The coronavirus pandemic doesn’t seem to have brought out the best in student character.
Some students have decided that “lockdown” means “Spring Break Beach Party.” Others think that the transition to distance learning is the occasion to sign a petition demanding that the colleges give them all As for the semester—the coronavirus, it seems, stresses them. Also, educational equity means they deserve good grades.
The college students who make the news indulge in selfish hedonism or selfish snowflakery. Either way, they are prize exhibits for the thesis that our colleges have failed to instill good character in the students under their tutelage.
The worst students tend to make the headlines, so we should assume that most American college students behave better. Still, there is no apparent sign that America’s college students have responded to the coronavirus crisis as a latter-day Greatest Generation, ready to meet and defeat a sudden challenge to the nation.
Social justice education, civic engagement, and service learning have proved utterly ineffective. These all forward progressive political activism, rather than the civic work needed to fight the coronavirus. Dance for Social Justice, it turns out, is less useful than (say) experience as a volunteer firefighter or a volunteer in a hospice, as a preparation for the sort of work we need during a pandemic. Moreover, social justice and civic engagement always focus on collective action—ideally, by way of a march or a rally. But nowadays, the people united! are the people infected! It is especially bad preparation for a pandemic where the ordinary test of character is to stay home, stay away from other people, and simply buckle down to do one’s work with no judge but God without and conscience within.
NAS already favored doing away with social justice education, civic engagement, and service learning. We believe that each college ought to forward character education in their own fashion, rather than imposing some homogenous, national character education. But in the interim, there is one policy fix that would be useful. Currently, colleges and universities are required to reserve 7% of their Federal work-study funds for “community service”—which, all too often, means a position forwarding social justice. The Department of Education and Congress should jointly draft a tightly defined list of positions that will directly help America endure and recover from the coronavirus epidemic—and reserve all “community service” funding to pay for such positions. Indeed, Congress and the Department of Education might decide to reserve an even larger portion of work-study positions for labor that helps the country recover from the coronavirus.
By itself, diverting work-study funding is hardly going to reshape the character of a generation. Frankly, we don’t want the government to be in a position to reshape the character of the people. But this small, practical change will do some good for America—and might encourage some good in the character of American students.
David Randall is Director of Research at National Association of Scholars
Image: Public Domain