Rob Jenkins

Associate Professor at Georgia State University Perimeter College

Cross-Training for the Brain

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Image: Husmorsgymnastik, 1940

Most of us who teach core courses are used to having students in our classrooms who don’t really want to be there. A common refrain we hear: “I’m a (fill-in-the-blank) major. Why do I have to take (English, history, algebra, etc.)?”

On some level, I sympathize. I clearly remember, as an English major, wondering why I had to take biology. Now I understand, of course, but back then I didn’t so I don’t really expect today’s students to be any different. At the same time, it’s no fun being told, essentially, that your life’s work is useless. Especially when we know it isn’t.

A few years ago, it got to the point where students in my literature survey courses were expressing the “why am I here” sentiment so often and so openly—through body language, if nothing else—that I decided to start confronting it in my opening-day remarks.

I began with a metaphor that I thought many students could relate to—physical fitness, specifically muscle-building. I reminded them that the way people build muscle is by pushing against resistance, creating microscopic tears in the muscle fiber. Then new tissue forms to heal those tears, causing the muscle to grow larger. It’s those microscopic tears that make us sore when we work out.

I then likened that process to the way our brains “grow” or expand as we push against intellectual resistance by grappling with difficult and unfamiliar concepts. And, just like our biceps, sometimes our brains get a little sore, too. But that is necessary in order to build increased thinking capacity, which is something all professionals need, regardless of their field. (As evidence of that, see this recent story in The Chronicle, or this survey from 2013.)

My metaphor seemed to satisfy students until a couple of semesters ago, when one guy piped up and asked, “But why can’t we just exercise our brains in our major courses? Don’t we have to think in those, too?”

He had a point. Core courses in the liberal arts hardly have a monopoly on thinking skills. Students obviously have to use their brains in business, health science, and education courses, too. My weight-lifting metaphor was fine, as far as it went, but it was insufficient to illustrate the concept I was trying to get across.

Clearly, I needed a new metaphor.

I found one over the holiday break, when my 25-year-old son came to visit for a few days. A former high-school athlete, he’s always been pretty fit, but when I saw him this time, I was impressed at how positively ripped he’s become. So I asked him what he was doing for a workout these days, and he told me he’d gotten into CrossFit.

CrossFit, of course, is the brand name for a particular type of cross-training regimen, which fitness experts have long told us in the optimal form of workout. It involves doing different exercises on different days, working different parts of the body and different muscle groups. The result, for most people, is an unprecedented level of fitness. In addition, cross-training enables the individual to develop a wide range of athletic abilities—strength, speed, agility, quickness, endurance—in a way that no single set of exercises could do.

As I was preparing for the new semester, a few days after talking to my son about his workouts, it occurred to me that the reason my fitness metaphor had proved inadequate was that it was incomplete. The core curriculum is really a lot more like cross-training than like weight-lifting. Yes, to be mentally fit, we have to push against resistance. But we also must encounter different types of resistance and respond to them with different parts of our brain. That’s why math majors need to study literature and English majors have to sit through math classes and all of them need to take history and science and fine arts and so on.

What we have traditionally referred to as the “core curriculum” in reality is nothing less than cross-training for the brain.

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