Benefits of in-person education outweigh COVID-19 risks

Larry P. Arnn
Published 11:00 p.m. ET Sept. 21, 2020

There may never have been a more foolish, expensive, and one-sided policy than the shutdowns during this pandemic. The cost of these shutdowns is beyond calculation, far greater than the 25% of the gross domestic product that we have borrowed to sustain our people while they are forbidden to work. Suicides are expected to go up. Mental health suffers. Cancer treatments are delayed. On and on.  

Nowhere is the disproportion between the cost and the benefit of these shutdowns more pronounced than in education. This disease is terrible for certain identified groups who are vulnerable, and it has killed many of them. But these groups do not include healthy, young people except in tiny numbers. 

Yet we have confined millions of young people to instruction over the internet, which is known to be inferior for most every subject and most every age group, and which isolates young people precisely at the time when they should be learning together. 

Take the case of higher education. There are many kinds of college arrangements today, but the kind that is best for learning that which is truly “higher,” that which considers our being and purpose, is the traditional form. The very word “college” means partnership. The literature on this matter is old and consistent and says that the relations between students in a college is as important or almost as important as the relations between teacher and student.

College is a galvanizing experience, made more intense by the friendships that, at least in a good college, revolve around the vital effort of the young to build their intellects and their characters for a good life. This is why young people thrive in a good college. This is why they remember it for the rest of their lives as among their best days. 

In a certain way, the work of young people is more urgent than that of the mature. Yes, adults carry the heaviest burdens and have the most experience and skill to do the hardest work. But young people are made for the work of education. They have boundless energy. They have endless curiosity. They have time to study things that transcend, and that study will also direct and inspire the ordinary work that they will do for most of their lives.

Youth is a wonderful but fleeting experience. To waste a moment of it is a shame, and every moment wasted will echo throughout the long course of their lives. I have had the privilege of spending most of my life in learned society seeking to learn myself. But those first years were the best, and they had the most impact because back then I had so much of my life before me. 

Very few people seem to understand this. It is at least as great a failure as the lack of sympathy shown to people whose businesses are wiped out; at least as great as ignoring millions who suffer while confined at home; at least as great as empty hospitals that go bankrupt while patients go without routine care.

It is even as bad as government officials making detailed descriptions of what we may buy, how we may travel or where we may sit. For a time here in Michigan, we were permitted to buy garden hoes but not seeds sold in the same store.  

Expert knowledge is marvelous as far as it goes, but it is necessarily narrow knowledge. The expert who spends 40 years studying pathogens and their spread is not likely to know much about the workings of a small business or the family it supports. Also, such experts are not likely to know much about the value to the young of pursuing their educations together and intensely. 

We should protect those we know to be vulnerable. And we should send the kids back to school. 

Larry P. Arnn is president of Hillsdale College.

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