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How often do we change our minds about a fundamental truth? The story of Peter Karpovich provides a useful exploration of how to recognize our own limitations with grace.

Karpovich, a Russian immigrant with an interesting story of escape and survival, eventually taught at Springfield College in Massachusetts, an institution known for physical education. Springfield is also known for its ties to the creation of the YMCA and the connections between sport and Christianity.

While a professor of physical education at Springfield in the late 1930s, Karpovich was a well-known opponent of resistance training for athletes. He was not alone in his opposition. Most scholars of physical education and the newly emerging fields of physiology and kinesiology believed that weight training made athletes musclebound: slow, clumsy, and less flexible. The ideal athlete, according to Karpovich and his fellow experts, was agile and flexible.

In 1940, Frayser Ferguson, a committed weight trainer and student athlete at Springfield, managed to get Bob Hoffman, founder of the York Barbell Company and avid weight lifter to speak at “The Forum,” a weekly student assembly. The students of Springfield University were aquiver: they all knew their respected Professor Karpovich vehemently opposed weight training, and they couldn’t wait to see how Karpovich responded to the guest speaker. Nerd excitement!

Hoffman proceeded with his talk, which also included demonstrations from the current Mr. America, John Grimek, along with other prominent weightlifters John Davis and Tony Terlazzo. After an impressive demonstration of both strength and flexibility by the athletes (including a handstand on just thumbs!), Hoffman gave a brief talk on the benefits of lifting, then left time for questions. The students’ excitement mounted. Professor Karpovich lifted his hand. Everyone knew Karpovich’s position on lifting and couldn’t wait to see what he would say after this striking demonstration. Karpovich asked if Mr. Grimek could scratch between his shoulder blades, assuming someone with so much muscle could not be flexible enough to do so. Grimek responded, “but my back doesn’t itch” which resulted in nervous laughter from the students, then Grimek proceeded to scratch between his shoulder blades.  Next Grimek demonstrated the full splits, then almost touched his elbows to the floor with his legs straight, to demonstrate that he was not ‘musclebound.’ The weightlifting athletes also showed that they could jump further than any of the Springfield athletes.

What happened next is my favorite part: following the demonstrations, Karpovich approached the lifters and apologized for his question and explained how he had always been taught that weightlifting led to inflexibility. Karpovich then said what he had seen made him want to know more about weight and resistance training.

During the WWII, Karpovich spent time working with the Air Force in the field of physical fitness, but after the war, Karpovich pursued research with William S. Zorbas to investigate the data on weight training and whether it produced slow and inflexible athletes. Their results, published in Research Quarterly in 1951, demonstrated unequivocally that weightlifters were significantly faster than non-lifters in their study. Karpovich also went on to publish Weight Training for Athletics in 1956 with Jim Murray.

When is the last time you were wrong about something? More importantly, when is the last time you were wrong about something, recognized it, and changed? Thomas Kuhn, author of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, wrote that it is very rare for a scientist to “see the light” and openly admit their erroneous thinking. Especially in front of their students.

As far as I know, if we are not God, then we will be wrong about something, multiple things, lots of things. But how willing are we to admit it and change our minds? The students who witnessed “The Forum” that week in 1940 vividly remembered that assembly and exchange with Dr. Karpovich. I suspect they remembered that day so vividly because they saw Peter Karpovich’s character. He saw the error of his thinking, graciously apologized, and worked to learn and understand.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

8 Comments

  • This is wonderful. Thank you for writing it and for sharing.

    Blessings,

    Mark

  • Phil says:

    As one who has been lifting weights more or less continuously since the mid 1970s (including with a set of those distinctive gold York plates back in the day) and one who has been wrong numerous times but sometimes has a hard time admitting it, I appreciated this piece a great deal. A lovely historical account with a gentle message of reminder. Thanks!

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Wow. So simple, and so necessary.

  • James Vanden Bosch says:

    –from Matthew Arnold’s “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1865)–note especially the final paragraph of Arnold’s praise of Edmund Burke:

    His [Burke’s] greatness is that he lived in a world which neither English Liberalism nor English Toryism is apt to enter;–the world of ideas, not the world of catchwords and party habits. So far is it from being really true of him that he “to party gave up what was meant for mankind,” that at the very end of his fierce struggle with the French Revolution, after all his invectives against its false pretensions, hollowness, and madness, with his sincere convictions of its mischievousness, he can close a memorandum on the best means of combating it, some of the last pages he ever wrote,–the Thoughts on French Affairs, in December 1791,–with these striking words:–

    “The evil is stated, in my opinion, as it exists. The remedy must be where power, wisdom, and information, I hope, are more united with good intentions than they can be with me. I have done with this subject, I believe, forever. It has given me many anxious moments for the last two years. If a great change is to be made in human affairs, the minds of men will be fitted to it; the general opinions and feelings will draw that way. Every fear, every hope will forward it: and then they who persist in opposing this mighty current in human affairs, will appear rather to resist the decrees of Providence itself, than the mere designs of men. They will not be resolute and firm, but perverse and obstinate.”

    That return of Burke upon himself has always seemed to me one of the finest things in English literature, or indeed in any literature. That is what I call living by ideas: when one side of a question has long had your earnest support, when all your feelings are engaged, when you hear all round you no language but one, when your party talks this language like a steam-engine and can imagine no other,–still to be able to think, still to be irresistibly carried, if so it be, by the current of thought to the opposite side of the question, and, like Balaam, to be unable to speak anything but what the Lord has put in your mouth. I know nothing more striking, and I must add that I know nothing more un-English.

    • Marty Wondaal says:

      Professor,

      It appears you just referenced Edmund Burke in a positive way.

      Are you the long-awaited and long-promised conservative voice on The Twelve?

      • Rebecca Koerselman says:

        I did not explicitly mention Burke (or subtly reference him). I admired a former Soviet. On the other hand, I did mention body builders, and they have guns.
        I will let you decide….

  • Jeffrey Carpenter says:

    The reference is just as much about Matthew Arnold, hardly a conservative in his day or in ours.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Amen! Love this! Thanks Rebecca!

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