Pruning the Beast: How a Virus Forced Us to Face the Inevitable — Nicole Sallak Anderson
In my early thirties, I threw out my bathroom scale. I could no longer tolerate the daily measuring of my weight-up a few pounds and my mood turned dry and cracked, like an old desert father’s skin, for the rest of the day. Down a few pounds and I suddenly though I was Cindy Crawford. After twenty years of measuring my worth through the size of my body, this was a game I could no longer tolerate and gone it was. As long as I fit in my favorite pants, I’m good. If I can’t button them, something needs to change.
I’ve taken the same approach with the quarantine-I don’t measure it by counting the days. Am I allowed to move about freely? No? Then I’m still in quarantine. That’s enough data for me.
On this day, the 27th of April, in the 20th year of the second millennium of the common era, I’m still not allowed to move freely and thus, am still in quarantine. As the days blur into one, I have to admit I’m equal parts incredulous, dreamy, and out of fucks. But mostly I’m amazed that the entire First World has made the choice, conscious or not, to destroy many of the systems we rely on for modern life. Sure you can Zoom, and most white collar professionals will survive this quarantine as a result, but the cracks are already forming in the foundations of our civilization. Our prolonged hiding is in fact doing what we feared- culling the herd. Perhaps not actual human deaths yet, flattening that curve is the point of quarantine after all. But in exchange for our lives, we’ve somehow done the impossible, and have all bowed out of the systems of civilization, for better or worse. From the safety of our homes we will watch them fall and tumble to the ground and like Humpty Dumpty, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men will probably be unable to put them back together again.
Strange enough, this action of abandoning systems to their ruin has been on the agenda for some time. The great pruning of the beast of human progress always comes when needed. Of this, we can be sure. Whether it be nature or an act of human defiance, when one era is finished, it is finished.
I’ve been writing a journal to my college-aged sons during this time. Something they can read in the future. Yesterday’s letter was about their decision to defer attendance this fall should the universities remain closed. Yes, they’re Zooming now, but each of them feels it is no replacement for the college experience. It’s the professors, location, friendships, and facilities we’re paying big bucks for. The online experience gives you the curriculum, but only a bit of it. Paying full price for this product is outrageous. Moreover, the eldest will be a senior next fall and has to complete a thesis in physics to graduate. Without the labs, he can’t take the classes needed, nor can he run the experiments he’s interested in. They have state of the art labs, and even a nuclear reactor. I have an old telescope I got him for his 12th birthday that is so covered in dust, you can’t see the trees much less the stars. He chose his school specifically for the senior thesis experience. So if they don’t open, he’ll defer a year and graduate in 2022 instead of 2021. The younger one is considering the same path.
My heart breaks for them and all the young adults we’ve sent home, most without work. Competing in a market where 20+ million and counting are out of work is insane. The only jobs functioning right now are white collar ones you can do from home, and those require-you guessed it-a degree. So home they will stay, millions of them, without work, without their friends, postponing their adulthood. It’s a shame, it’s heartbreaking, but as a society, we’ve chosen this path. Yes, less of us will die of Covid-19 sheltering-in-place, but we must also accept the price we’re willing to pay-an entire generation of young adults on hold, like butterflies in amber, waiting for their next act to begin.
How will our universities survive? Can they handle an enrollment drop like this? I’m sure my kids aren’t the only ones considering taking a year off. Anyone with sense is considering it. What if 2/3 of the upcoming freshman class defer? What if 2/3 upcoming seniors do the same? How about the ones in the middle? What will happen to higher education as their income reduces to a pittance of what they’re used to?
I imagine it will start with cuts. There’s so much bloat within universities and colleges-administration, special offices for special conditions, majors with no enrollment anyway, fancy dorms, exercise facilities, and recreation centers. When my boys were touring colleges I was amazed at the resort like feel that most schools, especially public ones, had. Luxury at every turn. But do our kids need that? Labs, facilities, professors, and a bed to sleep in, yes. The rest? I wonder, I wonder.
And what about the toxic aspects of this system-admissions and cost. After going through it with two boys, I’m of the opinion that the college admissions process is an act of shattering the very souls of our children, pitting them against themselves and each other, writing stupid, self-important essays, joining every damn club they can, taking 12 AP tests, the SAT three times, SAT subject tests, and basically destroying the high school experience. Now that cycle is on hold, waiting like an inhale held until one’s face turns purple. This current year of juniors in high school can’t take proctored tests. Their activities are cancelled. Their classes are online. ALL OF THEM. Our children have needed us to call bullshit on the admissions process for a long time. Like the story of Swimmy, such an action required the majority of us to step off the endless cycle of madness, take a breath, and reconsider-and this is what the quarantine is doing. Crashing the system.
Did we do this because we loved our children and wanted a healthier college admissions process? Did we cancel school so that we might reconsider the effects it has on their health? Did we protest and organize a halt to the process for them? No. This only happened because an act of nature closed all of life. As a result, next year’s college admissions will change, for how do you assess a group of kids with less AP scores, activities, and volunteer work? How can they find the cure to cancer, found a startup, or march across the world for hunger when they’re stuck at home with mom and dad? What exactly are they all going to write about? How they survived the great pandemic of our age via Tik Tok? I wouldn’t want to be that admissions officer. Thousands of essays on how they made the most of this dreadful situation.
No, the colleges will have to do admissions differently for the class of 2021, and everyone after that for as long as we keep our schools closed, and this may improve the process for all our students going forward. Once these kids prove that they’re great college students even if don’t have sixteen activities on their resume, perhaps we can let go of the bullshit and let college admissions be about them and not us?
It’s the same with tuition. Universities will have lower enrollment if the schools remain closed, that’s guaranteed, but for those who do stay enrolled, is it right to charge full price for something that’s half the value? Especially those who don’t receive aid or scholarships, what’s the incentive?
I’m worried for my sons, yet higher education was turning in upon itself like the Ouroboros with the rising costs and high stakes admissions. As the world takes a break, so will they, and who knows what it will look like on the other side.
There are so many other systems quaking and trembling as we take cover in our homes. I think of the oil prices crashing while the atmosphere is clearing. I think of the health insurance system struggling, due to high Covid-19 costs, lack of people paying into the system (many of those 20+ million unemployed lost their insurance with their jobs and their premiums have vanished from the books), and reduced use of all other medical services except the ER at this time. Yet the insurance business has made health nearly impossible for millions, so perhaps all of us wealthy ones refusing their services unless we’re really, really, really in need is what was needed to break it and send it crashing down the stairs.
Death is unavoidable in our current situation. Whether it be people or systems, the great pruning has begun. We all knew this had to happen, one way or another, we just didn’t have what it took to kill the systems ourselves. In this way, Covid-19, like all other viruses of the past, is fulfilling its destiny-forcing humanity to change, one way or another.
Originally published at https://nicolesallakanderson.com on April 27, 2020.