“I feel it in my bones. Enough to make my systems groan. Welcome to the new age, to the new age.”“Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons
COVID-19 has upended all of our lives and we move through these uncertain times carrying fear and anxiety. As an invisible agent, this virus wields enormous power. It calls on media to report, neighborhoods to gossip, and agencies to act. If there has ever been a time to think apocalyptically, it is now.
The stories that we tell about the futures we can imagine matter as we move through the uncharted territory of such a landscape. And the story of higher education is no exception. A recent article in USA today (Coronavirus upends college: Students in online classes, no graduation) details the difficulties faced by colleges and universities around the country. What this article describes is an already doomed system falling into obscurity. But isn’t it possible that the major shifts required by the pandemic offer opportunities from flourishing as well?
Post-apocalyptic narratives have a great deal to teach us about imagined futures. We can look to any number of novels for the potential regeneration that we can envision following the collapse of social and cultural institutions. The law of entropy states that systems will distribute and thus dissipate energy until an influx of energy enters the system to renew it. As the world moves toward entropy during this great slow down, we have an opportunity to evaluate where that new energy will come from. I am not an expert on these matters but I do work in the realm of imagination and discourse and I chose, in this moment, to use those powers to rethink and reimagine the map of higher education postpandemic.
First, we face a real opportunity to revalue higher education. In a world where many systems are paralyzed by the pandemic, many who are self- isolated are turning to art, music, and other pursuits–what we call the humanities. The value of these modes of creativity and knowledge production cannot be understated. Apocalyptic futures provide fertile soil for our most innate creative pursuits to blossom. As the Traveling symphony in the novel Station Eleven champions: Survival is insufficient. We need the humanities now more than ever.
Part of what the humanities can do is complement STEM fields by exploring what it means to be human, to create relationships, and to imagine. Many great critics have already written on this powerful mode of thinking but it bears repeating. I cannot even begin to cite these champions of the humanities but a quick search will yield thousands of results on the defense of the humanities. In our current emergency situation, nurses and doctors who are dealing with the sick, government and school officials who are weighing the commitment to education with physical health, small businesses who are working around the clock to stay open and evaluate the services they provide, all must draw deep into their reserves of human consideration and the entanglements we have with the material world. Don’t we want those individuals to have an education in empathy, communication, and institutional structures? Don’t we want those doing the real physical work of keeping the world running to have the ability to be creative, adapt to change, and envision solutions? I speak, of course, an an educator on these matters. I have something at stake in arguing for this focus. However, I have also seen the changes it makes in students’ lives to drink deeply from the wealth of literature and expression that makes the development of these traits more viable.
Second, a renewed emphasis on essential programs, necessary tools, and the power of social contact offer a new vision of what higher education could be. Rather than bloated administrations and wasteful construction projects, isn’t it possible to imagine a landscape where the humans who engage with ideas and creativity matter most? While that sounds awfully utopian, I do believe that there is real potential to renegotiate the budget constraints imposed by nonessential programs and bloat. What would the map of higher ed look like if teachers and students took their place at the top level of the university institution? What would it mean to privilege relationships, smaller class sizes, and fair wages for those on the front lines? If this pandemic has taught us anything so far, it is that universities cannot survive without running courses. Those courses need well educated, flexible instructors who have support from stars like IT and instructional designers. Is it possible that in the face of this shutdown we are also being confronted with top tier hubris? Perhaps stripping the system will reveal the incredible work that has gone unnoticed for decades.
Finally, I want say that there are thousands of diligent and hard working individuals who are navigating these uncharted waters with grace and compassion that give me hope in the possibilities as we move forward. I have seen colleagues and administrators step up to the plate to find creative solutions, resources, and psychological connection. My own university has handled this situation with as much thoughtfulness and compassion as I believe is possible right now. I feel incredibly lucky to be a part of a team that is supporting one another and engaging in practices that serve the students.
Students are a particularly vulnerable population. They lack stability and anchors in their lives that those outside of academia enjoy. These students are also idealistic, creative, and hopeful. They posses an optimism in the apocalyptic future, one that makes space for them to re-envision what our world can be. They deserve our attention for their ability to look forward and to be hopeful about our futures.
In Station Eleven, the survivors of the plague (and their descendents) make conscious choices about rebuilding society. They believe in the power of joy, and art, and music, and stories. Surviving is insufficient. We must also work to survive well and with our relationships intact. The landscape of postpandemic higher education has the potential to change the way that universities and colleges do things. We can redraw the map, examine the relationship between modes of understanding, and rethink the value of each territory in this landscape. Surviving the pandemic is not enough. We must also imagine a better future and prepare for it.