Friday, 24 April 2020

As Higher Education Loses the War on Anti-Intellectualism and Greed, Aesthetics Are the Forgotten Casualty

When I was a high school senior choosing a college, one of my main criteria was aesthetics. I demanded a beautiful campus, with historic, ivy-covered buildings, with wood-framed chalkboards in the classrooms that hadn’t been replaced by ugly, modern whiteboards. I wanted formality, ideally academic robes, and the ability to live in a dormitory on a leafy, idyllic campus for all four years. I wanted to feel my place in a long line of scholars, going back to ancient Greece, soaking up knowledge from venerable library books that had served generations of learners. If Harry Potter had existed then, I would have said I wanted a university version of Hogwarts. Oxford or Cambridge clearly would have suited me best but, as an American, I sought out the most aesthetically-suitable of the New World options. Luckily, the U.S. does have a wide selection of historic colleges. But it might not have them for much longer. Higher education was already under threat in the United States before COVID-19, and it appears that the pandemic will serve as the final nail in the coffin, relegating the United States to the Third World status that its lack of an adequate social safety net has revealed it deserves.

Anti-intellectualism, manifested as a belief that your ignorance is as good as my knowledge, to paraphrase Asimov, has led to widespread denigration of the value of higher education. The Internet, potentially a way to equalise the dissemination of knowledge, has led to a devaluation of experts. “Why do I need to go to college when I have Google?” is the new excuse of the undereducated. Colleges are complicit in their own demise by offering not just individual courses online but entire online degree programs, up to and including doctoral level. Institutions saw online education as a way to increase revenue because online students don’t require campus facilities or staff, and courses can be taught by grossly underpaid adjuncts, who can be hired on a per-course basis, without the expense of benefits. A college can charge the same tuition for an online course as for the in-person version, but its costs are exponentially less.

The third fatal blow to higher education, after anti-intellectualism and online education, is the vocational attitude adopted by potential students and their parents in response to the outrageous costs of tuition and fees for a four-year undergraduate degree. A college education used to be the ticket to a white-collar job, and higher earnings than your high school-educated peers. But the 6-figure price tag of college, coupled with the lifelong indentured servitude of student loans, has driven students to think of themselves as customers, buying a degree that will lead to a job that pays enough to justify the expense of student loans. There is no intellectual curiosity, no learning for its own sake. Students go through the motions of taking classes, insistent that the money they’ve paid entitles them to passing grades in each course, and a degree, regardless of whether they have done any work or learned anything. They also require that degree to lead to a specific job. The result of this attitude is a drastic decline in the number of students majoring in the social sciences and humanities, and an increase in students choosing majors like nursing. When I went to college, I was told that what I majored in as an undergrad was largely irrelevant. The point was to receive a good liberal arts education that would imbue me with the writing, analytical, and critical thinking skills to embark on the career of my choice. Specialisation, I was told, should come in grad school. It’s impossible to imagine any high school senior being given that advice today.

This attitude of four years of college being an idyll of reading and intellectual discussions on a leafy campus harkens back to the days when higher education was the exclusive purview of the wealthy. Only those who did not need to make a living, who came from family money, had the leisure to study and learn. Indeed, no matter how intelligent you were, like poor Jude, you could not gain entry to a university in the UK unless you had the fortune to be born into the higher classes. I wasn’t; I was the child of a poor single mother, and female, both of which would have precluded my receiving any education at all in previous eras. 

So, I am not waxing nostalgic about a time when most people were excluded from university education. But there was a golden age in both Europe and the United States, after World War II, and the GI Bill, when higher education was opened to all, based on merit rather than money, sex, or class. That was a time when you could afford to go to college regardless of your background, and you could devote yourself to getting a liberal arts education rather than viewing higher education as vocational. Technical and vocational schools were for the non-college-bound, the electricians and hair dressers, a grey area between blue- and white-collar work that requires some training beyond high school. They serve as a modern replacement for apprenticeship.

Now, the pandemic has caused most colleges and universities in the United States to send students home to finish out the spring semester via online learning. Graduation ceremonies have been cancelled, and whether in-person learning will resume in the autumn is as yet undecided. Some high school seniors are choosing to take a gap year, attend school online or closer to home, or forego college altogether. Schools have been pressed to partially refund room and board money for the spring semester, and students are suing to recover a portion of their tuition, arguing that the hastily arranged online versions of their courses are not an equivalent learning experience. Federal aid has so far pumped $14 billion into schools that are haemorrhaging money, laying off staff and faculty, and facing potential closure, but it’s a drop in the proverbial bucket. Schools have requested $50 billion more,  just as an initial Band-Aid, with hundreds of billions more needed to keep them from closing if enrolment drops in the fall, as it is almost guaranteed to do.

That money will not be forthcoming from Congress so schools will close, and with their closure the traditional college experience will disappear forever. In a post-pandemic world, small colleges with quaint, picture-postcard campuses will have closed, and students will be stuck with dodgy online schools, community colleges, or big universities with ugly, modern buildings. The transfer of learning opportunities to new environments will deprive future students of the opportunity to spend four of their most formative years on the quad, learning purely for its own sake, enjoying an idyllic, transitional time between childhood and adulting, developing a moral compass, and a sense of their place in the history of learning. No online course can replicate having an engaging, intellectually-stimulating class in a historic building on a crisp autumn day, watching the leaves change outside the classroom windows. No more discussions spilling over into communal meals in the dining hall, followed by late night study sessions in the library, and deep conversations in the dormitory common rooms. These experiences are a vital part of the learning process; they cannot be replicated online nor in ugly, modern facilities.

I mourn the loss of the college campus and the traditional college experience. It's a vital part of growing up to be an intelligent, educated adult. I worry, from the perspective of historic preservation, what will happen to the campuses when so many schools close. But there isn't a damn thing I can do about it. The forces of anti-intellectualism and capitalist greed have won out over aesthetics and learning. Knowledge, as it turns out, isn't power. 

Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Post-Pandemic, Expect a Swift Return to Status Quo Ante

This pandemic should be a wake-up call to decrease economic inequality. Instead it will exacerbate it.

If every country had locked down sooner, the spread of the virus could have been arrested.

If the Chinese had recognised its pandemic potential sooner and prevented people from travelling abroad, it could have been contained within China.

If China had caught it even earlier, it might even have been contained within Hubei, the province where it originated.

If factory farms and consumption of wild animals had been eliminated after previous pandemics, we’d have fewer zoonotic viruses to fight.

If the virus hadn’t struck near the time of the Chinese New Year festivities, when Chinese emigrants travel home to celebrate then fly back to the countries into which they have immigrated (e.g. northern Italy), then the spread would have been slower, with more time for countries to react.

If governments at all levels had learned from previous pandemics to have a plan in place in anticipation of the (inevitable) next one, it could have been activated in a dispassionate, nonpartisan manner without time-consuming bickering about the appropriate response.

If supplies of PPE had been stockpiled against future need, demand would be less likely to exceed supply in a crisis.

If people practiced social distancing, with or without government guidance, the number of infections would be considerably less.

If tests weren’t withheld to keep infection numbers artificially low, we’d have a better estimate of actual cases.

If death certificates weren’t fudged with other causes of death to hide COVID-19 fatalities, we’d have a much more accurate tally of how many deaths are attributable to this virus.

If, if, if. As the human and economic toll mounts daily, we are justifiably wracked with self-recrimination for not doing more, sooner, to contain the virus. Will ‘we’, speaking broadly for humanity, both citizens and government officials, learn from our COVID-19 mistakes and act with more alacrity the next time a novel virus is suspected in a patient? I doubt it. I’m finding it hard to be optimistic. Rather than “buck stops here” mea culpas from elected officials, we are getting blame-shifting and denial. Rather than increasing international coordination and cooperation, we are seeing a free-for-all fight for PPE and medical equipment, and a refusal to accept aid by countries that need it, such as Iran and North Korea, based on pride and propaganda rather than public health considerations. Many countries are limiting testing for COVID-19 to keep numbers low. Federal officials in some countries, such as Brazil, Mexico, and the United States, have been locked in often vitriolic opposition to state and local officials over the question of whether to shut down businesses, with citizens caught in the middle, sometimes taking it upon themselves to self-isolate and expressing frustration and disgust with their political leaders.

This depressing pattern does not hold true for every country. Some affluent European and Asian countries, such as Denmark and South Korea, managed to take steps to save both lives and businesses. But they are outliers, with smaller, and more homogeneous, populations who have higher levels of trust in their governments. The delayed and mixed response of most of the world is disheartening. Even when national and subnational governments get their act together to enforce social distancing, people resist and defy directives that have been issued solely to protect them. Except for totalitarian governments who exert control over citizens to preserve their own power and enforce their ideology, governments are now making a trade-off between public health and the economy that has the potential to get them booted from power. Electorates reward incumbents in good times and punish them in bad times, regardless of their actual responsibility for economic conditions, which don’t usually correspond to election cycles in any case. A government who saves its citizens lives but sends the country into a recession is setting itself up for electoral vengeance, however undeserved.

What will the “if only” self-recriminations, electoral punishments, and economic fallout mean for the future? Ed Yong, in his March 25 piece for The Atlantic, opines:
“Veterans of past epidemics have long warned that American society is trapped in a cycle of panic and neglect. After every crisis—anthrax, SARS, flu, Ebola—attention is paid and investments are made. But after short periods of peacetime, memories fade and budgets dwindle. This trend transcends red and blue administrations. When a new normal sets in, the abnormal once again becomes unimaginable. But there is reason to think that COVID-19 might be a disaster that leads to more radical and lasting change.”
I don’t agree; once social distancing directives are removed, I predict a swift return to status quo ante.  That is an empirical prediction, not a normative wish. We should use this as a learning opportunity, to address global health, economic inequality, authoritarian regimes, lack of education, the idiocy of religious belief. Last year a troubling statistic went viral in the United States: 40% of Americans could not scrounge up $400 in an emergency. The support for pseudo-populists like Trump and Johnson and Bolsonaro around the world, and genuine populists like Bernie Sanders, the anti-immigrant sentiments, the rise in racism and sexism, are a direct result of growing economic inequality. We are returning to a feudal society of a wealthy 1% and a peasant population dependent upon the crumbs the rich deign to bestow in wages, benefits, a social safety net. There has been an undercurrent of rage that has been simmering for years as the middle class has shrunk and younger generations are unable to achieve the standard of living of their elders. Between the financial insecurity of the gig economy and never-ending student loan payments, hallmarks of adulthood like savings and home ownership are increasingly out of reach for even college graduates, hence the alarming statistic about nearly half the population being unable to find $400 in a pinch.

The most compelling lesson of this pandemic has nothing to do with viruses, public health, political leadership, or culture. There are fascinating and important lessons to be gleaned from all those facets but they pale in comparison to the simple fact that most of the world’s population, even in the wealthiest developed countries, still lives hand to mouth and is one paycheque away from not being able to pay current bills. Measures to delay rent and mortgage payments, prevent utilities from being disconnected, temporarily pause student loan payments, and halt evictions are only necessary because so many people are unable to survive for even a week without pay. The wealthy have tried their usual avocado toast blame game, but no-one is buying it this time. It’s impossible to deny that the reason so many people don’t have even a month’s cushion in savings is not because of too many lattes but because they—we, I should say, as I am part of this cohort—are not earning enough to save. It’s not self-indulgence stopping us from saving and investing; it’s a lack of jobs that pay a living wage.

If nothing else changes, post-COVID-19, this glaring problem should be addressed. Imagine the situation today if every individual and business had 6 months of savings to draw on. The damage to the economy, the need for taxpayer-funded relief packages, the failure of businesses and looming homelessness and crushing debt for so many Americans would disappear.

But it won’t. Nothing will change. The wealthy will turn this crisis to their advantage, squeezing even more money out of the poor in interest and penalties for every bill paid late. I am sure the credit card companies are salivating at the prospect of all the interest and penalties they will be able to charge.  Expect creditors to raise interest rates. Expect employers to lower wages, cut benefits, and not hire back much of their laid-off workforce, using the shutdown as an excuse to retool their businesses to lower overhead and increase profits. We were living in a world that catered to the very rich at the expense of everyone else. That world hasn’t changed because a few hundred thousand mostly elderly people have died of a virus. The rich will continue to get richer and the poor will get poorer. This pandemic should be a wake-up call to decrease economic inequality. Instead it will exacerbate it.

Monday, 30 March 2020

Another Battle Front in the War on Women

Childbirth has always been dangerous for both the women and babies involved. In the developed world, dangers from lack of medical care have been replaced by dangers from overly aggressive, unnecessary and harmful medical interventions. Every birth is a battle in the war between women and medical staff, and there can only be one winner: Either the woman and baby win or the medical staff wins. Women have only three defensive weapons to bring to their personal childbirth battles against medical staff:  1) Knowledge that the medical interventions being forced on them are unnecessary and unhealthy; 2) The word "NO!"; and, 3) a personal advocate, such as the baby's father or a doula.

That last defensive weapon is critical because a woman in labour is not in the ideal position to fight verbally, or physically if necessary, against intrusive medical staff who are determined to violate her bodily integrity and harm both her and her baby physically and psychologically.

The novel coronavirus pandemic prompted some hospitals in the United States to issue policies forbidding visitors—including birth partners. In practice this means women giving birth during the pandemic would be forced to give birth with only medical staff present, and new fathers would not get to meet their children until the mother and child's release from hospital.

To say I have been apoplectic with rage over this new policy is a gross understatement. My fury and frustration have been incandescent. Without someone on her side, a woman goes into battle with just two of those three defensive weapons, and the results will be catastrophic for both mothers and babies. A woman should not need a back-up to her birth plan and the word "NO!", but, in practice, a spouse or doula to reinforce the "NO!" is crucial to avoiding a cascading series of harmful interventions. (Which is not to say that all partners behave as advocates: Some side with medical staff and put additional pressure on their partners to acquiesce to harmful medical interventions.)
Medical staff undoubtedly reacted with glee to the prospect of having their victims even more at their mercy, but their cruel pleasure was short-lived in New York. I first found out about this barbaric policy a few days ago, a violation of both domestic and international human rights law, and specifically forbidden as a response to COVID-19 by the WHO, when Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in NYC announced it and it trended on Twitter.
Today, I read that this cruel and harmful policy has been overruled by the state. According to this piece on NPR, "...earlier this month some New York hospitals told pregnant women they couldn't have any support person during childbirth. Within a week the state health department had prohibited that policy."
Thank goodness. Birthing women have a hard enough time battling medical staff without depriving them of one of their few weapons to protect their own health, and the health of their children.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Death-Defying Baking: Dark Chocolate Cranberry Cardamom Muffins

I love to bake but I need to reduce my sugar consumption for my health and longevity. To this end, I’ve embarked on a crusade to bake more healthfully. This post is part of my Death-Defying Baking series.
Once again, I’ve started with a recipe from Sally’s Baking Addiction. I love her vast collection of baking recipes; it's one of my first “go to” sites when I am looking for ideas for a particular ingredient (e.g. cranberries) or variations on a theme (e.g. zillions of different types of chocolate chip cookies).  Her recipes are meticulously tested, which gives me confidence to make healthy substitutions and expect good results: I know that I am starting with a well-designed recipe. I also find her photographs particularly mouth-watering.

During the holiday season I buy lots of cranberries but often don’t get around to using them all. Luckily, they keep for months in the fridge, which explains why I am still baking with fresh cranberries in March. I bookmarked this Cranberry Cardamom Spice Muffins recipe sometime in the fall, but just got around to baking them today for a COVID-19 isolation breakfast. Some of my variations here are made to healthy-up the recipe but others are based on personal preference and available ingredients.

1 and 3/4 cups (220g) all-purpose flour

SUBSTITUTION (health): I ONLY bake with whole wheat flour.

1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon cardamom

SUBSTITUTION (personal preference): I used 2 teaspoons for a stronger cardamom flavor.

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

SUBSTITUTION (personal preference): Likewise, I used 1 teaspoon cinnamon for a spicier muffin.

1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, softened

SUBSTITUTION (health): I used 5 tablespoons butter and 3 tablespoons unsweetened apple sauce to lower the fat and calorie content, as well as add some moisture, which is needed when baking with whole wheat flour.

3/4 cup (150g) granulated sugar

SUBSTITUTION (health): I used ¼ cup granulated sugar. I found this more than enough and will use 1/8 cup next time I make these muffins.

2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup (120g) sour cream

SUBSTITUTION (health): I used nonfat yoghurt in lieu of sour cream. I do think they’d be delicious with sour cream and might indulge during the holiday season.

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/3 cup (80ml) milk

SUBSTITUTION (allergy): My partner is lactose intolerant so I used unsweetened soy milk. I do sometimes use raw milk in baking. I expect that your milky substance of choice would work in this recipe—cow, goat, almond, oat, etc.

zest of 1 orange

SUBSTITUTION (preference): I omitted the orange. Cranberry-orange is a classic flavour combination, but I don't like orange and chocolate together.

1/2 cup (63g) chopped walnuts

SUBSTITUTION (preference): I omitted the walnuts. With rare exceptions, I don't like nuts in baked goods.

1 and 1/2 cups (187g) fresh or frozen cranberries (do not thaw if using frozen)

ADDITION: 2 cups dark chocolate chips

The recipe calls for an orange or maple glaze, which I omitted both to reduce the sugar/calorie content and to keep the flavour focus on the cranberry/chocolate/spice combo.

I was intrigued by Sally’s claim that these muffin cups can be filled right to the top rather than the usual ¾ full because the method of baking at 425F for 5 minutes then turning the heat down to 350F will cause the muffins to rise straight up rather than spill over. I was concerned that my numerous substitutions might have changed the characteristics of the batter in ways that would preclude this supposed rise, but I decided to risk it and filled the muffin cups to the brim. My muffin trays seem to be larger than standard as I never get as many muffins as promised in a recipe. In this case, I got 8 1/2 rather than 12, which is fine as I’d rather have fewer, larger muffins.
They spread a wee bit—you can see the two at the bottom getting a bit amorous and not practicing proper social distancing. But I could not be more pleased with them. The kitchen, and the muffins themselves, smell wonderfully enticing, and the spice/cranberry/dark chocolate combination is heavenly. I put a lot of chocolate chips in, which makes every bite super chocolatey. The cranberry/chocolate combination is a favourite of mine.
It is not hyperbole to say that these are by far the most delicious muffins I have ever made.

Friday, 13 March 2020

Trump to cancel elections, declare martial law, zombie apocalypse, today at 3pm "Dumpster-Fireside Chat"

The market was rallying this morning until the Orange House announced that its current resident, Cheetolini, is planning to French kiss Sophie GrĂ©goire Trudeau on live television at 3pm EDT to Prove to Wall Street that he has COVID-29 licked. After this announcement, the market immediately began to tank again.

Bets are currently waging as to whether His Massive Ineptitude will blame the global pandemic on Obama, "Sleepy Joe," or Hillary's emails. (My money's on the latter—who knows what was mouldering in those private servers.)

Thank goodness for closed captioning, because no sane person can bear to watch Trump's speeches with the sound on. Usually, it's steadier on the nerves to just wait and read the transcript afterward. By this point in Trump's reign, we've all gotten past our initial assumption that the transcriptionist must be drunk and adjusted to the staggering fact that, no, he really did say that.

Speaking of drinking, due to the urgent situation underlying today's vacuous blowharding, some of us will reluctantly tune-in live. To make Trump's mendacious, self-serving rambling more endurable, I propose a drinking game.

Drink each time Trump...

...praises himself for what a great job he is doing.
...blames Obama for his own administration's failure to prepare for a pandemic.
...explains that he doesn't want to have more Americans tested for COVID-19 because low numbers make him look better.
...gloats that the $1.5 trillion pumped into Wall Street yesterday is helping to stabilise and recover the markets, which is the only thing he cares about.
...claims to understand the science-y stuff better than anyone because his uncle taught at MIT, blah, blah.
...explains that the UK is exempted from the European travel ban because he has resorts there and he can make deals with Boorish Johnson because of Brexit that he can't make with those namby-pamby democratic socialist leaders in those other European countries that snigger at him behind his back, and they don't speak English in those other countries anyway.
...refers to the "do-nothing Democrats" in Congress without mentioning that it's the GOP that is preventing passage of COVID-19 relief legislation.
...blames Obama one more time for his own failings.
...whines that everything good that happens is 100% due only to him but nothing bad is ever his fault.
...frames COVID-19 as a "foreign" virus & claims that keeping them damn furriners out will prevent "real Americans," i.e., his base, from getting it.
...claims he won't be tested because he "feels great".
...says it's too bad that Trudeau's wife has the virus because she's not a bad looker for her age.
...blames Obama one more time.
...announces payroll tax cuts will fix everything. Bonus sip if he throws in elimination of capital gains tax.
...offers more financial relief to big businesses & wealthy individuals rather than working people who need it.
...declares a national emergency and says it means he can do anything he wants, but he always could anyway so he doesn't see the difference, and now say hello to your new Dicktator for Life.
...down the rest of your glass if he says elections will have to be postponed.
...if he cancels elections and declares martial law, finish the bottle.

Until then, enjoy your day buying toilet paper and shorting stocks.

P.S. Whoever coined the term "Dumpster-Fireside Chat" deserves a free bottle of their favourite tipple.  You won the Internet today.