Moments of catastrophe possess a terrifying clarity. When systems fail, illusions fall away, bringing to light buried and often unsettling truths. The COVID-19 pandemic and our government’s failure to respond to it adequately have exposed many such truths about the systems that structure our daily existence. When the lieutenant governor of Texas suggested that senior citizens would give up their lives for the sake of the economy, he said aloud what many have long intuited: that our economic system cares about human beings only insofar as they are human capital. And so catastrophe illuminates what the everyday blurs.
Higher education might not be the most obvious place to witness the terrifying clarity of COVID-19. The structural failures of our healthcare system have been much more evident and lethal. But for me and millions of other students, as well as faculty and administrators, the pandemic’s disruption of university life has been a revelation. Now that Harvard and Yale (where I am a senior) are forced to adopt the same virtual education models as for-profit universities such as the University of Phoenix, the future of higher education that many have been predicting for years has suddenly arrived.
For the past two centuries, the history of higher education in America has largely been the history of the liberal university. Recognizing the link between education and a democratic society, American intellectuals as far back as Emerson put forward a distinctive vision of the university. Rather than simply indoctrinating students in a tradition or training them for a specific career, the university should expose them to new ideas and teach them to think for themselves. While today we mostly associate liberal education with elite private institutions, this ideal also informed the establishment of great public universities. Teaching literature and mathematics as well as agriculture and engineering, public universities aimed to make a liberal education widely accessible. Although this aim often foundered on preexisting social hierarchies, it also anticipated and galvanized changes in those hierarchies. In my home state of Nebraska, for instance, the state university provided for the education of female students in its 1869 charter—a hundred years before Yale admitted its first female undergraduate.
Given the influence of public universities on American life, the liberal idea of higher education has come to shape how many of us think and feel about the university. Like many young Americans, I saw college as more than a next step after high school. The university possessed a special glamor, and as I grew older, I identified this glamor with the infinite freedom to redefine myself—with the project of self-discovery—that such an institution seemed to offer. Influenced by the aesthetic of countless books and films, I envisioned grassy quads, autumn leaves, and wood-paneled seminar rooms. I longed for conversations that would run late into the night and the bustle of portrait-lined dining halls. And while it is true that the reality of college has tempered my idealization, more remarkable is the degree to which it has preserved it, at least until now.
But American universities are rapidly moving away from their underlying ethos. Facing budget cuts, many public and smaller private universities have begun to transform themselves into services. In exchange for luxurious living spaces and professional development, these universities are demanding in turn that students pay increasingly exorbitant tuitions. Universities have also started to evaluate academic affairs in light of profitability. In 2018, for example, the University of Nebraska proposed cutting its art history and geography departments, even as it was preparing to announce a $155 million stadium expansion for its revenue-generating football team. These shifts in the priorities of higher education have made even public universities increasingly unaffordable and have opened the door for online institutions like the University of Phoenix or remote learning platforms like Coursera. Highlighting their relative affordability and flexibility, these companies claim that virtual learning represents the future of higher education. And they have data to back them up. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 33 percent of university students in 2017 were enrolled in at least one “distance education course,” and 15 percent of all students were enrolled exclusively in such courses. For a growing number of students at private and public universities alike, the experience of going to college may soon consist of opening a laptop.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made this possible future a present reality. Like millions of other students, I now go to class by clicking on a Zoom link, which transforms me into one of a dozen pixelated heads. Having a good internet connection and a quiet space, I’m able to follow along better than I had expected. But the experience of learning in this way is nonetheless isolating. Classroom conversations that would once have continued in the hallway or dining hall now end with the decision to “leave the meeting” and the abrupt disappearance of classmates’ faces from the screen. One moment I’m discussing Wallace Stevens; the next, I’m staring at a blank wall, alone.
The isolation of online learning is just one of the many ways that classes this semester are undermining the liberal ethos. The very idea of the university as a place where students learn to collaborate and think for themselves feels absurd when we are going to school in our parents’ basements. Moreover, unequal access to resources like reliable internet connections and quiet study spaces belies the principle of equality inherent in that ideal. Whereas I can get away from my family to read Stevens, other students are forced to look after younger siblings or help out with struggling family businesses. Pandemics may affect everyone, but they do not affect everyone equally. Outside the comparatively egalitarian spaces of the university, the disparities between students’ lives grow stark.
But of course, liberal education is not merely an ethos; it is also an aesthetic, and one that many universities are fighting hard to preserve. Yale, for instance, recently released custom Zoom backgrounds featuring various views of campus and, like many universities, is planning for a virtual commencement. But for all their good intentions, these efforts to ensure continuity often appear rather ridiculous. Images of campus cannot replace the feeling of being on campus. A virtual commencement cannot provide the sense of community and celebration that an actual one conveys. And so one cannot help wondering whether the emptiness of these efforts reveals another unsettling truth. Is the aesthetic of the university a representation of its underlying ethos, or a screen for concealing its steady erosion? If universities continue to move away from the ideals of liberal education, the way we feel about the university, as well as the rituals we associate with it, will have to change. The losses of this semester thus stand as portents of all that we risk losing permanently.
The COVID-19 pandemic will eventually abate, and at some point afterwards a new class of students will arrive on college campuses, full of aspirations for their next four years. But as they try to reinvent themselves with the help of their classes and peers, they will be confronting an education system that is itself in the process of reinvention. The social and economic forces driving the university’s abandonment of liberal education predate COVID-19 and will outlast it. Still, perhaps the terrifying clarity that the pandemic has brought to bear on preexisting changes to the purpose of the university offers us a chance to resist them. The future of liberal education may look grim, but we can reclaim it by demanding greater funding for public universities from state governments and a shift in funding priorities from university administrators. Our choice to demand these changes now will ensure that the isolation and inequality of higher education this semester remain temporary. This moment of catastrophe, put simply, is the time to act.