Historically, it seems pirates are identified by their peg legs, eyepatches, and hooks for hands. Their rogue ships flew ominous flags like the Jolly Roger while the menacing marauders gained notoriety for ruthless battles at sea. The image of the pirate as an alcohol-swilling, lustful barbarian with moldering clothes and a filthy vocabulary has become part of popular culture, appearing in everything from books and paintings to films, video games, theme park rides, Halloween costumes, and more. Meanwhile, it feels like we've lost sight of the reason why traditional pirates became so infamous in the first place. Sure, they spoke funny and probably had terrible breath, but in order to gain a place in the imaginations of everyday people across generations, they needed skills to get there. Operating under the assumption that traditional pirates actually possessed some measure of physical and mental prowess, MIT's Department of Athletics, Physical Education and Recreation (DAPER) has a pirate program that helps its students fulfill general physical education requirements.
By all appearances, the school is buoyant with would-be buccaneers. At first, it seems outlandish that MIT has a physical education requirement at all, but with so much brainpower on campus, it would be even less sensible not to. And as it turns out, archery, sailing, fencing, pistolry (and riflery) all require a level of concentration and skill that appeals to science and engineering students, so there's a mutual interest that keeps the pirate program going. In fact, MIT issued over 60 pirate certificates just last year, according to Phil Hess, Director of DAPER Communications, Promotions and Marketing.
Originally from Rockville, Maryland, Jacob Hurwitz attended MIT from 2010-2014 and is the first to officially earn a pirate certificate from the esteemed polytechnic university. He says the legend of an ersatz pirate program had been around awhile on campus, with online references pointing to at least 2006—a few years before DAPER actually started issuing documents attesting a level of achievement in old-fashioned piracy.
"As best as I can tell, the pirate's license was probably a joke invented by students. MIT requires all students to complete four PE classes before they can graduate. The myth was that if you took archery, sailing, pistol, and fencing, you'd become a certified pirate," Hurwitz explains. "There was definitely nothing official."
Given the options, Hurwitz thought archery, sailing, pistol, and fencing sounded like the most fun anyway. While immersed in the still-unofficial pirate curriculum during his freshman year, Hurwitz received an email survey from DAPER gauging students' interest in an official pirate certificate. In an initiative Hurwitz says was spearheaded by Meredith Volker, DAPER started issuing pirate certificates and Hurwitz was the first to earn his after already completing the coursework.
"I guess I shouldn't be surprised given that it was MIT, but each of the classes seemed to emphasize practical mental skills in addition to the physical skills needed for the sport," Hurwitz says. "For instance, I remember the pistol instructor telling us about how focus and concentration [are] more important than aiming."
A couple of years ago, Hurwitz's friend and MIT colleague, Anna, wrote a blog post called “Lessons from Pistol Class,” in which she describes how her instructor taught that shooting is 90% mental and 10% technical. Now a Fulbright scholar who is pursuing PhD studies in astronomy at CalTech, Anna learned valuable lessons in the class, which appear to have become part of the foundation of her academic philosophy.
Hurwitz, meanwhile, doesn't seem to identify that much with nefarious seafarers, other than observing International Talk Like a Pirate Day every September 19. Currently, he lives in San Francisco and has a solid job as a software engineer, so don't expect him to jump ship anytime soon. In fact, when he received his pirate credentials, Hurwitz actually had to sign a disclaimer acknowledging that he wouldn't use his license as an excuse to perform acts of piracy in real life. Aarg!
Click here to learn more about getting your own Pirate Certificate from MIT.