I'm not sure why calling a tradition time honored justifies it. Time has very low standards. All you need to do to be time honored is exist, and that's rarely an appropriate way to judge something's worth. Strom Thurmond lived for over a century, Jimi Hendrix only 27 years. Time doesn't know shit about quality.
It's not clear to me exactly what purpose the swim test serves. There are two theories out there that seem equally likely. One is that, since Manhattan is an island, back in the early days before there were numerous reliable bridges off of it Columbia students had to be ready to swim to New Jersey in case the city caught fire or was invaded or some such. Now it would admittedly be a difficult choice to decide whether to stay on a burning Manhattan or swim to Jersey, and I understand why the school might want to make sure that students had that option (at the very least they could dive into the Hudson and hug the coastline around the borough until they reached The Bronx or Brooklyn) if push came to shove. On the other hand I'm not sure what being able to swim 75 yards proves in this regard. That will get you just far enough out into the Hudson that you can drown, or up until a few years ago have your skin melted off by the toxins in the water.
The other theory is that the Swim test was instituted because a gentleman should know how to swim. If this seems a blatenly sexist claim don't worry. Columbia was a blatently sexist institution until a little over two decades ago, and it has maintained this tradition when it comes to aquatic exercise. There's a big red sign on the women's locker room stating that the law requires them to shower before entering the pool. No such sign exists for the men. Whether this is because women bleed from their crotches from time to time and are thus inherently filthy animals or it assumed that men are so lacking in higenic skills that asking them to shower is pointless is unclear. Nonetheless the double standard lives proudly on, emblazoned upon doors on the bottom level of the Dodge Fitness center.
The gentleman story seems at least more likely than the 'flee to New Jersey' idea, but it still suffers from the flaw of "why 75 yards?" This seems to be the $4.95 question. It may be humorous to envision a group of effete blue bloods in full gentlemanly regalia flailing impotently at the water for 75 yards and being declared fit to rule on account of their physical incompetence, such a test would only demonstrate a single of the characteristics necessary to make a good nobleman. There is no wenching requirement at Columbia, a good thing for me, and thus the gentlemen theory is only marginally better than the one about accessing the Garden State in case of emergency.
The truth of the matter is that the Swim Test is just one of those administrative oddities that nobody can explain. It doesn't really prove anything or serve any purpose. It's merely there. I once went to a camp that had a real swim test. They'd take you out at night in groups of 3 in a rowboat to the middle of the lake and shove you into the water, fully dressed including shoes. You were expected to make it to the shore alive. As a safety precaution someone on shore would flash a powerful light into your eyes every 30 seconds or so to make sure that there were still 3 heads above the water and none of them could see. This would result in at least one of the applicants swimming in circles for a bit until his eyes cleared, but that was just part of the test. It was an effective test though, over 85% of campers made it to shore alive and they were certainly fit for any swimming scenario that might crop up during the rest of the camp.
The Columbia test is significantly less sadistic. One enters the pool area, fills out a little card with your name and social security number (how long until you're required to give your social security number out when using public transportation or buying a newspaper at the local stand?) flashes an ID card that they glance at and assume is yours, and swims when one is ready. Honestly the most difficult part is making sure not to glance at another guy's wang when in the changing area. My enhanced peripheral vision thanks to LHG made this particularly hard. I think that locker rooms should have blinders available for just this purpose.
My swim test experience was fairly painless. I got into the pool wearing my shirt, and decided that I was going to do the crawl the entire 75 yards, aided by the buoyancy of my fat and the fact that despite being obese I do work out fairly reguarly and thus have the stamina to propel myself over 3/4s the length of a football time given an unlimited amount of time. Unfortunately this plan was cut short by the fact that the pool had been chlorinated by someone who apparently wanted to protect swimmers from both bacteria and any Water Buffalo that might stumble into it by mistake. If you had added a tanker of sodium to the pool you would have had a few thousand gallons of salt. I spent the rest of the test swimming with my head held high above the water, its fumes so heavy in my nose that I now have a pretty good idea what it must be like to work in a disinfectant factory.
One more barrier to my graduation from Columbia has now been surmounted. All I have left is two papers and one test, all of which I should do poorly on.
I suppose I shall soon find out whether, in the real world, I will sink or...well...you get the idea.