Why We Need Campuses06-04-2020
With the shift to virtual classrooms during the pandemic many are questioning the necessity of physical campuses, and speculating about the future of online learning. But these speculations are shortsighted. They overlook the importance of physical space for learning, and they move from an understanding that education is something to be bought and sold. In reality, online learning fuels inequality, and is exacerbated by economic disparity, access to technology, and home stability, the very things a campus provides.
Teaching online the past few months has made it abundantly clear why online education cannot replace classroom learning and the residential college experience. As I have carried on lecturing from my living room, I have watched the conditions of inequality unfold on the screen before me. I’ve seen students hide in closets for quiet (and be interrupted); I’ve seen students sitting in a living room with three other people milling about; I’ve seen students lying in bed despondent; and I’ve seen students in luxury Manhattan lofts hand-delivered snacks in the middle of class. The physical space of learning is essential to the quality of education. Arendt was attentive to this in her essay on the crises of education, when she argued "we must decisively divorce the realm of education from the others, most of all from the realm of public, political life …"
The private sphere of the home cannot replace the physical space of a classroom. When students walk into a classroom and sit down at the table to learn, discuss, and debate, they appear before one another as equals. For an hour and a half the only thing they have to focus on is what is happening in front of them. The space of the classroom minimizes distractions, increases attention, and affects student morale. Now that students have been forced to return home, many are also full-time workers in addition to being full-time students. Many students have been forced to find a job in order to pay rent and support their families, while caring for elders, providing childcare, and doing housekeeping. And even if students have time at home “to come to class” that doesn’t mean they have access to reliable high-speed internet, or a computer.
The space of the campus provides students with secure housing, a stable environment, food stability, reliable internet access, and flexible time. Many students who go to college do not come from a home with these goods. It is easy to take “home” for granted when you come from a stable home environment. For many students, the prospect of going away to college gives students hope for a better future. In the wake of Coronavirus, students who come from circumstances like these have been forced to choose between returning home and being homeless. And Students trying to learn under such conditions have lost much more than their education—they’ve lost safety, security, and a chance for personal growth. And now, some of these students might not return to college in the fall.
Yes, the pandemic provides universities an opportunity to explore technology in creative ways to enhance classroom learning, but we must protect the physical space of the campus so that students from less fortunate circumstances have access to education and a better life at all. Those who see online learning as a way to make college more affordable overlook the experience of going to college, the opportunities campuses provide, and the real reasons why college has already become less accessible and affordable: high tuition, high fees, high aid, in an economy where the cost of student loan debt outweighs future job prospects. For too long colleges and universities have treated education like a for-profit business. Faculty are not service providers. Students are not customers. If we persist in this mindset, only those at the very top of the social and economic hierarchy will have access to education. And access cannot become a euphemism for enrollment numbers, which do not reflect equality of access.
A college education in America has always been about more than a path to upward social and economic mobility. A college education represents the possibility of a future that does not yet exist, and it promises that things do not have to be the way that they are. A good education has never been about the raw accumulation of knowledge and facts; it is about expanding the imagination, the work of understanding, and building the world in common. This cannot happen when education is relegated to the private sphere, where learning is something that only happens in front of a computer.