One of the most positively insane things that has been happening, in the background of the larger COVID pandemic, is the extreme set of restrictions being adopted by the most elite universities in the United States, regarding COVID. The restrictions at universities like Stanford, Harvard, Brown and MIT would make one’s head reel. The whole gamut of interventions, regardless of efficacy (because there are none that are meaningfully efficacious and beneficial for the age cohort of most college students — ages 18-26) are always applied. And when a new one pops up, it is resoundingly trumpeted and enacted. These range from the more reasonable (100% vaccination requirements) to the totally bonkers (Harvard wants students to not gather in more than groups of three, and replace their masks in between bites of a sandwich.) Deans of Medicine, like Ashish Jha of Brown, are some of the worst, smugly and resolutely saying every ridiculous NPI that he can dream up, must be held in place.
These types of policies and pronouncements make no sense from any physical perspective. This excellent op-ed by one of the rational champions of our current debate, Vinay Prasad, at UC-San Francisco, makes this point at this link. Vinay’s still in the Matrix, though, talking about the need for Random Control Trials of policies I’m sure he knows bend physical reality to the breaking point. Word, Vinay — when the gods want to punish you, they grant you your wishes. Do you really want to pull apart hundreds of BS RCTs on COVID for the rest of the pandemic?
But he does do a little poking at the lattice of the Matrix in this comment at the end:
“A final point worth considering is why colleges impose these rules. While widespread testing can be beneficial for understanding the prevalence of a disease, these policies aren’t based in compelling evidence and seem more targeted at another goal. Such policies are unlikely to please most students, but much more likely to appeal to the sensibilities of their parents. The most parsimonious explanation then is that elite schools cater to elite parents, and they are engaging in these policies to give parents the comfort that their child is safe — while no one on earth knows if the policies help, and more importantly, if they are worth the price of life interrupted.”
It’s a start, and it’s close enough, I’d give him half a cigar.
What we’re really looking at here is the end game of Elite Risk Minimization — the idea that the elites would make the rest of us jump through whatever hoops to minimize whatever minuscule risk they might have of actually catching and dying of COVID. Prasad is right — you better believe that parents are calling the Duke University President’s office with their “concerns”. Except it’s likely not the parents of the poor kid that won the academic lottery and got a scholarship. When I was at Duke, the granddaughter of Enzo Ferrari was also there. And yeah, she drove a sky blue 308 GTS, if memory serves. Those people are now demanding protection from the rest of the students. It’s an Elite Risk Minimization fractal cascade — the end game of the Legalistic/Absolutistic status-chasing v-Meme. If you’ve always wondered if these same contemporary elites would engage in the Hunger Games with each other, well, look no further.
It’s made worse by scholars at those self-same universities screaming for “lock-em-up” policies. People like Gavin Yamey, Professor of Global Health, have been the worst of the hysterics in the whole COVID college kid game. Any Emir that might send his kid to Duke need only log onto Twitter to find the ostensibly pre-eminent scholars at that same university demanding social isolation of the student body. And when not only your kid comes with a full-ride tuition, but the prospect of the endowment of a series of full professorships, you better believe that when the Emir calls, that President is going to do something. S/He’s not feeling the pain of the rest of the student bodies in his or her care.
Meanwhile, Presidents out here in land-grant land are stuck with an entirely different dilemma. Because of their problems with the academic version of Skynet — the US News and World Report College Ranking edition — they’re slavishly forced, kinda like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, to follow whatever the elite institutions are doing. Except now, they’re looking at a real Survival v-Meme situation. The commonly held belief, even inside WSU’s modestly covered Ivy walls, is that students are also terrified of catching COVID. But I have it from pretty sage authority — my own students — that they’re not. In fact, most feel tremendously cheated, and are extremely angry about even the restrictions that are currently imposed in state universities in Blue States. Everyone just assumes that the students are stupid and don’t understand the actual risk of COVID, a profoundly age-stratified virus. But they do — and many have told me that if they lock us down again, they’re going to walk.
Personally, I doubt many students in my class would actually do that — my Industrial Design Clinic is, after all, full of graduating seniors. And most of them are deep in debt, and then to not receive their degree in a professional field that requires a credential would be beyond ridiculous. But in the world of a declining benefit/cost ratio, with our numbers already tight, I’m guessing our own university president isn’t that stupid. He knows that it will start shaving enrollment, with the effect of sending students back to community college to watch Cougar Football on TV.
And we already have physical attendance dampers already in play. Being in a Deep Blue state, we already have crazy bullshit, like masks at football games, to contend with. Fun fact — unenforceable, as much for the fact that folks are eating, as well as they can’t round up enough Labor Ready folks at Home Depot for temporary security guards. The wage rate for such work is $14/hr., or something. Telling a college student drunk on Everclear and grape juice to put their mask back on, outside, potentially in the rain? Fuggedaboutit.
But students WILL put up with the constant boundary violation of PCR tests at places like MIT. They want that Gold Star for the good life. So they’ll shut up and go along. But they’re young people, too. We need them to have good brains — after all, they’re going to likely be the next bunch of elites running the show, considering how social mobility has essentially collapsed in the US. The real problem is never discussed in most of the media — that we’re taking what is one of the most profound social experiences any person will have in their life and turning it to shit.
And that has a larger consequence for all these young folks than just memories. Social connection wires the brain, and if you don’t believe that, I have no idea why you’re on this blog. What we’re really doing, by chasing the eradication of a respiratory virus already likely endemic, is we are making a whole group of young people, already tormented with the social fragmentation of education under the pall of school shootings, and whatnot, and making them fundamentally less well-wired for dealing with complexity. It’s never been solely about the degree at any university. It’s the social milieu that makes up for our often slipshod pedagogy, and packed classrooms. Their relationships they develop with each other are the real things that train young minds.
What, at some level, is equally amazing, is that none of these elite universities, many with impressive-on-paper medical schools and schools of public health, are not reflecting on the fact that history will not treat their rebarbative ignorance and refusal to update their understandings kindly. All of this profoundly draws into question their fundamental competence. And don’t get me started on their humility. It is true that COVID has been a sticky wicket since the beginning, and you can page back through my own writings to see both my successes, as well as failures in logic. And since it has to be said — none of that has to do with my formal academic training — not “staying in my lane.” But you’d hear nothing but hubris from the loudest voices, some of who must know that they’re wrong. At this point in the pandemic, it’s simply impossible not to.
As I wrap this up, I think I need to point out again that bucking compliance is not about how college kids will act in this scenario. Certainly not about the students at land-grant institutions. All my students, and yours truly as well, lined up to get our vaccinations, most of us before our recent governor’s mandate. At WSU, we are approaching 100% compliance with our vaccine mandate in the student population — or so my own inside sources tell me. So don’t give me this bunk about how college students can’t follow reasonable orders, or are fundamentally anti-authoritarian.
But if anyone thinks there are no downstream consequences of this profound demonstration of a lack of empathy, for what is truly Elite Risk Minimization, you are dreaming. The college students of today are the decision makers of tomorrow, and their memories will be long. They will remember how most of this was done in their name, but not for their benefit. And that will not make them feel kindly toward those of us that are old.
And I want someone to give a shit about how I feel when I’m forced to don my own lobster spit bib.