There is gloom about the effects of the coronavirus crisis on cities. Office culture will never be the same, and telecommuting has spread from publishing to other businesses. This is true of law, with electronic filing, large corporations, with zoom technology.
General practitioners have discovered telemedicine. Reduction in office workers, together with panic-stricken closure regulations and the destructive hysteria of the BLM movement has devastated restaurants and small retailers, aggravated by dispensations given big-box stores and their greater sophistication in obtaining government aid.
Disgracefully, the smallest impact has been in education. Although language laboratories and math drills have been available online for decades, the education laws written by teachers’ unions, have obstructed their use. When COVID-19 struck, online courses were unavailable, and few public schools had assisted their students with necessary computers.
In colleges, jobs for the faculty had been given priority over the creation of remote learning institutions like Britain’s Open University and South Africa’s UNISA. America’s unionized teachers have not shared Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s view that reopening schools is a “moral imperative.” It is fortunate that America’s nurses have a different work ethic.
Large city commercial-property values and municipal revenues will collapse. Telecommuting will damage what Jane Jacobs referred to as “agglomeration economies”; professionals will gain less stimulus from meetings with fellows. Symphony orchestras and theaters will suffer from migration.
But there are positive effects. With two parents in a home in daylight hours, demand for institutional day care will diminish, a good thing. “Parents are apt to be fond of their children, and do not wish to see them made the objects of political schemes,” Bertrand Russell wrote in 1927. “The State cannot be expected to have the same attitude.”
There should be liberalized zoning, so that grandparents are not zoned into the next county, and new single-room family-run shops and restaurants can serve workers who no longer commute. This does not require apartment houses favored by “social engineers” but rather allows additional kitchens in owner-occupied homes and very small businesses, familiar in Germany and in the Amish country. Man is a social animal, and telecommuters want to socialize, dine and shop with their friends. Today, it is easier to open a one-room restaurant in Havana than in the suburban United States.
New restaurants and small businesses may cause the two-car family to become a thing of the past. Golf carts rather than gas guzzlers may proliferate, a boon to teenagers and the elderly. Orchestras have satellite campuses, whose audiences may expand when no longer reliant on exhausted commuters. The spoilt brat may give way to the delivery boy.
The “bowling alone” phenomenon may reverse itself. One-time commuters deprived of society in offices have more time for service clubs like Rotary, lodges and veterans’ organizations, and local governments and school boards.
There may be improvement in the Achilles’ heel of American society, high schools, now that unions have disgraced themselves. Additional civic manpower allows each school building to have its own community board, as in Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. The long-concealed possibilities of distance learning resemble the traditional English model of education: reading lists, discussion groups, comprehensive examinations set by outsiders and limited reliance on lectures and tutorials.
The American method of spoon-feeding and textbook learning, by the weakest graduates of the weakest colleges, has reached its limit. It is a hundred years since the headmaster Horace Taft decried teachers’ colleges (normal schools), where “Subnormal students are taught by abnormal teachers.”
American schools lag in science and in history, as the political hysteria generated by the BLM and #MeToo movements suggest. Before World War I, a German Rhodes scholar, Albrecht Bernstorff (later hanged by Hitler), wrote admiringly of the English method: “In England, every man is free to think what he likes. That is a frame of mind which we should seek to imitate if we are to preserve all the things which Germany has acquired in the last decades.” For “Germany,” read “the United States.”
There are substantial fortunes to be made from the installation of second kitchens, sale of light motor vehicles and assistance in the opening of very small restaurants and convenience stores, as well as institutions for more independent education. The new citizens and entrepreneurs of the exurbs have heavy political and economic tasks ahead of them, but worthwhile ones.
• George W. Liebmann, a Baltimore lawyer, is the author most recently of “America’s Political Inventors” (Bloomsbury, 2019) and other works on law and history.
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