2021-04-05 The Pandemic and the Commons

The Social Discourse Commons

In an increasingly class-stratified and politically-polarized society, whose values reign supreme? And where do those who disagree with those values go to dispute them?

The values of traditional liberalism, including among others the freedom to live as, where, and with/among whom we choose; the expectation of fairness in the dispensation of social goods and social sanctions, and a basic tolerance of those whose beliefs differ from our own are being sorely tested both by the isolation imposed on us during the year-long pandemic series of lockdowns and by our self-selected presence/absence on what was once touted as a substitute for the “commons,” the Internet (the “digital commons”).

In real life (“IRL”), how many of us are in a position to live anywhere we choose, with whomever we choose, and in any way we choose? How many of us genuinely believe that jobs are awarded (sic) to those best qualified and most “deserving” (and “deserving” in what sense, exactly?) of them? And how tolerant are we IRL of those with whom we disagree – often, sharply – on fundamental issues involving our shared polity?

As we continue to endure masking, social distancing, the ins and outs of (sometimes inequitable) vaccination, openings and shutdowns of both businesses and public services, many of us – those of us not providing essential pandemic services – continue to seek human interaction and discourse through online means, whether Skype, or Zoom, or FaceTime, or FB Messenger. I have initiated regular meet-ups (some complete with each of us consuming their own glass of wine and slices of cheese, or sushi or dessert, separately but together) with old friends, and it’s been a real boon to my morale. With old friends, we can laugh and joke, discuss current events, share our latest COVID-19 complaints, even proceed to engage in more substantive discussion as I do with one bi-weekly meet-up, where we have an assigned topic-of-the-evening and where there’s homework involved in preparation. Initiating such meet-ups was the most positive thing I’ve done during the pandemic in support of my personal mental well-being.

Make no mistake, however, about such get-togethers: they’re a good thing, but they’re not the real thing. And I assume that holds true for most of us – what we most miss is actual human contact. An education podcast we follow, HaveYouHeard, recently asked a previous guest to recruit her students and ask them what they felt they’d lost over the past year. In stark contrast to what administrators and Department of Education officials are bemoaning (“Learning Loss”), what the students feel they’ve lost is almost exclusively related to the social nature of school. Student after student said, first off, that they missed their friends; that they missed their teacher’s physical presence; that they missed their team sports, their drama club’s activities, even the sense of hanging out – or, to put it another way, of not being alone.

Not that school is perfect, far from it. Concerned teachers who’ve been paying attention the past year are entreating administrators to take heed of the lessons learned from remote teaching. For one thing (and this has long been known), school starts too early for children and adolescents – if school bells rang at 8.30 or 9.00 each morning, there would be many fewer students asleep during the first and second periods. For another, children get hungry at odd – and different – hours during the day; why not allow them to snack as needed? And it turns out that some children are doing better with remote learning than expected from their classroom past histories because, well, thirty other students in any given class is too much stimulation – it’s distracted them from learning, rather than helped them learn. We need – we must, both for the sake of public and mental health – reduce class sizes by at least one-third.

The overall message is that what our leaders are trying to force students and teachers back to – what they call “normal” – is not all great. Many things will never be truly “normal” again, and rather than bemoaning this, we should seek to implement what we’ve learned from a year of far-from-normal. Perhaps the biggest takeaway is that students go to school to learn, yes, but they love school because it offers them a social commons, a place to engage with their peers, a place where they can learn to be. One student noted that a year of non-engagement meant that they had “lost my sense of self.” Truly we learn to define ourselves through the eyes of others, no matter how young we are.

Human beings, it need scarcely be repeated, are highly social animals. We spend our lives once we emerge from infancy and dependency on the primary caretaker with others – our peers, be they as young as 2 or as old as 92. We play together, we explore together, we collaborate, we learn – I mean, part of the thrill of being a 3rd-grader was when the whole class understood a new concept in concert – we were all excited, each of us an individual with greater or lesser intrinsic abilities but in that moment learning as one, together – the sum of us all was greater than our individual selves.

The same holds true for most adults. Millions of members of our Professional Managerial Class (the “PMC”) have worked remotely throughout the pandemic. Some fared well, others poorly. Those who fared well tended to be in stable relationships where they were isolated, yes, but not entirely alone; those who fared poorly were either entirely alone, lacking family or friends with whom to create a pandemic “bubble,” or in failing/failed relationships which provoked much unhappiness and provided little comfort. Understandably, the latter are hankering to return to “the office,” to a social world which provides interest, stimulation, distraction, and at least some solace from troubles at home.

In the absence of real-life social interaction, both children and adults have resorted to a simulacrum of fractured, interrupted relations: online communities. Here, however, we have duplicated and unfortunately exacerbated a significant pre-pandemic social issue, i.e. a tendency to gravitate towards forums/spaces where we feel most “comfortable.” Liberals subscribe to liberal online publications/news feeds and survey liberal websites; ditto for conservatives, of course, and for progressives and far-right conservatives – the overlap between progressive/liberal sites/sources and between conservative/far-right sites/sources has gotten smaller, not larger, throughout the last year. How many of us spend significant time checking out what the other side is making of current affairs, what they’re focusing on, what they feel is most important today, this week, this month, this past year?

And what does this narrowing of focus signify for our return to the physical commons, once we return to work and gyms and clubs and church groups and school board meetings and restaurants and cultural events and … well, wherever we choose to go once we’re able, once COVID-19 has been tamed by natural means or once we reach herd immunity through mass vaccination programs?  

Are we returning in the belief that the game’s not rigged against us (i.e. with the expectation that the dispensation of society’s goods / sanctions will be reasonably fair), or that it’s even more rigged than before? Are we returning with more tolerance for the Other – be that the irritating person whose desk is next to ours at the office, the show-off at the gym who worked out for two hours daily over the past year, or the shrill mother complaining because “some” students can no longer “keep up” with the curriculum, and that’s harming her child?

When the pandemic struck the West last March and it became clear that students – and millions of adults – weren’t going to be able to return to school/the office anytime soon (the West’s generalized failure to respond in a timely/appropriate/decisive manner to COVID-19 should by now be obvious), we believed that the most appropriate response-in-lieu-of-any-effective-response should have been for those in charge of education to hit the “pause” button.

That, of course, didn’t happen, but the decision by newly-inducted Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona that the yearly “Big Test” would be administered as planned this spring is pointless and in some sense cruel. Who believes that children who have lost loved ones (nearly 600,000 deaths now), whose parents have been largely absent because they – in contrast to PMC parents – were deemed “essential workers” (essential, but not really deserving of recognition by enhanced pay and benefits), will do as well as the children whose parents hired tutors, or formed “learning pods,” or rushed to exclusive summer enclaves to enroll their offspring in private schools that remained more-or-less open? The Department and its collaborators in the high-stakes, for-profit testing industry claim that the tests are necessary so that students’ “learning loss” can be assessed and remedial programs designed (in many cases by these same for-profit companies or their offshoots) so students can “catch up.” Does anyone doubt what the test will demonstrate, viz. that students in our poorest districts, whether urban or rural, whose parents didn’t have the luxury of staying home and supervising their remote learning experience, whose access to remote learning may well have been negatively impacted by inadequate or non-existent broadband connections, will not do well on the standardized tests? And for that matter, what does “well” even mean in such unprecedented circumstances?

Thousands of the 13,000-odd school districts across the country are already engaged in planning for remedial summer sessions (hoping against hope the pandemic will retreat in the next eight weeks, as if they’ve learned absolutely nothing from its course to date), but students don’t want to go back to school this summer. They want to go back to each other – to re-connect, to re-socialize, to re-discover their lost sense of self. There will be plenty of time to get back to school work and formal learning once social bonds are re-established. And the learning that takes place will be all the more effective once communal ties are re-established.  

Adults should heed what students claim they need, given that our needs are not all that different from theirs. When the pandemic passes – or when, as seems more probable, it retreats to a level deemed “acceptable” to the powers that be – we should re-connect with one another in person for any number of reasons every chance we get, even if masking and some degree of social distancing continue to be de rigueur.

Why? Because American adults’ social discourse commons, like our children’s, has been damaged in the pandemic. Already fractured and split into sharply-divided camps before the pandemic, some writers are now questioning whether our commons is already beyond rescue. These pessimists believe that the latest iteration of the liberal class (the PMC, the “Mandarins”, the “credentialed classes” – pick your pejorative) and the now-vast socio-economic divide are so great that there are almost no occasions for the working class – 70%-75% of the population – to interact with the top 25%-30% except in relations of dependency. The well-off, well-educated, and well-paid live apart and play apart; their code of behavior (based on purported “values”) is different, and not insignificantly, their children often exist separate from everyone else’s, whether in elite private schools or elite public ones protected from the poor (and their parents) by income segregation, which has now become a useful stand-in for racial segregation.

Where is the social commons? Well, it’s everywhere in the real world, but the locus where it’s critical we all return with a renewed commitment to tolerance – not performative tolerance, but actual, demonstrated tolerance – is the public commons, that raucous, contentious place where issues large and small deserve to be discussed, openly and respectfully but honestly, even perhaps in loud tones, over the months and years to come. There’s going to be plenty of contention, because we’re discussing issues critical to our survival, but it’s vital that everybody show up for the discussion. This means direct involvement in the life of the polis – politics – and breaking through the barriers now protecting and segregating decision-takers from those who have to live with their decisions.

How did we all learn to participate in this commons? Where do we all come together as children, to make friends and enemies (to embrace the former and tolerate the latter), to share in the joy of discovery, creativity, friendship, companionship – togetherness – to collaborate, succeed and sometimes, fail? Where’s that place where for 12 years American children come together to learn, including learning how to become full-fledged members of the social discourse commons?

Yep – public school, the training-ground par excellence for a well- and variously- informed, rational, tolerant citizenry, the bedrock prerequisite for the continued existence of an open and lively public discourse commons.

The success of the adult commons depends directly on its predecessor, and that’s one reason the stark income disparities that increasingly characterize the U.S. don’t bode well for the future. If our children don’t play together, learn together, and collaborate/compete together when they’re very young, the chances they’ll be able to do so as 30- or 40-year-olds become significantly impaired. When rich and poor children study and learn and play – and quarrel, yes, that’s part of life – with one another from the age of five, by the time they’re 25 they understand one another far better than if they’d never come in contact. They speak one another’s language – and as any good rhetorician knows, if you don’t speak the other’s language there’s no hope of ever finding common ground.

Public school is the most egalitarian social institution societies have hit upon to induct their members into what it means to be full and equal participants in the social commons. Public schools remain the sole effective preparation we know of for active, life-long membership in the body politic by the majority of citizens/residents. And said schools should be integrated and reflect both the racial and socio-economic demographics of their locale, with every school appropriately funded by its district, state, and the federal government to ensure that the poorest student in any school is deprived of no opportunity offered.  

Here’s how an education blogger we admire but have not had occasion to cite put it:

“Early in the 20th century, public schools had been established serving every community from coast to coast. The results from this vast American public education experiment shine like a lighthouse beacon on the path of Democracy and social happiness. A nation that entered the century as a 2nd rate power ended the century as the undisputed world leader in literacy, economy, military power, industrial might, cultural influence and more.

“Today, unbelievably, more and more forces are agitating to undo public education and even American Democracy itself.”

When we emerge from our pandemic silos, we must rejoin the social discourse commons to preserve both that commons itself, which makes liberal democracy possible, and its foundational institution: public schools.  

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