I started teaching last Monday. My university has a mask mandate but no vaccine mandate. They've been doing pretty well in the pandemic, both in terms of policy and politics, but I couldn't help being nervous. I have small classes, but I teach graduate students who are full time educators working in school buildings. We're all very conscious of our mask wearing, but there was a certain electricity the first day. We were back in person after a year and a half. Some students in a cohort had never met in person before. We sat distanced from one another. We had food but ate it outside or in between classes or alone in rooms if we could find the space.
In the back of my mind was a recent case study published by the CDC. In this case study, an elementary school teacher--unvaccinated--sometimes took her mask off during class to read to her young students, who were also unvaccinated. A number of students in the class came down with covid in the following days. The report uses contact tracing to show this, including pictures of the classroom and arrows and everything.
Of course, I was thinking of me and my students. Were we masked? Yes. Are we all vaccinated? I assume so but I'm not sure. It was getting to me.
But then I read Lambert Strether's take on this study and the media narrative around it at Naked Capitalism. By the way, you should always read Strether at NC, particularly the 2pm Water Cooler. Strether has an inimitable and unrelenting eye combined with a reliably lol-worthy intellectual humor that can't be beat. Put that together with a 90s website style and it's like being in the brain of an aged nephew of Hunter S. Thompson while he's reading news across the ideological spectrum.
Strether's analysis is truly worth your time. He breaks down the study and then the coverage and finds something both surprising and unsurprising: the study and the coverage do not place due emphasis on school ventilation systems. The coded message in both is that teachers need to be vaccinated and wear masks. But there's no similar emphasis on school ventilation systems needing to be fixed, even though that is an important element in preventing the spread of the aerosolizing virus.
Even with all my theoretical background in marxist analysis and years of thinking about school funding, policy, and infrastructure from a structural point of view, I got caught up in the dominant narrative about this study. The ideology is powerful: focus on the masks and jabs, don't look at the building infrastructure. Strether says all the authors or editors at the CDC had to do was put in two words in their discussion/conclusions to place due emphasis on the ventilation. But they didn't. Apparently they were caught up in the same ignorance of structure that I was when reading and thinking about this information.
I've come to call this ignorance of structural features 'structural ignorance'. Let's say you're in a situation that has at least four elements that are related in ten different ways, but you focus only on two of those elements and four of the ways they relate to one another. You're ignoring the other two elements and six relations. That's structural ignorance. The situation has a structure and you're ignoring that structure, the ways in which all the entities relate to one another, to focus on some simple or immediate part of the situation. Usually, the reason you focus on that simple part of a structure is because of dominant ideology.
This study is a perfect example. I was focused on the masks, vaccines, people, and maybe the seating arrangement. But I wasn't focused on the building, the ventilation system, the quality of the air purifiers, whether there were doors or windows in the room, if they were open, etc. I wasn't focused on the air or the fixed infrastructure. I fell prey to structural ignorance. Strether does an amazing job pointing this all out. I'm pretty sure this country is suffering from this particular ignorance and has been for generations given the state of our school buildings. But there are resources that address this specific kind of structural ignorance in education.
The air is everywhere
I'm thinking particularly of some early work by the philosopher of education Derek R. Ford. Two essays come to mind. The first is "The Pneumatic Common: Learning In, With, and From the Air" from 2014. Here, Ford is theorizing air in education which has heretofore been ignored. Permit a long citation that brings us into the kind of thinking he wants us to do:
Air is an entirely immersive substance; it envelopes us even as it constantly eludes us. So what, exactly, is air? In a chemistry textbook one will likely find that it is a gaseous mixture of oxygen and nitrogen. Yet it is quite unlikely—if not impossible—that, as you breathe reading this, the air that travels through your mouth or nose to your lungs via your trachea and bronchial tubes will conform to this definition. As I write this, for example, in my recently renovated office, vapors from the fresh paint, new carpet, recently settled glue holding the carpet to the floor, the refuse in the trash bin, perfumes and colognes drifting through the hallways, minuscule specks of shed flesh, and the likely various types of mites—as well as their excrement—mix together into the air 6 that makes its way into my body and circulates in my blood through my respiratory system. And I have not yet taken account of the machines that alternatively heat and cool, humidify and dehumidify this air, nor the ventilation system through which it travels to my office on the third floor, nor the immediate and far outside from which the air in my building is initially sucked. The air has a history, a politics, an economy; in short, the air has conditions. It therefore cannot be assumed or taken for granted; we have to consider its conditions.
Ford is getting us into the air, so to speak, thinking about it through feeling and rich description. But then he keeps going with this political-economic analysis of the air in school buildings that is really breathtaking:
Factors such as race, class, age, and education level all affect the degree to which one is exposed to polluted air. This inequality is likely tied to the spatial expressions of racism and capitalism—as pollution levels were found to be highest in urban areas—and it will certainly affect the schoolhouse’s air conditions...The air envelopes us and binds us together; it is a necessary condition for being and relating. And yet it is difficult to grasp. It is often only when something is ‘wrong’ with the air that we take notice. The technologies of controlling the air’s quality, temperature, humidity, and flow conspire in an effort to make the air unnoticeable. But these technologies themselves act in unforeseen ways on air, lives, bodies, and social relations.
What's great about this article is that it brings the air into thinking through philosophy and then politicizes the air in school buildings. The piece is more about theorizing the air. But in another article from 2014 based on his dissertation work, Ford gets into the knitty gritty of schooling, space, and the built environment: "Spatializing Marxist Educational Theory: School, the Built Environment, Fixed Capital and (Relational) Space."
Schools's relational space
Building on the traditional of spatial thinking in marxism, like David Harvey and Don Mitchell, Ford claims that schools are "potential fixed capital," given that
we can think of the school building as fixed capital when it is used for the production of the commodity labor power (i.e. when ‘schooling’ or ‘training’ proper are taking place). Schools, then, both are and are not fixed capital, and the distinctive line is drawn by the particular form of use to which the school is being put.
But there's a contradiction in fixed capital--namely that capital wants to be as free as possible, but is limited by the fixedness of buildings--that comes to bear on school buildings. Seeing the school building in light of this contradiction means understanding its relationality, Ford says. Relational space is
the way in which spaces contain other spaces within them; ‘space regarded, in the fashion of Leibniz, as being contained in objects in the sense that an object can be said to exist only insofar as it contains and represents within itself relationships to other objects’ (Harvey 1973/2009, p. 13)
An example of this is how "the value of a school will also contain within it the value of nearby homes," like in the rise and fall of property values in white flight. He's also careful to mention that future values should be considered as well: a school's relational space includes how a city's ruling class decides to maintain or not maintain its school buildings based on their vision for the city's development. Why do you think Philly's schools are in such disrepair? A relational-spatial analysis tells us this isn't a coincidence. The ruling class hasn't deemed the buildings important for their vision of urban development.
Why else would String Theory Charter School be able to get a $55 million loan to work on its school conditions while teachers are doing walkouts at Masterman, SLA-Beeber, and Peirce?
Unlearning structural ignorance in school ventilation
There's so much to think about here. But Ford's concept of air conditions, combined with the relational space of schooling, gives us some tools to unlearn structural ignorance when it comes to school ventilation. School space contains the values of other spaces in it, like the surrounding property value, and they also have air conditions that are socially-politically arranged. The air itself is part of that relational space. The quicker we learn this, the quicker we can properly respond to the pandemic.