June 2, 2020

Overabundance of Caution

This past week, Lori Lightfoot released her guidelines for safely opening Chicago’s restaurants as new COVID-19 infections begin to wane. The asks are onerous: plexiglass between tables, temperature checks upon entry, customers only being able to remove their masks once their food is served, and eliminating waiting areas and bar seating. By turning dining out into a grueling ordeal, the mayor’s new rules—like the CDC’s new recommendations for office spaces, some “impractical, if not near impossible” to implement, argues The New York Times—will likely collapse the industry they’re meant to salvage.

Should it open its doors in the fall, the University must not make the same mistake with its own public spaces and sense of physical community.

As we’ve learned through our quarter learning (and in my case, also teaching) on Zoom, our university’s life is about so much more than classroom instruction. In fact, it is perhaps primarily about chance encounters: with an old acquaintance in a study lounge or at a house party, with an unexpected book on some shelf in the Reg or Powell’s, with a beloved professor in a hallway or on 57th Street on a Saturday afternoon. This shouldn’t be surprising: True education is relational, as all the critics of the “banking model” from Paulo Freire to bell hooks have long told us, and it is such non-transactional relationships that certain shared public spaces make possible.

This is why, all fiscal cynicism aside, the best American universities mandate that their students reside at least initially on campus: the campus’s ambulatory lifestyle—one of the last truly pedestrian spaces in American life—is what permits certain pedagogical relational qualities to flourish. Our most important spaces as a scholarly community are thus the Reg, the main quad, the coffee shops that dot campus and, expanding our scope, Hyde Park’s many conversational haunts—Jimmy’s, our bookstores, our parks, the Point. Knowing, sharing, and bumping into one another in these spaces is what defines life as a University of Chicago student at any level, and that of most of our professors as well. We need these spaces as fish need water.

This is not waxing poetic or “why-can’t-we-get-back-to-normal”-ism: It is about the University’s institutional and economic survival. Aside from the overwhelming empirical evidence that in-person instruction, absent niche conditions, universally trumps tele-learning, the ongoing lawsuits throughout the country show that undergraduates are keenly (and rightly) aware that their college education’s “Zoomification” is daylight robbery. Undergraduates do not pay up to $80,000—an admittedly absurdly inflated sum—to read “the canon” in their bedrooms: They could do that on their own. What being a student at UChicago—or any great university—gives is the chance to cultivate oneself in an intensely intellectual, and intellectually successful, milieu, and that mainly through friendships. Graduate students like myself can sneer at this as mere “networking,” but if we’re honest, we’d admit that getting, say, a UChicago doctorate is valuable for the same reasons. As a Divinity School professor once told our entering cohort: After all, if you’d just wanted to write a book on your favorite obscure monk, you could’ve stayed at home. (We now feel the full weight of this witty aside.)

This means that, if the administration moves forward with fall reopening plans, maintaining students’ access to shared spaces, and ability to engage one another in those spaces, must remain a priority. It is not realistic, or right, to expect students to socially isolate from one another or to limit essential scholarly resources such as the Regenstein (and other University libraries). Recent library communiques have suggested, for example, that in-person visits to the Reg may be appointment-based and time-limited. This may be a good transitional solution—and is certainly better than nothing—but it cannot become long-term policy. The praxis of browsing the stacks, for example, of returning to collect new sources, and of perusing more volumes than one could possibly pick up “curbside” to get a sense of some scholarly landscape, is a basic humanistic method. One could say the same of shared lab benches in the natural sciences. Sharing research facilities with one’s peers for prolonged periods is just a core feature of what it physically means to be a student and scholar. It is needed.

To speak of these as needs is to challenge one of the most contested aspects of the political and societal response to COVID-19: our dividing human life into “essential” and “nonessential” activities. What boggles the mind here is not so much the categories themselves, but both what’s slotted into each and the mistaken belief that we can defer the “nonessential” forever. Through our duly elected representatives in Chicago, for example, we’ve decided that our ability to buy liquor is “essential,” but to use our own parks for exercise and a brief respite from cramped apartments is not. The same goes for our ability to meet family, friends, or lovers: that, too, is apparently “nonessential” to human life (as some now say). The result is that, even in the world’s most robustly democratic countries, discontent, goaded by extreme agendas, is boiling over.

Since it is clear that our federal (and in many cases state) governments are neglecting their civic responsibility to provide guidance, respected institutions like UChicago must embrace their trendsetting role. This means, first of all, recognizing that something like higher education is indeed essential to society’s well-being and should not only exist in fair-weather conditions. It also means recognizing that a shared social and physical life is essential to that educational mission. Our response to the pandemic must thus be guided by that reality—as opposed to us radically redefining the character of university life in search of a utopia of perfect safety.

This may come at a high logistical cost, such as universal COVID-19 testing of all returning students, staff, and faculty; large, randomly selected testing thereafter; and a robust contact-tracing program run by the University. It may also require new restrictions like an ongoing ban on international or even domestic travel, even if not on official University business (e.g. for Thanksgiving and winter break). We must also summon newfound levels of self-discipline and responsibility, such as by practicing meticulous personal hygiene.

The UChicago community is capable of these virtues, but only if their upkeep means to permit students and faculty to take part in those relational and, yes, social and physical practices at the core of our pedagogy and scholarship. Otherwise we will have not only betrayed our institutional principles but will find ourselves crafting restrictions that will not only be unlivable, but—absent the most draconian measures repulsive to a free society, such as RHs roaming the dorms to prevent late-night trysts—also ultimately unenforceable. If we are unable to bear this risk (legally or morally), we might as well delay.

Kristóf Oltvai is a student in the Divinity School.