An Irredeemable Future and “Bad” Vulnerability: Education during the Pandemic
By Irina Poleshchuk | Image Pauliina Mäkelä
In the spring 2021 Time published the article “The Lost Year. How the Pandemic Changed a Generation of Students” by Katie Reilly. The article draws on how high school seniors and teachers in the US experienced the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. In the very first sentence opening a discussion, the author points out that while students were “on track for college before the pandemic, some high school seniors lost more than time”. What is this “more than time”?
Since March 2020, many students have been struggling not only with new online forms of studying but also with how to make sense of education and whether a degree is worth anything. But the problem lies even deeper: the alternative of taking a year off, waiting and getting a job to pay for studies was no longer available. Even though Reilly is describing school in the USA, the situation is similar in most countries around the world. What interests me in this article is the perspective of temporality described in the interviews with students and teaching staff. Our experiences always have a temporal structure. We tend to connect the past, future and present in meaningful frameworks. Our life experiences are happening in time and manifest what David Carr calls a “field of occurrence”, “in which the present stands out from its surroundings and from our consciousness as a kind of gaze which “takes in” or spans the field in which the focal object stands out”. In other words, the meanings we project into the future regulate our present lives. Imagined by our consciousness, the possible future events, objects and relationships format our individual and social surroundings. We are always “located”, mentally and spatially, in the flow of the present with respect to past and future experiences. What I want to stress here is that the future has a varying degree of openness, a creative diversity which catalyses our actions here and now.
Joseph, 17, a senior at Central Islip High school, says, “I can’t go to college with $900 in my savings account. I literally just thought, what if I took a year off, maybe a year or two, and tried to wait till things were back to normal? I definitely thought, Maybe I just shouldn’t go. Maybe it’s not worth it” (Reilly, 2021, 30). Joseph experiences his future horizon as a closed one, as one lacking choices and openness. One of the main characteristics of the future – creativity – seems impossible to conceive of and be realised. Another senior comments: “This pandemic has really killed my ambition for school and other stuff I had a passion for. It is like a part of me is missing” (Reilly, 2021, 33). Many students have found themselves isolated from social environments, from their friends, teachers and counsellors. Staying home for more than one year meant the students were able to help their families, but the persistent feeling of solitude has also resulted in growing despair and lost hopes. To build up a horizon of the future which gives meanings to present experiences, one has to exert effort and act, linking together envisaged results and reality. Joseph says, “It’s like no one’s there to check in on us. We only have ourselves. And I get that older people are stressed out too, so it’s really hard to figure out what to do right now”.¹ What Joseph narrates is that the temporal configuration does not hold up as a whole: expectations, the beginning, the end, suspensions, and solutions fall apart as he is faced with the impossibility of building plans.
‘‘Eventually, my question would be whether we are encountering a collective trauma in education during this pandemic. Is it no longer possible to view our present and future as an intriguing life puzzle? ’’
To be an agent of experience is to make a constant attempt to gather life events into meaningful temporal compositions, a process which also gives a sense of identity. Yet is this what is meant by saying the students have “lost more than time”? Cherryl Baker, a member of the teaching staff at Mission Hills High School, in San Marcos, California, worries “about their mental health. I worry about their stress level. I worry about them having a senior year. My heart just really goes out to them because they are working so hard…. I want to make sure that they know that there is always help. I worry that they’re on the other side of that screen, feeling alone. And I don’t want them to feel alone”.² This small testimony illustrates what Donald Kalscheld calls “bad vulnerability”,³ where fears are rooted in unshared emotionality caused by the absence of togetherness usually experienced in the school environment. Eventually, my question would be whether we are encountering a collective trauma in education during this pandemic. Is it no longer possible to view our present and future as an intriguing life puzzle?
“Maybe going to college could open another doorway for me to help my family out,” says Rhoden.⁴ In many life spheres, the pandemic has shown that active agency is lost because the future horizon and its variability as well as creativity are lost. The actions that hold an experience together are not taking place. What I see in this article is also an explicit description of trauma when it is unbearably painful to connect back with reality, to come back to studies, to restore the social environment. Here we are in a traumatising event where our basic symbolic integration cannot occur. Here we are talking about primordially lived experiences, which, under these pandemic conditions, are no longer lived but suspended, causing a distortion of the self and identity. Our pandemic life experiences fail to open towards the horizon of the world. Instead, they now close us off and prevent us from feeling a sense of variety and creativity.
¹ Reilly 2021, 32.
² Reilly 2021, 36; detailed quote.
³ Kalscheld 1996.
⁴ Reilly 2021, 34.
Carr, David. Time, Narrative, and History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991.
Kalsched, Donald. The Inner World of Trauma. Archetypal Defences of the Personal Spirit. New York: Routledge, 1996.
Reilly, Katie. “The Lost Year. How Pandemic Changed a Generation of Students,” Time. April 12, 2021, ISSN 0928-8430.