When will things return to normal? all of us have asked, plaintively, more than once, as we’ve seen the repeated delays, new variants, and so on perpetuate the cloud of Covid yet another season. A return to normal for the paradigmatic activities of human life—for weddings and funerals, for breaking bread with our friends, for work and worship and business; for these a return to normal can’t come soon enough.
But then there are other domains—activities, industries, systems—where Covid has been not so much an inhibiting muzzle on normally flourishing activities as a spotlight revealing sickness, dysfunction, and decay.
In these domains, the rot was generally perceptible pre-Covid but the pandemic brought it unignorably into view. Pandemic preparedness, for example, and the inexcusable failure of the CDC spring to mind. Or the vulnerabilities of supply chains—the insanity that medications keeping millions of Americans alive were dependent on foreign manufacture, for example. Or the determined narrative control by the media, increasingly brazen over the last years, but intensified further still with masks, vaccines, and lockdowns; the policing of what you are allowed to say and what you can’t; and the deeply disturbing politicization of public health.
But perhaps above all Covid has revealed profound dysfunction in education: local officials, teachers’ unions, the whole system at large, have been a disaster. Many children lost more than a year of school and associated core function development; worse still, that cost was borne especially heavily—and will be in the future, too, as the deficit compounds over time—by the most vulnerable, by those with the least help or ability to adapt.
But that systemic failure in education was less a result of the pandemic than it was the manifestation of longstanding disease. Average outcomes have been weak to mediocre by nearly any measure for decades. And those average outcomes, mediocre though they are, hide much worse, more broken, and sadder realities still. There are vast numbers at the bottom: millions of children with life-alteringly low levels of literacy, numeracy, and civic and cultural education.
The system has been failing for decades. But then, during the pandemic, we didn’t have even that! Schools were closed, or open only intermittently, for more than a year.
But how did we get to a point where something of such paramount importance as the education of the young was left in the hands of those who cared—or at least were able to do—so little about it?
In higher education, too, the handling of Covid has been disastrous, as students were essentially defrauded by institutions that pretended their remote offerings were of adequate or even equivalent value to the in-person education they replaced. The hubris of this pretense was breathtaking.
But they overplayed their hand.
There are times when you might continue to put up with a dysfunctional relationship or system just because you’ve gotten used to it, and were unaware there were alternatives: thinking, “this is just how relationships are, people are abusive and mean,” or that “this is just how food is, stale and overpriced,” or “this is what a home is, ugly and dark.” But then along comes a bracing encounter—perhaps things get suddenly worse, becoming consciously intolerable; or perhaps you have an experience of real love or beauty or belonging—that jolts you into recognizing that things were not as they were meant to be, that there must be another way; that you were made for something more.
For many, the pandemic was such an event. At the primary and secondary level, the failing educational system to which we had been accustomed—even that, suddenly was gone, with parents completely powerless to bring it back.
But if you starve people long enough, they’ll start growing food again. The suppression of even a failing and exploitative system led to the recognition for many parents that they could do it themselves. Why send my kids into the hands of an essentially abusive and wildly ineffective system at all?
Faced with the frustrations and inconsistencies of school shutdowns, I know several parents who simply got together with a few other families, pooled their money to hire a teacher and started their own one-room school houses in their living rooms.
When you can hire a Ph.D. in physics as a math tutor, a classicist for Latin, both for modest expense over the internet, then mix in some history and music, a lot more literature and free play, and thereby offer your children an education superior to any school in the country—why not just do that?
Those, I know, were options not everyone had. But my point is that although the situation had been bad for decades, it was only the shutdowns that finally necessitated a search for alternatives and broke the psychological hold of the status quo.
Many of these trends, of course, were well underway in K-12 before the pandemic hit: home schools, classical schools, charter schools, even unschooling—but the systemic failure during Covid, combined with the bandwidth revolution, have fundamentally changed the game.
So too in higher education. Why pay $50k for an online education that could be had for a small fraction of that? Why submit to the low-grade credentialing and soul-diminishing indoctrination in the first place?
What the past year has revealed, in other words, is that we’re under no obligation to return to the status quo. We will, of course, at last resume the too-long suppressed activities of weddings and funerals and of breaking bread together, and so on; many of us have gone far too long without those.
But there is no reason to return to an essentially abusive and exploitative and madly ineffective educational system, wasting our money and demeaning the souls of our children and youth and fundamentally betraying our country and culture.
No. What Covid has made clear is that the future doesn’t need to look like the past.
In fact, not even the past looks like the past. Our bloated, ossified, high-cost, unresponsive and ineffective system is in fact highly anomalous by historical standards.
Aristotle, Alexander the Great, Dante, Galileo, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Johann Sebastian Bach, Napoleon Bonaparte, Thomas Jefferson, Mark Twain, Ben Franklin, Jane Austen, Abraham Lincoln, Ada Lovelace, Steve Jobs, and Maya Angelou: These people had diverse material circumstances, educational backgrounds, and lived in very different times. But do you know what none of them had? A four-year college degree.
Is it not possible that the experiences and institutions that shaped them—from homeschooling to apprenticeships to tutors to vocational schools to religious organizations to boarding schools to self-instruction to a year or two of college—might serve as models for the cultivation of talent again today?
Our current one-size-fits-all approach to higher education—rigid, four-year degree programs steeped in activist ideology, all at exorbitant cost—has been failing badly and for too long.
Tuition has increased 500 percent in the last 30 years, nearly eight times faster than wages. Meanwhile, the effort to increase access through federally-backed student loans has only incentivized further increases in cost and corresponding debt—perversely saddling those least able to carry it with the heaviest burdens and the worst outcomes.
Nor have we lacked for clear-headed assessment of the problems. William F. Buckley sounded the alarm in 1952 with God and Man at Yale. Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Education in the West, which could have been written yesterday, followed in 1965; Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind in 1985; while Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, a history of the academy’s ideological takeover, and the long march through the institutions it made possible, appeared more than 20 years ago.
But while the problems of higher ed have been apparent—and seemed intractable—for nearly a century, three major historic developments have lined up to create the conditions now for widespread reimagination and reform
First, there is the quickly growing awareness of the corruption and cost, the ineffectiveness, and debilitating indoctrination of our institutions of higher education; of their upstream influence over every other aspect of our culture from the media to the boardroom; and of the failure of efforts to reform from within. We have reached a tipping point.
Second, there is a bandwidth revolution: the technological breakthroughs in the transfer of information. The internet and accompanying technologies enable us to do things we never imagined possible, to connect people anywhere, and at very low cost. It is bigger than Gutenberg.
Third, there is the crisis of meaning: We live at an historic inflection point in which millions of people are seeking answers to the loneliness and fragmentation, the degradation and alienation of our world. One needn’t look further than my friend Jordan Peterson to see how great that yearning is—for deeper forms of self-understanding, and more spiritually substantial forms of life. There is a tidal wave of demand.
Each of these is a major historic development of its own; but together they create unprecedented conditions for revolutionary innovation and reform.
Young people—and the not so young—are clamoring for alternatives. How indeed could it be otherwise? Our deepening civic alienation and cultural degradation have people of all ages starved for understanding, for depth and purpose worthy of their own sacred lives.
The pandemic has revealed deep dysfunction, but the real story isn’t Covid-19, but the state of fatal disrepair it has revealed. For at stake in education is not a mere component of our cultural infrastructure, but its most vital activity, its lifeblood: at once the means of individual realization and of the handing on of memory, of knowledge and wisdom from old to young.
Inaction in the face of educational failure is thus the sign of ultimate surrender: the end of the road.
And yet, from slumbering fatalism, and decades of passivity in the face of deepening crisis, we now have a chance to emerge. But that opportunity is also an existential necessity. The realization of each individual, those living now and those yet to come, and the life of our culture, our civilization itself, all depend upon it.
Stephen Blackwood is president of Ralston College.