Opinion | ‘Don’t Lose Hope’: Addressing the Breakdown of College Education

Linda D. Garrow

When the college returned to “normal” this year, they overlooked the fact that they have a sophomore class of isolated, anxious, depressed kids. The freshmen got the usual orientation. Sophomores were expected to just adapt.

J.M.: The pandemic severed countless human connections, quietly causing untold harm. Isolation is a major obstacle to the purpose of college, because “the transformative ends of higher education” depend on relationships, including peer relationships, as the researchers Peter Felten and Leo M. Lambert show in their book, “Relationship-Rich Education.”

Gathering people in the same place obviously risks viral transmission, but it also permits modes of learning and mentoring that are hard to replicate any other way. Tyler Burkhardt, a student at the University of Texas at Dallas (where my wife teaches and where I taught last year), told me that when he was taking remote classes, he missed the spontaneous interactions with his peers. Online, he said, “there’s not that network of people to continue interacting with after the class to keep that knowledge fresh and keep applying it.” As a result, he said, he retained less of what he’d learned.

Molly, Chicago: As a college student at a private institution, our course loads are rigorous and the academics demand discipline. We are also expected to get internships and jobs to launch our careers. We are being asked to do all of this at a time of mass trauma. This is on top of the mismanagement of Covid cases currently going on at our school.

In many ways, I have become a far more disciplined student than before the pandemic, but I have to be in order to achieve at my pre-pandemic level. Many of my friends talk about having a much worse memory than before the pandemic and many report burnout. Some people are far too dismissive of the experiences that college students currently face. I would ask for some more compassion.

J.M.: Nothing has been easy in the last two years: learning, teaching, parenting, working. College can seem trivial in such times. What’s the point of analyzing lines of Milton when so many are dying? I wish it were possible for my students to see the 50 or 80 minutes we spend together as a refuge. The world’s pain and fear are not going away, but here we are, a community of learners, figuring out things that have mattered to people for ages.

Molly, don’t lose hope. Learn as much as you can, and take as much pleasure in it as you can. The fact is, our society is going to need people like you and your peers who are capable, compassionate and disciplined. Addressing the long-term aftermath of the pandemic, not to mention numerous other problems, will require all the brainpower and commitment we can muster. No, it won’t be easy to finish your degree in the current conditions, and things are unlikely to get easier after you graduate. But you’re now in a position to become someone who will do much good for the world. I know you can.

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