Reflection on UMD Kinesiology’s Discussion of “Born to Run” – by Bryan C. Clift

Every year before the start of the fall semester, our Kinesiology Department sits down for a discussion of one book read by all faculty and graduate students. This year we read Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to run. Graciously, Chris joined us for the discussion. My response here is partly addressed to the text but more importantly addressed to our Kinesiology department and PCS students and scholars.

The text was specifically chosen because its content was relevant to All Kinesiology personnel at Maryland. However, I quickly became surprised at just how divided the Kinesiology department truly is. The bulk of our discussion revolved around the “science” of running. In a room of Kinesiologists – whatever those are – the specialty foci among those in the room included physiologists, cognitive motor neuroscientists, and physical cultural studies scholars. Predominantly, though, the room was comprised of physiologists and cognitive motor neuroscientists. That the discussion of an “other” culture was reduced to how best “we” might run in the future is relatively unsurprising given the dominance of “scientists” in the room. The social, cultural, philosophical, and historical issues raised within and by the text were numerous, and yet these remained relatively insignificant for those involved.

Only three times were humanist questions brought up – Thank you to those who brought these forth. When these questions for the author arose the room suddenly went quiet. The atmosphere and dialogue around these questions was concerning for three reasons. First, it was almost as if these were “issues” that were not to be discussed – somehow ethical, moral, ideological, and other humanist questions are now taboo? The ambivalence of science, hovering in the air of our discussion, is aptly captured by the words of Dr. Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park, ““You were so caught up in if you could that you didn’t stop and ask yourself if you should.” Second, I was surprised at just how divided the Kinesiology department truly is. Two separate discussions occurred. Scientists spoke while cultural scholars were silent, and while cultural scholars spoke the scientists were silent. We seem to lack even a common language to communicate, which is both concerning and frustrating.

And finally, and most concerning, was the response to the mere notion that a “primitive” society could have achieved higher levels of running performance than all of the efforts of scientifico-medical complex, of which Kinesiology is enmeshed. At some point in our discussion it was voiced that “we might have gone off the right path” in reference to tribal, rural, and pre-modern societies – specifically the references was to running, posture, and foot-striking form. Predominantly, those in attendance received this as a joke, everyone was laughing. But the laughter wasn’t so much to remind us all that this was absurd; the laughter reminded me that in fact all the supposed “benefits” and capabilities of science are so engrained in those in the room that considering life without such modern frameworks for life are so far out of the norm that they are absurd. For those laughing the issue was not that another way of life might be better, but rather that another way of life was simply impossible to imagine because it would mean opening up one’s mind to the consideration that modernity solves as many problems as it creates. This, for the scientist, is impossible to accept because it would involve questioning one’s work and life.

That such fundamental questions about the nature of society, humanity, and existence are left untroubled is troubling. More troubling, perhaps, is the ever-present unwillingness to discuss such concerns among those in the room a few days ago, in what is supposed to be a communal discussion. Even more troubling was the number of voices that remained silent and did not engage at all.

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3 thoughts on “Reflection on UMD Kinesiology’s Discussion of “Born to Run” – by Bryan C. Clift

  1. “We seem to lack even a common language to communicate, which is both concerning and frustrating.”

    So, let’s forget about the topic immediately at hand (running, “tribalism”) and ask the more important question: how do we construct these languages, gestures and/or communicative contexts? Or at least: how we can we create the conditions of possibility in which such exchange might occur? If Mommy and Daddy in the faculty lounge cannot be counted upon to do it, then maybe it is up to the Kids?

  2. An important question, certainly. Part of my frustration in this discussion was the lack of willingness to engage in dialogue across “divides” when such a diverse group of faculty, scholars, and students were present. Rarely do diverse “-ologists” of the body come together, so it would seem the discussion to which I refer was a missed opportunity, for both sides and all ages/experiences (at least in as much as dialogue is an adequate representative of learning). As for other spaces and times of possibility… always an open question, no? Regardless, I wouldn’t regard anyone as mom, dad, or kids, but I do feel the development of critical thought holds more potential for younger scholars while at the same time requiring assistance, guidance, and insight from more seasoned scholars.

  3. B, sorry I’m only seeing this now – but what you wrote is in line with my experiences with faculty and students as well. It seems as though the “scholarly posturing” that takes place in such discussions rarely sees anyone venture outside of his/her comfort zone (area of specialization in kinesiology). This type of event would serve as a great place to exhibit some of that silo-crossing (or silo-demolishing?) we all hope that kinesiology could be at its best, but we aren’t there yet. The roots of such a kinesiology department have to be sown on a more base level: discussions amongst students from different areas, attempts to question one’s own work and consider how it is viewed by other academic areas, genuine sharing and consideration of all the aspects of kinesiology rather than the defensive my-way-or-the-highway attitude that often permeates departments and academia in general. I feel that this base-level sharing is taking place – slowly – but it requires efforts that will not necessarily show up on a CV, and I echo the notes above that it is the students who have not yet become (as) entrenched that have to take responsibility for keeping this push alive. Granted, those same students are already overworked and are part of a system that only outwardly rewards them for individual achievements rather than community building or “for the good of the future of kinesiology” ideas. So it’s certainly not the ideal situation for this so-called “integrative kinesiology” project to move forward, but at this point, it seems that it’s all we’ve got.

    However, I’m really excited that the “humanist” perspective was voiced at all in this meeting rather than its practitioners (?) mentally disengaging early on (and remaining silent) as has often happened in the past. It’s definitely a first step.

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