In The Atlantic Graeme Wood ponders the risks as university administrators weight whether or not to return to some version of normal in the Fall. Of course it is hard to make an informed decision without information and we just don’t have enough information about COVID-19 to really understand the risks. He concludes with the following:
College administrators are looking at the fall calendar and weighing the danger of medical catastrophe against the danger of insolvency. So are many, many other businesses desperate to reopen and return to normal operations and revenue flow. But not every business is equally vulnerable to the virus, and colleges are more like cruise ships and retirement homes than they are like hardware stores and driving ranges. A cruise ship without a limbo contest and Lucullan buffet is not much of a cruise ship, and a college without significant intellectual and social mingling is not much of a college. But some students might put up with that, in return for a lower risk of an early death for themselves and others. Or maybe they’ll take a gap year—and hope that when they get back, the colleges they left behind are still there.
Many would argue that colleges have become too much like cruise ships over the years, or, at least, that some have. I understand that college is about the intermingling of both minds and bodies. It’s true that we have struggled with the move to online education and there are doubts about the “value proposition” of online learning, as a university administrator or corporate executive might say. We can say this is about perception, but perception is a significant reality when we’re talking about whether or not students are learning.
I’m not going to get into discussion about the relative risks of opening campuses from a pandemic standpoint. That’s well outside my area of expertise. All I can say is that if we’re talking about the way things were a few months ago, you’d have to say the average person on my campus came within six feet of hundreds of people every day. I wouldn’t quite compare it to a cruise ship, but I would say that if we’re not opening movie theaters, bars, and night clubs, if we’re not opening K-12 schools, then campuses are in the same category.
But I digress. Right now, we have a kind of Ubi Sunt, nostalgic-romantic recollection of college life. The point I’ve been making (and not just about higher ed, but certainly about higher ed too) is that the pandemic has not so much created cracks in our system but illuminated and intensified those that were already there. I saw a post on some higher ed FB group suggesting that when we are grading students in these online classes that we are “grading privilege.” And there’s truth in that. In this moment, there’s privilege attached to a student having the technology, physical space, and material resources to continue to be successful at college. The thing is that we are always already “grading privilege.”
So what if we looked critically rather than romantically at university culture? And this not a blame game scenario. There’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s not even just about academia but more broadly about how higher education is situated in the culture over all. Now there’s a value proposition question for you!
On one level it works fairly well. More than one-third of Americans have bachelor degrees. Really that’s as high as any country. The problem is with the durability of that education. I guess if it’s really job related, and you stay in the same career, you probably hold on to it. E.g., accountants tend to remember the math that’s applicable to their work… but probably not other math. But there are more foundational skills, ones that as a college student you may have not even realized you were learning: for example, a willingness to consider new ideas, critical thinking skills to evaluate new information, a habit/ethos of hospitality toward those who are different from you, and communication skills that help you bridge those differences.
The problem is that those learning experiences are not inoculations. They are not, cannot be, embedded inside students. Really what we’re teaching students is how to become part of a network of distributed cognition. To maintain these cognitive capacities–which are the real value of college–students have to remain connected to that network. That’s possible after students graduate, depending on their profession and where they live. But most Americans live within 20 miles of the mothers (Google it yourself). That is, they go back to their hometowns or quite close. And unless they live in a big city or someplace that otherwise attracts people to move there, they go back to the same people they grew up with. In such a scenario, those connections are hard to maintain; they tend to attenuate. In time, they become like that guy who was a jock in high school but come the 20th reunion, well, not so much.
Right now, in the midst of all the other challenges the pandemic poses, we are dealing with the spread of a lot of bad information. We can call it confirmation bias if you like, and it is that. It’s also just a cheap rhetorical trick that can be captured in that old cliche stereotype about the college writer who says “I’m almost finished with my paper. I just need to go to the library so I can find some quotes to prove my points.” In other words, sure there’s confirmation bias in the tendency to agree with something you already agree with. But we go beyond that when we start explicitly looking for (and then sharing on social media) videos, articles, etc. that “prove our points.” This is then intensified by social media algorithms that tend to show us things the algorithm guesses that we will “like.”
I think it takes a lot more than mere confirmation bias to believe on the one hand that the CDC is involved in some deep state conspiracy to take away our “freedoms,” while some random dude who dresses up in scrubs and makes a YouTube video really knows what’s going on. Again, this is about something more than some internal, psychological mind state. This is about participation in a network of distributed cognition.
Now I know it seems I’ve strayed quite far from my topic, but I’m going to close the loop quickly here. We may want to get the students (and ourselves) back on campus, and we should when it is appropriate. But we also need to create and extend a network of distributed cognition outward from our universities and professional organizations that can continue to strengthen our students’ connection to the cognitive capacities they have gained while in college. The best way to do this is through digital networks and obviously we are just not very good at that. We need to be better.
I’ll close with this. The internet is replete with articles like Wood’s and social media posts of professors lamenting the prospects and experiences of online teaching. We’re all struggling. It’s no good. We don’t want to, we can’t, learn/teach this way. But here’s the thing. After our students graduate, where do you think they’ll be doing their learning? Where will they go for answers to questions they have? How will they engage in civic life? We all know what the answer is.
If our students can’t be effective online learners now, with our help and the university behind us, how will they learn online later? I’m afraid we know the answer to that. We just have to look around. Obviously we have to do better than that.
How’s that for a value proposition?