The Pandemic Will Kill American Education (But That Could Be a Good Thing)

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Franco-Prussian War. Of course, you probably haven’t thought much about that…

But in July 1870, war broke out between France and Prussia, the mid-19th century collection of Germanic states. It lasted about six months.

The Germans won, and Germany was on the way to becoming unified.

France paid massive reparations to Germany — in gold, no less — which made the new nation instantly powerful and wealthy. And the world was a different place.

In the aftermath, a foreign diplomat walked up to German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck and excitedly said, “This victory over France is a great tribute to the quality of Germany’s generals!”

Bismarck replied, “No, this victory over France is a great tribute to the quality of Germany’s schoolteachers.”

Obviously, Bismarck understood that Germany’s education system was responsible for the large numbers of talented, capable people who could work together to achieve great, national ends.

Indeed, it’s fair to say that nations rise and fall based on the quality of their educational systems.

And today that should worry all of us…

Because right now the U.S. educational system is a shamble.

It was a vast mess before the pandemic, of course, at just about every level — K-12, college, university, trade and professional schools.

Now, thanks to the coronavirus, the entire system is adrift… much of it possibly headed for extinction.

That might actually be a good thing, though.

Let’s dig into this…

Last March, schools across the country closed their doors due to state-level orders for coronavirus lockdowns. (To be clear, state governors “closed” states. It wasn’t federal action.)

Before long, millions of students, faculty and staff had to scramble and find a new way of pursuing education, as I discussed here.

At first many assumed the shutdowns would be a short-term problem. Nothing more than an extra-long spring break.

Then the lockdowns were extended… And extended again.

Along the way, schools, staff, faculty and students cobbled together various ad hoc systems to “do education” online.

It was far from perfect. But it meant faculty could teach. Students could continue with their education.

The plan was to muddle through as best as possible over spring and summer. Then, while the kids practiced social distancing on vacation, the grown-ups would figure out how to do online education right.

But now it’s the end of summer. Across the academic spectrum, schools are back in session.

Some have figured things out better than others.

Still, we’re heading into uncharted lands.

Stated another way, this is “something we have never done before,” according to Brenda Casselius, Superintendent of Boston Public Schools (BPS),1 the oldest public-school system in America, founded in 1647.

Today Casselius is leading a massive system-wide effort to use advanced technology to educate over 54,000 youngsters online, with a partial, phased reopening of 125 brick & mortar facilities through the fall.

Putting kids back in classrooms will require comprehensive medical screening and protection.

Until then, teaching kids online comes with its own set of challenges.

On the best of days, virus or no, there’s a significant “digital divide” between students with access to even basic Internet service versus those without — especially in a large urban school system.

And that’s all before you count the long list of problems that constantly challenge a major institution like BPS…

Feeding hungry kids, medicating sick ones, dealing with learning disabilities, fixing broken buildings, constructing and reconstructing new classrooms (indeed, improving ventilation in the face of a virus that may be airborne), hiring and retaining faculty, dealing with the teachers union….

While we’re at it, consider the new range of problems and needs of tens of thousands of families whose lives are disrupted by the lockdown.

Many have suffered stressful events like parental unemployment or loss of a business — on top of the other social and race problems that have spread across the nation.

Then consider the dramatically reduced tax base of a major city like Boston, where stores and restaurants have been closed, tax receipts have plummeted and money is tighter than it’s been in a long, long time.

Take Boston and multiply its predicament by dozens, in terms of major cities across the country.

And then multiply by hundreds in terms of mid-scale cities, and times over 14,000 in terms of the total number of school districts across the country.

Problems, problems, and more problems… How to meet educational needs of tens of millions of students, served by millions of teachers and staff.

It’s a lot more than just saying, “Put the classes online.”

There’s a major overhaul here, occurring in plain sight. But the larger question is whether or not the overall system can handle so much change all at once. The jury is out…

And that’s just K-12!

Meanwhile, the U.S. has over 4,000 colleges and universities scattered across its landscape.

Many cities and regions have numerous institutions of higher education in proximity.

New York City, for example, is home to many dozens of colleges and universities.

In the “olden days” (before last March), the cumulative number of students enrolled in all of these schools was over 600,000, or about the same as the population of Baltimore.

Think about that… The entire population of Baltimore living within New York, just to attend college or university. (And this doesn’t include the immense New York Public School system.)

That’s a lot of students, which requires a lot of faculty and, for as much as it’s fun to poke them, a lot of administrators.

This massive army of college students creates many other related jobs on campus, such as maintaining the buildings and grounds, serving meals, delivering health care and more.

And this vast student population requires hundreds of thousands of dorm rooms and apartments.

Collectively, this population uses a lot of electricity, eats a lot of groceries, wears a lot of clothes, uses a lot of towels and bed linens. In other words, they create a massive cascade of supporting jobs, an entire economy within the economy.

In New York alone, “education” is a gigantic industry, whose wheels are greased by many tens of billions of tuition dollars, state funds and student loans.

Now, take that whole aggregation of students, faculty, etc. and completely upend the entire dynamic. Kick the kids off campus. Send faculty home. Shut down the buildings and system for six months. Then, start back up this fall… And what happens?

Plenty of chaos…

For instance, tens of thousands of students — just in New York — have decided to take the year off for whatever reason. (Thousands of Jewish kids have decamped to Israel, for example.)

Students who have returned to school find themselves all but locked out of campus life… Restricted to dorm rooms, eating meals out of paper bags, unable to congregate or socialize, watching classes online, no sports and next to no human contact.

Adding insult to injury, in many cases this college “experience” comes at the price of full tuition. College bean-counters act as if nothing has changed.

I may be going out on a limb here, but I suspect that this is not the kind of educational system that Chancellor Bismarck had in mind as the underpinning of a great and powerful nation.

There’s still much that nobody knows.

Will the pandemic last for “just” a year or so… Or will we see future waves of virus hitting again over longer time frames, perhaps as the bug mutates?

And how will online learning work out over the long term?

In general, the overall education system is historically grounded on personal instruction, based on academic culture and tradition that goes back many centuries.

For example, faculty at research universities require access to facilities, libraries, and labs, along with ample numbers of students to get things done. But this former model is now severely constrained, if for no other reason than social distancing.

That has all changed in a matter of months.

The fundamental psychology of learning — the interaction between teachers and students — may or may not translate online. Nobody really knows. The intangibles are countless…

At the student level, one critique in a university-level professional journal called the new college experience “a combination of a monastery and a minimum-security prison.”2

Looking ahead, even under the best of circumstances. colleges face an enrollment squeeze, which translates into a financial squeeze for many institutions.

Most colleges have already experienced what’s called the “melt” of kids who failed to show up at the end of summer. Now, as the first semester unfolds, there are higher levels of mental health issues, and withdrawals as students become dissatisfied and discouraged with what they find (and don’t find) on campus.

Social media will doubtless amplify the problems, as students and faculty share experiences and perspectives online, especially negative ones which may instantly take root and become the new “common” perspective.

The point is, despite a summer of preparation, most of American academe is just beginning to figure out where to go from here. And the overall system is a far cry from the salad days when all seemed well.

Here are just a few of the new realities of modern education…

  • Faculty everywhere face a rocky road, coping with new methods of teaching and learning. Going online is tough enough, but now add issues like medical testing for coronavirus, social distancing, heavier teaching burdens, financial pressures and the possibility of closing entire departments, if not schools.
  • The student experience has taken a significant, expensive turn for the worse. Young people are dealing with a novel form of online education with no track record of success. Meanwhile they are losing much of the informal curriculum of college and university, namely the face-to-face personal interactions that are important to growth and maturing. And then, at the end of the line, students face a problematic job market.
  • Colleges and universities face profound social and financial challenges to their business model. It’s a hypercompetitive recruitment environment out there, driving a massive disruption of the U.S. education complex. On finances alone, more than a few schools will likely fail over the next couple of years — hundreds, at least.

Indeed, the pandemic has created profound problems for the American education complex, although overall it had serious issues before the first virus molecule ever landed on U.S. shores.

Over many years, American academe has slipped from its moorings and drifted away from its traditional focus. (We discussed it here, in some measure.)

Looking back, America was built by literate, numerate, logical people who could organize themselves, create things and accomplish complex things, whether in business, politics or simply life. And many of these nation-builders were well-educated in U.S. colleges and universities.

Indeed, early America mirrored Bismarck’s comment long before there was a Bismarck.

Considering America’s current place in the world, and strong international competition for just about everything, the country still requires a strong educational complex, turning out people who can keep the place running.

But that was already a questionable outcome even in the pre-coronavirus world. At every level, the U.S. education system is bloated, bureaucratic, expensive and focused on many goals of dubious merit. That, and plenty of fraud and grifting…

On the bright side, the pandemic-induced breakdowns in education might provide the perfect opportunity for reforms. The parts that work and produce solid outcomes will begin to shine. And we’ll likely see large amounts of innovation, with significant developments originating from the home school and small scale side of the schoolhouses.

Ideally, the pandemic could help clear out much of the bloated mess, then force people to figure out what kids absolutely must learn — and figure out the best way to teach them.

On that note, I rest my case.

That’s all for now…Thank you for subscribing and reading.

Best wishes,

Byron King

Byron King
Managing Editor, Whiskey & Gunpowder

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1 Boston Globe

2 Ref: Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept 2020.

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Byron King

A Harvard-trained geologist and former aide to the United States Chief of Naval Operations, Byron King is our resident gold and mining expert, and we are proud to have him on board as the managing editor of Whiskey & Gunpowder.

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