Students Return to Campus mid-Pandemic: A Horror Movie Unfolds

Is there anything more perverse than being attracted to bad horror movies? My friends and I loved classics like “Friday the 13th” and “Chopping Mall” because they were terrible. We’d sit near the back eating junior mints, groaning each time the hapless protagonist did the opposite of what any halfway intelligent, sort of awake, person would do. There’s a crazed axe murderer in the woods? Let’s go foraging for mushrooms! Shark-infested waters? Why not go for a romantic skinny dip with your hunky boyfriend? It’s only entertaining, of course, because we know it’s a dystopian dreamscape that will end. The lights come up, we brush the popcorn dust off our laps, and go merrily on our way. It’s a controlled and contained form of horror and terror, precisely the opposite of the mayhem we are watching unfold on campuses right now in the midst of the pandemic.

There can be little doubt that many universities are in a terrible spot. In a nation that has long turned its back on higher education as a public good, administrators have been scrambling to keep their ships afloat long enough to weather this who-knows-how-long disaster. The promise of a face-to-face Fall semester emerged from this cauldron of desperation and not, one presumes, from indifference or greed. And months ago, before the current surge in infections and deaths began, it was still possible to suspend disbelief about the disaster that an on campus Fall would represent. Sure, the epidemiological experts predicted the increase in morbidity and death, given the nature of the virus and the national government’s apparent determination to make the situation ever worse, but a few months ago one could, perhaps, still plausibly imagine inviting students to return to a relatively safe campus.

At some point, such pie-in-the sky hopes transformed into something like delusion. And now we watch as our college-town streets fill with students’ cars — usually an exhilarating time for us university folks — and are filled with sick dread. The image of fresh-faced youngsters streaming in from around the region are indelibly juxtaposed with the news from Alabama, UNC, and Michigan State. We read our university presidents’ pre-blaming stern messages about student responsibility as we clean up the plastic beer cups from our front yards and recall our own carpe diem college attitudes. We professors and staff have been turned away from our own campus offices — not safe! — even as students haul dorm fridges and box fans into the residence halls next to our buildings. It’s not just that it’s unlikely that this experiment can be pulled off safely, but that, given the obvious realities of communal life, how could anyone even believe it would be possible?

In its innocent and productive mode, the sheer optimism of wishful thinking can be energizing. That plucky little train made it up the hill because it thought it could despite evidence to the contrary and defeatist naysayers. It is precisely the whiff of unreason in wishful thinking that makes it so irresistible in dark times, whether one is facing a terminal disease or expecting a good grade on an exam for which one is utterly unprepared. That it is, in fact, true that we can’t, strictly speaking, KNOW what the future will bring can also sometimes provide a level of deniability that mitigates our moral responsibility when our decisions bring others to harm. In short, the line between productive hope and willful ignorance can sometimes be thin.

What’s happening on many university campuses right now, though, pushes wishful thinking to an exaggerated level that would be comical if it were not so tragic. And we campus citizens aren’t merely watching the horror movie, we are also living it, at once the hapless teenagers bumbling their way through the dark woods and the omniscient viewers. We see, not an unknown future, but a script that has already played itself out at institutions around the world.

Some are even placing bets: In how many days will students be sent back home again? How long before campus leaders and marketers stop pretending that they truly believe what they’re saying? And how long before the rest of us withdraw our conspiratorial silence as university logo face masks are distributed along with dad-like lectures about student responsibility? It’s a situation made even worse by the fact that it occurs at the same time we are urged by unscrupulous national leaders to deny the evidence of our own eyes. Ignore trusted experts and common sense, they tell us, and place your faith in our optimism and authority instead.

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