Why is our schedule more important than our lives?
It’s late June, and there’s still a pandemic.
I’m watching lots of academic institutions unfurl their plans for the Fall semester, with lots of pomp and pride and gravitas in these president’s or provost’s letters, talking about how many committees conferred and how carefully next year’s plans have been thought through. Hybrid, in-person, socially-distanced, remote learning in all combinations… Retrofitting buildings and social behaviors to make school ‘safe,’ insistent that the most important thing is that we all stay open for business- er, learning. In all these patchwork designs, though, there’s no imagination or expansive vision, and there certainly is not a priority placed on the lives of the people who’s plans they’re making.
Nobody seems to be asking: Why go back to school at all? How much more important than the lives of students, staff, faculty, and their families do we think the academic calendar is? The only thing really amazing about all this planning is how tightly the planners are clinging on to the tradition of an academic calendar year. In part, because academia actually has mechanisms through which students and faculty can escape that clockwork tyranny.
Why not take a gap year — everyone, everywhere? A sabbatical for the whole world? Covid-19 is inviting us to just stop what we’re doing, slow down, stay home, and feel care and concern for one another. Is cultural Republicanism now so deeply steeped into our psyches that nobody can imagine life without ‘economic growth’ and ‘individual progress?’ Humans don’t have to work relentlessly to be valuable to one another. We tell this to students when we encourage them to go out into the world, take a break, discover their priorities and their interests, and hold the door open for them when they come back. For teachers, we acknowledge that not only are sabbaticals useful for personal research or managing life events — they are essential to making teachers into bigger people, capable of embracing the inquiries of their students year after year.
Don’t go back to school. Take the year. Everyone, at every level — let’s just leave everybody back so that there isn’t any bottlenecking. Everything you learn and do in 2020–21 is extra credit. When there is a vaccine and comprehensive testing (and competent leadership at any level), we can get back to where we were — but we can be a generation that gets a little extra time. What is everyone rushing toward?
Are college graduates so desperate to enter an idle workforce with tens of millions of unemployed? Are high school graduates really rushing to get into a subpar educational experience — at great cost — that is little different from watching all the TED Talks you can on your screen? Or one in which in-person teaching is taking place in spite of the life threatening danger of doing so?
Of course we know why the next school year is happening — because business has wholly consumed learning as the existential motive of these institutions. Calling a snow-day for the whole year requires both economic imagination and liberation from a profit mindset. Our educational institutions, sick with capitalism, have neither.
This failure of radical imagination is very similar to the way governments have been announcing, renouncing, and re-announcing their plans for ‘opening the economy,’ even as coronavirus remains rampant, unchecked, uncured, unpreventable. It is truly astounding to see how tightly these leaders are gripping onto the former world, and failing in their imagination about how to go forward as a society.
Let’s let go of all the striving we’ve been doing, year over year. Let’s say a few things out loud: it’s not safe to go to school, it’s not safe to go to work. Black lives matter, our country and our world has deep debts of time and care to pay back. Let’s accept the next year as a gift of time, and just put a hold on the daily mandatory meetings, the fevered schedules, the blind insistence that other than the global pandemic everything is just the same as before.
Let’s take a gap year, all of us. Let’s make sure each and every one of us is taken care of during that year — a yearlong universal basic income to soften the blow. In this system, some of us would earn a lot less than we’re used to, it’s true — but we’ll survive. For many others of us, it will be the best financial year of our lives. Where would that come from, you ask? From our imagination — exactly where all the rest of our money comes from. We will it into being, through convoluted rationalizations tied to labor, time, value, corporeality. But when we want to, we can also just fill out an application form with Mastercard and the benevolent corporation can will another $10,000 into existence on our behalf. This power is simply the power of collective will, not corporate or government magic. Do we need to rationalize it further? Fine — let’s nationalize a single Silicon Valley technology giant, in the name of a national emergency, and cover our sabbatical expenses with the assets we brought into being as a society after all…
People can keep working as needed, of course, just as they have through the past 3 months. There are aspects of an economy that are inevitable — commerce in food, basic goods, and of course healthcare. The school year isn’t one of those; education happens, and it will happen whether the business of academic is reopened or not. And there are forms of work that are naturally occurring: creative invention, caring for others, maintenance of social structures and physical ones. We would do those on a sabbatical anyway — we’d just do them with even more time and attention.
Higher education is unique in its tolerance of the ‘gap year,’ but this is a model the whole world needs right now. Covid-19 is showing us so much about what is wrong with our economy and our priorities. Every compromise we make for the sake of ‘reopening’ before this virus is done killing people is a signal of what we value above one another’s lives. Our salaries, our reputations, our sense of personal growth, our individual advancement, our tradition, our expectations — each of these has been selected above the lives of those who will not survive our clinging to how it’s been.
It’s a good time for everyone to take a year off and do some thinking. Read books we haven’t had time for. Start projects we’ve dreamed about. Spend time with our families. Heal. You’d be surprised how easy it would be to fill a year. Our lives, families, careers, and communities will be waiting for us.
Or we can insist on continuity, as leaders at every level seem to be doing, and keep home-schooling and working simultaneously, crowding our calendars as if the universe depended on our busy-ness, cram three lifetimes into every single Zoom call, and tolerate stress levels akin to soldiers at war. All while Covid-19 is still among us, deadly waves rising and falling in direct relation to our conventional economic activity. And when a year is up, many of those families, careers (co-workers), and communities will not be there waiting for us after all.