Coronavirus and Shutdowns

The Coronavirus epidemic has provided us with a lesson in how bureaucracies function in a time of crisis. It has also reminded us that education is more than merely transferring information. Real education takes place when the student and the professor meet face-to-face and just talk.

I am writing this on March 17, but by the time you read it, the world will have changed. It is changing by the hour. One week ago, the college where I work shut down. It has been a rather chaotic week, to say the least. But, before this crisis morphs into whatever it will become, it is worth recording a couple of observations.

First, the details. I am a professor of economics at Mount Holyoke College. Last Monday (March 9) at 3:45 pm, the college sent out an announcement restricting travel and the size of campus meetings. On Tuesday (March 10) at 5:30 pm, we got another announcement saying that the campus was shutting down. Technically, we didn’t close; the students were told that they needed to leave campus by March 20 and that all courses were now going to be online. Since all of the students live on campus, the eviction notice affected everyone. None of our classes is online, so every course was also affected. This decision obviously raised a large number of logistical questions. On Wednesday (March 11), there was a Faculty Forum in which the President and Senior Staff, looking quite haggard, answered questions about the decision. There has subsequently been a steady stream of announcements covering assorted details.

Since last week, not only have other colleges shut down, but many other types of business and government offices have followed suit. Let me be very clear at the outset: this essay is not an argument about the shutdowns themselves. That is a question which will be discussed for decades. There are, however, two other societal questions about which the experience of the last week at one liberal arts college provides insights.

Bureaucracies

There has been much commentary about whether the college shutdowns were necessary. At this point, such debates are moot; even if Mount Holyoke had not shut down last Tuesday, the State of Massachusetts would have closed it down the following Sunday. But, it is worth looking at the decision to shut down on March 10. Why that particular day? The answer to that question tells us a lot about what has been happening across the country.

According to the President at the Faculty Forum, when the senior staff came into work on Tuesday, there was no intention of shutting down the college. What happened over the course of the day that changed their minds? There were no reported cases of the disease in the area. There was no international or national or state news on Tuesday that changed the picture at all from when the communication on Monday was sent out. There was, however, local news. Mount Holyoke is part of a five college consortium with Amherst, Smith, Hampshire, and the University of Massachusetts. On Monday, Amherst College shut down. This was a rather surprising move. Most of the colleges which had shut down the previous week were on the quarter system. Amherst was one of the first schools on the semester system to do so. The next morning, Smith College also shut down. Mount Holyoke followed suit on Tuesday evening.

The immediate problem the colleges were facing was that Spring Break was the following week. There was great concern about students coming back to the dormitories from wherever they had roamed. Dorms are resorts for viruses; an infected student living in a dorm, with shared bathrooms and dining areas, will infect far more than one or two other students. If the disease hit a college campus, it is hard to see how anyone would escape contracting it. But, the fact that students live in dormitories was not new information on March 10. Similarly, the fact that Spring Break was the following week was well known at the start of the semester. In other words, this was a perfectly predictable crisis in January.

What was the thought process that led to the decision on Tuesday? The clues came in the Faculty Forum on Wednesday. The Administration kept repeating that this was a fast moving situation. In answer to the logistical questions, there was a consistent answer: “We have a subcommittee working on that. We will let you know as soon as a decision has been made.” In a situation that had been unfolding for nearly two months, the decision to shut down was made on Tuesday with no answers to obvious logistical questions.

Why? The bureaucracy was overwhelmed. Bureaucracies perform many necessary functions in large organizations, but they are not quick-acting, decisive, or nimble. The college had formed a committee at the outset of the semester to think about the potential problem. Three weeks before the March 10 decision, the college formed eight subcommittees to examine assorted aspects of the potential problems. On Monday, March 9, the work of all these subcommittees had not brought the college to the decision to shut down. But, in the wake of two of the other colleges in the consortium shutting down, the bureaucracy could simply no longer keep up. The decision to shut down was made, and the subcommittees were tasked with figuring out the logistical details of that decision.

There are two important lessons from this decision. First, there was, and as of this date continues to be, a large number of people who think that colleges, businesses, and governments are overreacting. But, watching exhausted college administrators stand before the faculty on March 11 made one thing perfectly obvious: they had no choice but to close the college. While the decision was made suddenly, it was not an impulsive decision. As was visibly obvious, the administration had hit the wall. To continue to figure out how to stay open would have required an enormous number of decisions to be made quickly. Bureaucracies are simply not equipped to do that. And so, the only choice was to announce that the college was shutting down, giving marching orders to all the subcommittees to figure out the details as quickly as possible. The situation for local and state governments would have been exactly the same. They too have slow-acting bureaucracies. All of the discussion about how the governments could have managed this crisis differently are ignoring this basic fact about bureaucratic organizations.

The second important lesson is about how this will end. While there has been a lot of discussion about the shutdowns, there is remarkably little discussion about how to end them. Many organizations and states have fixed end dates for the shutdowns, but as we have already seen, these deadlines are constantly being extended. For the same reason that bureaucracies were unable to address these issues in advance, it is going to be difficult to reopen everything in the future. What is the threshold of safety at which the bureaucracies will be able to decide it is acceptable to reopen? Suppose, as the fashionable phrase goes, we flatten the curve. At the end of your preferred simulation, there are still people with the disease on that flattened curve and the bulk of the population has not developed immunity. So, do you reopen then? If so, we are exactly back to where we were on March 10. Or, do we stay closed until a vaccine is developed? It is rather obvious that this state of affairs cannot last another year.

The fact that there is no plan for when to reopen is surprising until you think about it in terms of the bureaucratic impulse to shut down. Even now, the bureaucracies are still focused on how to solve the logistical problems of the shutdowns. Every bureaucracy in the country is now thinking along those lines. It is not clear when attention will be switched to thinking about how to reopen.

Education

There has been a great deal of discussion in recent years about the cost and the value of higher education in America. There is no doubt that the sticker price of college is rather high. Part of the discussion is whether the colleges are providing enough value to warrant the price. Online education is growing as people have realized that much information can be provided at a lower cost over the internet. The last week has been a very useful reminder of what exactly it is that a residential liberal arts college can provide. If you think of college as purely a mechanism for providing information to students, then there is no real difference between in person and online education. A definition is stated by the professor, memorized by the student, reproduced on a test. As one of my professors put it: “Education is the process by which the notes of the professor become the notes of the student without going through the minds of either.”

If you think that is an accurate description of a college education, then you should have seen the students at this college in the last week. The most accurate adjective: devastated. Students were regularly breaking down in tears. Why? If education is purely a means of transferring information, then there has been no real loss. They have the same professors, the same classes, the same college, and will get the same degree. Yet, my students knew something very important: it is not even remotely the same.

An example which crystallizes the matter: I run a Great Books Seminar. We read six books and meet every other week for two-and-a half hours for a wide-ranging discussion about the books. This seminar is not housed in a department, so it is truly a free-wheeling discussion. The students opt to take it purely for the enjoyment of reading the books and arguing. When the college shut down, we had read half the books; the last book we read was Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy. Up next was Austen’s Persuasion.

Many of the students in this seminar stopped by to ask me what was going to happen with the class. They were visibly depressed that this seminar ended prematurely. These were students who had read three books, met only three times, and yet were truly upset that the seminar was ending so soon. Why? At one level, the students will still get the same credits for the seminar at a lower cost. They can still read the books if they want. But that isn’t enough; they wanted to talk with others about the books and have an unplanned discussion about the books and all the ideas in the books.

Education for these students is not simply reading a book and learning what the argument was. Education is figuring out what the book means to them. Education is when the knowledge of the content of the book is translated into something that asks them to reflect on the Great Questions. What does it really mean to be cultured (Arnold)? What does it really mean to be in love (Austen)? Education does not take place in textbooks or assignments. Education takes place every time a student sits in my office and we talk about a book and how that book affects the student’s life or opinions.

In a strange way, the college has suddenly realized that what makes education something other than merely transferring information is the fact that real education takes place when the student and the professor meet face-to-face and just talk. In the midst of the chaos of this shutdown lies the kernel of truth that these colleges have forgotten. One of the best definitions of poetry is that it is the thing that cannot be translated into another language. What the last week has shown is this: While knowledge can be transmitted through many means, a liberal arts education is the thing that cannot be moved online.

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