- 01 Oct 20
For students embarking on the new academic year, it is an extraordinary and challenging time. The accepted pleasures of college life will be harder to come by than ever before. But there is hope beneath the rubble of expectations shattered that we might still help to fashion a better world. A good place to start might be learning again how to listen. Illustration: David Rooney.
What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, in Hot Press, we had already started into our campus roadshow, heading out into colleges across Ireland to meet students first-hand, whether during Freshers’ Week or in other specially orchestrated gatherings.
It is a monster logistical challenge getting around to 30 or so colleges within a short space of time. But it has always proven a hugely positive, and often inspiring, experience. With the start of every new academic year, there is a fresh sense of hope and expectation, of the beginning of a process that will lead to growth, learning and development.
That’s how it should be. Meeting students at Freshers Week events, fielding the calls, emails and social media contacts that flow from that, working with societies and listening to what each successive new generation of students, and student leaders, has to say has afforded us a clearer sense, in Hot Press, of how our own mission can be refined and advanced.
At the core of the exchange has always been a belief that openness is a good thing. That we can all learn from one another. And that greater understanding and empathy are at the heart of positive progress across all areas of human endeavour and interaction.
But this year is different. Since February, when the first coronavirus case was confirmed in Ireland, all of the assumptions made in the past about the importance of meeting, greeting, talking and celebrating together have been upended. Our collective perception of the public space has been undermined by a silent, stealthy enemy.
It became clear very quickly that the coronavirus is highly infectious. Those in charge of public policy in most civilised countries – and some that are not so civilised – seemed to agree on the need for decisive action aimed at controlling and suppressing the spread of the virus. It might be painful at times, we were told, but ultimately it would be for the common good.
In Ireland, the messaging in that first phase was well judged. The initial lockdown, announced by the then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, on St. Patrick’s Day 2020, was received with relative equanimity. “We are all in this together,” the mantra ran, and there was a feeling that this indeed might be the case. People operating businesses were badly spooked; so were many workers. But when the Government announced the initial Pandemic Unemployment Payment, the fear and paranoia subsided somewhat.
It was tough. At times it felt deeply unpalatable. There were deaths that might have been avoided. Some people who contracted the illness suffered more than others. But the medicine seemed to be working. The number of positive tests dropped. Covid-related deaths slowed almost to none. By the middle of summer, there was a feeling that we were probably out of the woods.
MASS CLOSURES OF BUSINESSES
Not so fast, Buster. It is, as the more sagacious noted quietly at the time, far easier to close down a society than to re-open it successfully. Two months on from the end of the initial lockdown, the confirmed rate of infections in Ireland has been spiralling again. The number of cases is growing, with who knows what potential disastrous effect.
Within the Department of Health and the HSE, there is a real fear that it could get out of control. The official doomsday scenario is that hospitals will be over-run. That intensive care units will be packed beyond capacity. And, if this happens, that we could witness truly grim scenes, as happened in Spain and Italy during the first wave of infections, with a system unable to cope, rapidly mounting mortality figures and bodies piling up in hastily constructed mortuaries.
And so a second lockdown has been imposed in Dublin, which in certain respects extends into Kildare, Meath and other commuter-belt areas. People can’t go to work. Restaurants, bars and cafés are closed except for take-away and outdoor service. For at least a three-week period, we are back to square one. But the supports to companies being offered by the State have diminished dramatically. Businesses that just made it through the first lockdown are staring obliteration in the face.
This, too, could get very ugly.
People are being told that they can’t gather in numbers. That they can’t have parties. That they must keep their social distance from friends and neighbours. Cinemas are closed. Venues are locked and shuttered. Music is silenced. It is an unprecedented situation, the effects of which strike at the very essence of what it is to be human, to be warm, to be open, to be affectionate. To be a proper, functioning member of society.
In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, the hardship being imposed was accepted by the majority as a probably necessary evil in a time of crisis. If the government did enough to provide a cushion financially, then people would get through it together. Businesses and staff would find common cause to make it out the other side. Fingers were crossed...
Six months on, it is a different story. Confidence has been drained. So too has people’s patience. The anger is more palpable in round two. People running businesses feel that they are being forced to collude in their own almost inevitable demise. The politics of the response to the pandemic looks and feels ever more Draconian. Civil liberties have been shredded. Divisions are becoming clearer. The mood is increasingly fractious.
The problem, of course, is that one knows precisely what is the best way to manage the virus, and minimise deaths, while also keeping the country and the economy going more or less as normal.
What is increasingly clear, however, is that the economic threats are off the Richter scale.
The music industry in Ireland has been savaged. On a per capita basis, Ireland had become one of the world leaders in festivals and in live performance. People came from all over the world to partake of the magic of Irish music – and to experience live music in Ireland. The industry is not just a big employer: it is a vital part of what makes Ireland an attractive place for tourists and for foreign direct investment. Our artists and musicians play a powerful role in soothing the collective soul of people that live here; and in spreading the joy and the love that ultimately fuel productivity and innovation.
The livelihoods of musicians, managers, event staff, promoters, people who run venues and so on have been ripped asunder. No one is saying that this can be easily rectified, because nothing is easy right now. Band aid solutions are important, and are needed immediately. But beyond that, the issue of making it possible for musicians to play again to live audiences has to be placed at the top of the national agenda.
The hospitality industry is being pushed to the limit. Venues, bars, restaurants, hotels: they are all in danger of going under forever. But the feeling of an unfolding, and deepening, emergency doesn’t apply just to music and entertainment.
The aviation industry employs 140,000 people in Ireland. Ryanair, one of the world’s biggest and most successful airlines started in Ireland and maintains a very strong presence here. But Ireland is currently operating one of the most restrictive regimes in the world in relation to travel. Billions are being lost by the big airlines, and by the leasing and servicing companies – and increasingly the airlines are making the point that the Irish Government is exacerbating the problems that are afflicting them.
The question is unavoidable: how long will key players in the aviation business wear that? Why should they continue to base themselves here when the policies being pursued by the Government are completely inimical to their interests?
This is not a moral question. It is a political one, which involves balancing different aspects of the public good: specifically, the desire to suppress the virus with the need to maintain jobs and employment, and to secure the economy against the very imminent threat of widespread collapse. And, by the way, in the same breath, to prevent mass closures of businesses, and huge personal losses, to individuals and families, on a scale that will ultimately destroy the economy – far more so, perhaps, than what happened as a result of the financial crash of 2007.
Welcome to college.
SPIRIT OF GENEROSITY
No wonder the feeling among students and teachers alike, starting into college again – or arriving as first-years – is one of trepidation. The financial model of college life is badly cracked. No one can look forward even for a year and know that things are going to be alright, alright, alright. And in the meantime, most of the elements that give life as a student such a high sense of expectation and excitement have been turned inside out.
There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to education in a Covid-driven world, because – in physical terms – every college is different. But in general, the familiar model of large group learning is being abandoned, at least for now. Lectures will not happen in the same way. Students will be required to limit the time they spend on campus. Close contact between students will, to a very large extent, be discouraged. Indoor gatherings can only happen in very well managed, precisely planned circumstances.
Remote learning, Zoom-style lectures and written communication will replace the much more personalised approach on which education has always relied.
Within colleges, staff and lecturers are responding as creatively as possible. They are busily putting new systems in place and bringing fresh ideas to the table. The aim is to minimise the feeling of dislocation and alienation that students will inevitably feel.
Is it possible to maintain the sense of collegiality and comradeship in which learning thrives, knowledge is passed on and insights arrived at, in a largely online-based academic world? Colleges and teachers owe it to their students to do everything they can to ensure that the answer is ‘Yes’.
There are practical considerations that have to be addressed too as the new academic year unfolds. How to provide financial support for students, if part-time jobs are harder to come by. How to keep rents low. How to minimise extra costs. How to make libraries and books accessible. And so on.
But there is a responsibility on students too. Maybe this is as good a moment as any to take stock of what that might involve.
One of the most striking aspects of public discourse in recent times has been the spread of intolerance. Colleges have not been immune from this particular virus, with the emergence of a new kind of censoriousness on campuses across the world, most notably in the US – but on occasion also in Ireland. We have seen a sharp rise in intolerance of others. An unwillingness to accept that debate is a good and useful thing. A refusal to listen. Even those who rightly support diversity too often oppose the idea that there can be diversity of thought and opinion.
Social media has played a massive part in what has been a deeply damaging drift into a kind of mob culture.
The dominant currency in this approach to the other is hatred. Hate expresses itself in a desire to inflict damage. To drive people underground. To bury them. We are seeing far too much of that now in the public sphere.
What is apparent, far too often also, in the newly-minted, righteous echo-chambers of the more extreme iterations of identity politics is the deliberate misuse of facts; and the manipulation of statistics, to paint a distorted picture, with the fundamentally dishonest purpose of using that to buttress a political stance or campaign. Fake news is everywhere. And it is being used, increasingly, by people purporting to advance progressive causes, as well as by the scheming architects of the sickening rise of putrid right-wing extremism.
At least part of what education is – or should be – about is creating an openness to discussion and debate. If we want to understand more fully, first we have to become better at listening. Become familiar with history. Get a fuller picture. Develop the ability to look at things from the other person’s perspective.
That doesn’t mean abandoning idealistic thinking or progressive campaigns. Nor does it mean softening the strength of our resistance fo the rise of fascism. On the contrary, it means using our guile to show it up, for what it is.
Students have been at the heart of so much that has been positive and progressive in Ireland over the past 50 years. The immensely important changes that have taken place, on this island, in relation to same sex marriage, LGBTQI rights and the availability of abortion have been driven by students unions and the USI, fighting for greater freedom, alongside other progressive forces in Irish society.
The same is true of the current drive towards a genuinely open, multi-cultural society. These vital and enormously life-enhancing changes were achieved through a process of persuasion. Of finding the right language. Of bringing those who had been opposed along. Of getting the true stories of those who had been wounded, isolated or discriminated against under the old regime into the public domain. Of helping others to empathise and understand.
They were achieved by getting the Irish people to listen; to think carefully; and to vote in a spirit of generosity.
In a time of increasing polarisation, the students of 2020 are in a unique position to embrace the reality that, in the long run, we are best served not by putting the opposition in the stocks and throwing tomatoes at them or – echoing the brutal moralism of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter – by tattooing a symbolic H on their foreheads. But this is what has been happening. We have all seen it done. And it is wrong.
We cannot cultivate goodness by treating people badly. We cannot achieve harmony by poking those with whom we disagree in the eye. The spirit of generosity is something that should be embraced on both sides of any debate. And the first person who should practice it is you.
What a difference a year makes. Let’s hope that in September 2021 we will be celebrating not just the defeat of the coronavirus, but also the triumph of reason, generosity, tolerance, freedom and the great project of moving ever more effectively towards a global vision of true and lasting equality.
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