Whose Education is Deemed Disposable During the Pandemic?

Author: Teresa Mettela (Left Leaning)

Can We Make Education Equitable? 

I believe that we can start by ridding ourselves of the need for “individual welfare.” We need to pick a good major, to find a good job, to make a decent living. This mentality is what divides people in the United States; it is the commodification of education. Rather, we should view college as the social fabric of our society. We should develop a language of higher education that moves from individualism to collectivism

Cathy Davidson, an American scholar and professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, whose work focuses on education and the digital age, recently headed a panel discussion that focused on this very idea. She introduced the event’s main topics: COVID, education, inequality, and race. Starting off the conversation, Carla Shedd, professor of sociology and urban education at The Graduate Center, unpacked the question, “Whose education is deemed disposable during COVID?” Shedd made the distinction between CUNY and Ivy League institutions as well as public and private universities. It was shocking to see the range of responses from colleges regarding students’ possible “reetry.”

Shedd was quick to say, “COVID made clear what these universities’ perspectives are. What are their missions in the name of education?” 

Tressie Cottom, co-host (with Roxane Gay) of the podcast Hear to Slay, continued the conversation by explaining which students have been impacted by the changes in education due to the pandemic. Cottom was firm in her notion that “we cannot let go of the ideal college student.” She mentioned that, in higher education, most students are female and rely on granted services such as childcare, healthcare, and transportation to function within society. It was upsetting – not surprising – to hear that universities turn up their noses at such students. 

On the topic of “Inequality, Race, and Education,” Cottom made the point that students are seven times more likely to drop out of school for economic reasons – it is a difference of having or not having $200. When Cottom read aloud this statistic, I recalled Ranita Ray’s book “The Making of a Teenage Service Class: Poverty and Mobility in an American City.” In her text, Ray explores and debunks stereotypes placed on economically marginalized black and brown youth, specifically focusing on drugs, gangs, teen parenthood, and education. Ray documents the daily happenings of youth in Port City. One of the teens, Angie, is constantly sacrificing her education for a decent job. Although Angie does everything in her power to attend classes, complete homework, and make connections, she is forced to drop out due to external factors. Transportation, family, financial status, and romantic relationships all affect Angie’s ability to complete high school and even apply to college. These are factors that Angie cannot control! 

It seems that Angie, as well as many other high school and college students, are presented with a “mobility puzzle” in order to pursue higher education. Some puzzle pieces do not fit together while others are missing; some puzzle pieces are misrecognized by the youth as they fail to understand the requirements for educational and occupational opportunities. This pressure to pursue higher education coupled with the individualistic mindset and accountability forces today’s youth to make irreconcilable choices when it comes to their academic careers. 

Let us not forget that schools and universities serve as important public forums. With the rise of the pandemic, these pillars of education are forced to close, drastically altering the livelihoods of many individuals. 

“The education disruption has had, and will continue to have, substantial effects beyond education,” says the United Nations Policy Brief for August 2020. “Closures of educational institutions hamper the provision of essential services to children and communities, including access to nutritious food, affect the ability of many parents to work, and increase risks of violence against women and girls.”

That being said, it was incredibly refreshing to hear Shedd and Cottom talk about changing the discourse surrounding education in America. They mentioned this idea of “individual wish fulfillment” and how we (as a society) are only concerned about personal economic growth. 

In fact, Davidson elaborates on this idea in her book, “The New Education: How to Revolutionize the University to Prepare Students for a World In Flux.” She writes that her students often face a quarter-life crisis in which “throw twenty-fifth birthday parties to commemorate their collective indecision and existential sense of uselessness.” Although her students graduate with degrees and perfect grades, job prospects are low. Davidson notes that even students who attend school to gain specific work experience are still struggling to find jobs within their field, pay off student loans, contribute to society, and compete with fellow peers.  

“That goal of higher education is greater than workforce readiness. It’s world readiness,” says Davidson. 

We need to revolutionize schools and universities so that they don’t teach students how to test, rather how to succeed in an uncertain world. Currently, in our individualistic thinking, we forget that colleges and universities are more than buildings with professors and libraries, they are microcosms of information, communion, and wealth. Schools have the ability to correct so many wrongs in society.

“If we were putting more funding into these universities, we would be putting people on very different life trajectories,” says Shedd. 

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