Who Killed American P.E.?
An interview with Ron Jones on restoring JFK's lost legacy of physical fitness
There has been some renewed interest in the Kennedy assassination, as the U.S. government has once again pushed back the deadline for releasing certain documents that might shed light on who was behind the shooting of the 35th President. Perhaps someday I’ll share my thoughts on that controversial conspiracy (for paid subscribers only, of course), but there’s another pressing mystery that may or may not be related to Kennedy’s untimely demise. What happened to his P.E. initiatives?
It’s often forgotten that one of the core planks of Kennedy’s agenda – along with the space missions, and global peacekeeping – was to restore Soft Americans to their former vig’ah (that’s vigor for the uninitiated).
This legacy has only been kept alive in a few small pockets. Most P.E. is a joke. Schools no longer teach kids to move well. You have to teach yourself. Fortunately, YouTube and the Internet make this easier than ever – if you’re willing to commit to our own course of study.
In it, Ron Jones of The Lean Berets breaks efficient walking form down into simple enough steps that an elementary school student can follow. Ron is a classical P.E. teacher and historian, whose knowledge of physical education is unparalleled.
I’m honored to have Ron as a teacher and a friend. Our relationship goes back to the first interview we did for my podcast “The Culture Club,” which looked at what elements were necessary for building successful physical culture.
Since then, we’ve done subsequent podcasts on the parallels between COVID and the Spanish Flu pandemic, among other things, and I’ve enjoyed listening to his regular bite-sized broadcasts on The Long Road.
You may recognize Ron if you watched Tucker Carlson’s recent mini-documentary – The End of Men – in which Ron shared some of his rare archived footage of the Golden Age of American physical education, which began under President JFK in the 1960s. Unfortunately, the model pioneered at La Sierra High School never caught on nationwide as Kennedy had hoped. You can hear the full story in The Motivation Factor film, for which Ron was a producer. Here’s a quote from the synopsis:
“The United States made the decision to stop teaching real physical education 100 years ago. JFK tried to bring it back, but the effort ended with his shortened Presidency.”
Kennedy understood that the intellect and body both had to be exercised. Yet today we downgrade P.E. as a remedial activity when it should be the foundation of a broader classical education, and expect kids to sit still for six hours per day.
I always have more focus after doing quality movement. A well-timed workout can also provide a second wind of productivity in the afternoon, akin to those first precious hours of morning freshness.
Ron and I talked about how far we’ve fallen from the heights of the ancient Greco-Roman ideal of mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body. For Kennedy, the lack of this ethos represented a national security concern. In a LOOK magazine article from August of 1963 – just months before he was assassinated – Kennedy sounded the alarm in a physical fitness progress report.
I am going to quote liberally from the article since it is not available online:
“I HAVE RECENTLY returned from a trip to Europe, where I saw many of the hundreds of thousands of young Americans who are in the front lines of the defense of freedom.
These members of the American forces are trained in skills and weapons of a complexity and power hitherto unknown to fighting men. But despite all the advances of modern science and the sophisticated technology of modern warfare, it was clear to me that the capacity of our Army to withstand aggression will depend in the future, as always, on the hardihood and endurance, the physical fitness, of the American GI.
We have seen in World War II, in Korea and in the jungles of Southeast Asia that any weapon, no matter how brilliantly conceived, must depend for its effectiveness on the fighting trim of the soldier who uses it.”
Kennedy then notes that for peaceful government and civilian pursuits, “the effectiveness and creativity of the individual must rest, in large measure, on his physical fitness and vitality.” He continues:
“The realization of this essential truth about human beings was a cornerstone of the first and perhaps the greatest civilization of the Western World—the society of ancient Greece. Happiness, as defined by the Greeks, is "the exercise of vital powers along lines of excellence in a life affording them scope." The Greeks knew it was necessary to have not only a free and inquiring mind, but a strong and active body to develop "glorious-limbed youth," as Pindar, the athlete's poet, wrote.”
The Olympics epitomized the Greek’s emphasis on fitness as a venerable pursuit:
“It was this society, with its almost religious veneration of physical fitness, that produced some of our most towering achievements of art, thought and political organization. Throughout history, we can trace the same theme. Whether it has been the triumphs of the vast empire of Rome, the flourishing of the arts in Renaissance Italy, or the literature of Elizabethan England, those societies that have produced great creative and political achievements have almost always given a high place to the physical vigor of the individual citizen.”
Next, he traces this lineage through the founding of the United States to the “pioneers and patriots” who applied “strength and vigor as well as intellect, courage and vision to the establishment of the nation and the protection of its freedom.”
Neither strength nor intellect alone suffices. We need both in roughly equal measure to do great things.
Kennedy critiques what his predecessor Teddy Roosevelt called the “lives of slothful ease” that modernity breeds. This has gotten worse since Kennedy’s time, who had seen things get worse since Roosevelt’s time. The following lines from Kennedy’s article could just as easily have appeared in the contemporary book The Comfort Crisis: Embrace Discomfort To Reclaim Your Wild, Happy, Healthy Self:
“Today, much of that has changed. Where Abraham Lincoln had to walk miles to borrow a book, today a bookmobile would bring it to his door. Where a student once thought nothing of walking miles to school. today a school bus picks him up at the door. Instead of chopping firewood, we get regular delivery from the oil truck. Household gadgets of incredible variety have cut down or eliminated daily chores. Television and radio have made it possible to witness the most varied range of entertainment without ever moving from the easy chair.”
You can listen to Ron read the whole essay, here. One of the coolest things about being friends with a historical kinesiologist is that you get to access his vaults containing rare books and articles that have been lost down the memory hole. It was rumored that Ron had the largest physical education library on the west coast when he lived in California, and he almost certainly has the largest in his new home state of Oklahoma.
I have a few projects in the works to make it easier for people to recover physical literacy for themselves, and teach others. However, the problem is often too much information and not enough motivation. For that, we need more modern-day JFKs—people like Ron Jones—to inspire young people to get fit in order to rise to life’s many challenges. With shortages of basic things like eggs and heating oil in some places, it appears that the next generation may be the first in a long time to have it harder than their parent’s generation. And maybe that’s a good thing.
How come nobody ever uses a fat, out-of-shape avatar on Twitter or in games like second life?
“It's a dangerous place to be historically when you start throwing out traditions and everything that you've believed in, and you doubt every single thing.”
“JFK was the one that had the horsepower to make us really fit and strong again, and he was already getting results in a few months. I mean that. Basically, P.E. died with JFK and it never reached that level again. La Sierra High School went on to do some amazing things after JFK was killed, but for a national push, we needed that person.”
“I do something every day for 30 minutes or more, and that's worked pretty well for me. Just to be Greek about it, you put me up naked against other men 63 years old, I probably look pretty good. My body is a product of my lifestyle. And before people say, “Well, genetics,” most of the people in my family are overweight and out of shape.”