During the sixth century, Levine explains, athletic games became more competitive due to the “heightened importance of prizes and spectators… physical training no longer sought all-round development but aimed to produce strength at the expense of vitality, health, and beauty”.

These virtues were embodied in the ancient Greek era by the Ideal Type of Achilles. He was renowned for his bravery, athletic skills, and military might. Both in Sparta and Athens (representing the ideals of superiority in war and wisdom), athletic training was considered a good on two fronts: for its own sake, and as a preparation for battle.

While team sports offer excellent opportunities for human development, rugby leads the field in this regard: it is more like combat. According to Sean Fitzpatrick, headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy, home of the rugby state championship team, “Rugby is like warfare without weapons. It’s a rough sport, which is precisely why boys love it and why they derive so much from it. When you’re in a classroom with boys reading things like the Iliad… they welcome the opportunities to put some of those virtues into practice. To have a taste of valor, and bravery, and victory.”

To those who argue that, without pads, rugby is unnecessarily rough, I can only respond, as a mother of sons, that I’m quite sure my role is not to encourage my boys to seek comfort, convenience, and guaranteed safety at all costs.

Pinching again from Fitzpatrick, writing in this Journal: “More than ever, there is need for a dangerous education because it is remedial, because it is real, because it does not pander through virtual reality, but challenges towards an encounter with actual reality, daring to provide an appetite for truth when untruth is applauded far and wide.”

Instead of hours of endless thumb aerobics in which tragic blunders result simply in “another life” popping up on the screen, rugby players experience real hits, painful tackles, hard-won tries (i.e., goals), team losses, and aching bodies at the end of the day. All this, and repeat.

I am quite aware of the danger my sons encounter each time they step on the rugby pitch. The dreaded prospect of injury is ever-present. Even so, I am glad they do so because I am also acutely distressed by the feminization of men in our modern culture. It is no small task to find situations in which boys may hone and own the emerging strength of their young manhood in acceptable, powerful, and real ways. Coach Garret van Beek frames up this reality: “Catholic men always come into situations where strength and faith and resolve are put to the test. Nothing should wear a man down and make him surrender. The true perspective—and one that a real experience of sports can foster—is to see every obstacle and every trial as a challenge to overcome.”

It would be impossible to forget the events of a rugby game I recently witnessed. Serving as the last line of defense for his team, a key player stood out. The opposing team’s runner broke free of the line and bolted. The key player’s charge: stop him. No pads, no armor, no weapons – just the sheer, raw reality of one young man marshaling all his might to stop an equally determined foe. The clash resounded. The crowd felt it. My memory suddenly recalled Gandalf roaring as he thrust down his staff, “You shall not pass!” Twice more the resolute runner broke the line intent on scoring, and the same single-minded defender answered the call. He calculated his path and again placed his battered body between the ball-carrier and the try line. Lunging, he held him fast, finally snuffing-out his opponent’s last hope for a try. His dogged determination was a key factor in the team’s victory. That’s a young man I want defending my home, my country, my precious Catholic faith.

It seems to me the culture of that boy’s school had something to do with his courage and resolve. A Catholic liberal arts school with a lively enthusiasm for team sports fosters a sense of purpose. In this milieu, the right and proper understanding that some things are worth taking a hit for nurtures the recognition that certain things are worth dying for.

That personal virtue remains integral to the success of a rugby team is starkly evident, especially in the team that rules the field. James Kerr’s leadership book, Legacy, highlights the case of the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team, which dominated the sport for decades. They experienced a slump and quickly worked their way back up by employing, among other things, the Socratic method. If the players fail to live out humility, sacrifice, and other virtues, they lose their place on the team.

We can take a page from the All Blacks’ playbook when it comes to the cultivation of virtues, while tapping our classical tradition to go one better. When it comes to purpose, the All Blacks play to inspire New Zealand and to add to their legacy. For what might our students play? Within our liberal arts paradigm we ask, “For what purpose; to what end”? So, I hope our student-athletes strive to exercise committed and excellent stewardship of the bodies God has given them, to inspire their fellow students to excel and to live, body and soul, for the glory of God.

KAREN LANDRY chairs the Great Books Department at Christiana Homeschool Academy in Westminster, Md. She earned a master’s of arts in film from Regent University. Karen divides her time between teaching and forming her teen boys.

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