My university recently launched a new app. The app is intended for students, but staff are able to get it and I was curious, so I put it on my phone. Messages and posts are a feature of the app, and every so often now my phone comes to life:
“Is anyone taking Physiology 1001 or Microbiology 1011 and want a study buddy? I’m your gal!”
The vast majority of students here are attending classes online from wherever they happen to be. Their messages on the app are like flashes from fireflies across a dark field, distant and lonely:
“Hey, there is supposed to be a synchronous session today for Chem 1011 class at 1 p.m. ADT anyone know how is it gonna go or in which platform?”
I will need to turn off notifications, or delete the app, but for now I’m reflecting on these tiny, isolated beacons:
“When I try to add my courses through the search it doesn’t work. Can anyone help?”
This year’s students are going to get an education. At least, we are all going to do our best. The two most common words in student posts seem to be “pain” and “crying.” There are also a lot of hilarious memes (most of which I’m not current enough to understand), but one suspects these are fronts for the pain and the crying.
It is sad. Education, career, romance, family life – any life – the environment for twenty-somethings is so different now. If there was ever a time when the advice of an older generation was of no use, now would be that time.
Young students may not be listening anyway. Across North America, many attending university in person are ignoring warnings about partying and physical proximity. Open doors and bad planning have invited predictable surges in infections. Students’ apparent disregard for others brings condemnation down on their heads: they are entitled, selfish, and believe themselves invincible.
I try to remember myself as an undergrad. I will own up to entitlement and selfishness, but I don’t recall feeling invincible. I felt insignificant, in fact, a feeling I countered by trying to make people laugh. Some of the supposed humour was hurtful to others. It took a while to learn this. I didn’t seem to think I could hurt anyone – I didn’t think I had that power.
I’m reminded of another app on my phone, which while I was still commuting to work told me where all the transit buses were in relation to my location. Once in a while I would miss the stop where I was supposed to transfer and would be taken off course up the wrong street. I had knowledge of location of things in the world but where I myself was, I did not know.
This is how undergrads arrive on campus. They know where their friends are but don’t know where they themselves are. Higher education enables students to connect the conduct of their personal lives to the welfare of others outside the small circle of their friends and family. We might associate that aim with liberal arts, but every course of study should contain this thread, which is about purpose and vocation.
Vocation is a freely-chosen sense of responsibility to society. If a student is lucky, he or she stumbles into purpose through a haphazard exploration of possibilities. It’s not efficient and it’s definitely not cheap. It’s pursued through the interplay of outer and inner worlds that a university provides: class work and conversation and socializing balanced with study and reflection and discovery. That outer is deeply impaired at the moment but will return. Now is the time to put away the phone and work on the oft-neglected inner.
There is no excuse for willfully endangering the health of our communities. But I have to believe that the majority of students are feeling, under that don’t-care swagger, a sense of powerlessness. They are not yet aware of their agency, of their astonishing power to help or to harm.