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David Bouchier: College On Hold

Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay

Labor Day always seems like a paradoxical holiday – dedicated on the one hand to the history of work and labor unions, and on the other had to fun and idleness. But on the first Labor Day in 1852 the two things came together: first the parade and serious speeches from union leaders, and then a big picnic and concert to round the day off. This year just about everything has changed. The Trade Union movement is all about solidarity, and that’s just what we don’t have with millions out of work, or working at home or in the so-called gig economy. They are, quite literally, on their own. As for the picnic and the concert, social distancing has put an end to them. So today is just a date on the calendar, when the post office will be closed and people will take advantage of the three-day weekend to stay at home and not visit their relatives.

Among the biggest losers are college-age students. For tens of thousands of teenagers this would have been the first of many weeks away from home and family, as they settled into college dorms and began the process of metamorphosis from awkward high school students into sophisticated graduates. Entering your first dorm room must be a truly magic moment. At last you have your own space, away from parental supervision and you are free to make your own mistakes, including mistakes that your parents never even thought of. Thousands of other sons and daughters are there too. This will be the party of a lifetime. That’s why parents are usually paranoid at this time of year, and with good reason.

Colleges and universities are in a state of complete uncertainty about how to handle COVID, but most of them seem to have opted for online teaching. In other words no dorm room, no big party, and no escape from the family. It must be a huge disappointment. Staying at home in your room in front of a laptop is no substitute for the college experience. We could be in danger of creating a generation of solitary, unsociable teenagers like the self-isolated Hikkimori of Japan or the Honjok (“alone tribe”) of South Korea.

The good news is that college is not compulsory, like school. College can wait, for years if necessary, as it did for me and for the eight million veterans who benefited from the GI Bill to get a late education after 1945. College at 17 or 18  is not fate, and it may not even be the right thing at the right time. There are plenty of other choices some of them, I can say from personal experience, much more interesting. A lot of successful people have jumped off the educational conveyor belt for a while without ruining their lives.

It would cause disruption in the higher education system, of course, but there’s already plenty of that. Unemployed professors could occupy themselves by writing the definitive academic study of their subject that they have been putting off for the last several decades, so everyone would benefit.

Colleges and universities must guarantee that students who take a COVID sabbatical for a while don’t lose out on the place of their choice. They should receive vouchers like those we get for postponed airline flights, allowing them to return at any time within, say, 10 years. In 10 years they will be too old for the 24-hour party but just the right age for serious, and safe, higher education. It’s worth thinking about.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.