Hoarding and School Reopenings

 by Michael C. Dorf

My father passed away last month at the age of 89. (He did not have COVID-19.) Since my mother's death in 2013, my dad had lived alone in the house in which I grew up, maintaining a very active social life chiefly consisting of getting together with friends and family as well as attending concerts, operas, lectures, ballets, and films. During the pandemic, I spoke with him by phone every day but could not see him in person for fear of exposing him to unnecessary medical risk. I initially believed that I was calling daily to check up on him and to help him avoid social isolation, but I soon discovered that I looked forward to our talks as the highlight of my day. I also came to think of his physical isolation as an accidental blessing. For several years, my sister and I had been urging our father to sell his house and move to an apartment in something like assisted living, because his balance and physical stamina had declined (though his mind remained sharp). That he had remained in his longtime home instead meant that during the pandemic he was not exposed to the risks to which many older people living in group settings have succumbed. Would his decision to remain in a large suburban house been sensible even had there been no pandemic?

I remember a conversation we had a few years ago when I raised the possibility of moving. "All my memories are here," my father objected.

"No they're not," I replied. "Your memories are in your brain. They'll move with you."

As usual on the infrequent occasions when we disagreed, dad was right and I was wrong. There is clear evidence that the brain associates memories of particular events with particular places. It also associates memories with music, smells, and objects.

Such associations are the subject of the first two episodes of Season 5 of Malcolm Gladwell's Revisionist History podcast, which examine the question why museums collect so many objects they never display and connects it to the call for the return of art stolen or sold under duress during the Holocaust and other such episodes. Gladwell diagnoses most museum curators as hoarders. Like so much of Gladwell's oeuvre, these episodes include what are surely over-generalizations, but they also include genuine insights into hoarding--many of them drawn from a book on that subject by Gail Steketee and Randy Frost. I found the insights particularly interesting because it has only lately dawned on me that maybe my father was a hoarder.

Before Spotify and other streaming services rendered them mostly obsolete, my father accumulated over 10,000 LP records and a roughly equal number of CDs. He listened to some of them repeatedly, but he barely touched others. Still, if the music collection were the only evidence, I would not conclude that dad was a hoarder. He did not simply buy every record or CD he encountered. He did research and made lists. Likewise with books. When I was young, I would sometimes accompany him on shopping trips to Sam Goody or J&R (the record stores of the era) or to the Strand bookstore (which still exists and is awesome). He would spend hours carefully selecting just what he wanted. Dad was a collector, not an indiscriminate hoarder--unlike Andy Warhol, described by Gladwell loading box after box with worthless ephemera.

But then there were the piles and piles of magazines, newspapers, and long-mooted financial statements that my sister and I have recently found throughout dad's house. Perhaps dad was a hoarder after all. Or perhaps not. When we were kids, the house wasn't buried under paper and junk. The accumulation could have simply reflected dad's declining mobility and stubbornness in refusing help.

In any event, I'm not especially interested in whether my father was technically a hoarder, under the DSM-5 definition or otherwise. Even putting aside the junk and paper, he clearly had emotional attachments to a great many physical objects. Equally clearly, these attachments were mostly not unhealthy. He didn't confuse the objects with the emotions. His decision to stay in his house where his memories were was both fortuitous (in shielding him from COVID-19 risk) and sound on its own terms. Emotional investment in physical objects can misfire, and sorting through dad's junk is a bit overwhelming, but the rewards were clearly worth it to him and even to me and my sister (as we have found a great many treasures from our parents' lives).

If readers will now indulge what will seem at first like a non sequitur, I want to say a few words about education. Shortly I shall connect what I say now to the points about hoarding.

Donald Trump's push to reopen schools across the country is simply evil--a continuation of his predictably disastrous push to prematurely and unsafely reopen the broader economy because he thought it would help him politically. That said, there are legitimate reasons why some people have been hoping to resume in-person education in at least some form. These include: (1) other things being equal, remote teaching tends to be less engaging and effective than in-person teaching, especially when, as is very frequently true these days, the educators have had to adjust to the new format very quickly; (2) most students benefit psychologically from in-person interactions; and (3) working parents of young children in jobs that cannot be performed remotely--which includes most blue-collar jobs--depend on schools as a form of daycare.

Other calculations may also apply in higher education. For example, at Cornell, where I teach, the decision to offer a mix of large remote and smaller socially distanced in-person and hybrid classes has been justified on public health grounds. The epidemiological models suggested that there would be less coronavirus transmission if students were on campus but subject to rigorous monitoring than if they were living on their own (but many still living locally) and thus not as subject to monitoring. Some skeptical observers argue that colleges and universities also have a substantial financial incentive to offer at least some in-person classes in order to justify charging students tuition. Similar financial pressures may apply to elementary and secondary schools as a result of state and/or federal pressure to reopen regardless of public health concerns.

How all of that balances out will differ for different people, institutions, and locations, but I suspect that some of the appeal of in-person classes is similar to the emotions of hoarders.

Some students and teachers have unpleasant associations with their schools, but many have a strong emotional attachment. People who want to go back to in-person classes because of those associations may not be fully reckoning with what hybrid socially distanced in-person education looks like. For in-person classes to be conducted safely, students need to be masked and distanced in rooms that are substantially larger than ordinarily required. Teachers too must be masked or separated from students by a physical barrier. In addition, instructors must manage both the students physically present and those who are participating remotely, either because they are in quarantine or because they have particular vulnerabilities. At places that are conducting at least some of their classes in such settings, heroic efforts will be made to give students the best educational experience possible under the circumstances, but that experience will not be close to business as usual. And that's just the educational piece. The social aspects of life will be even less like usual.

None of that is to say that some form of in-person instruction is wrong for everyone. It is to say that people who have the option of choosing between in-person, hybrid, and remote education--whether for themselves as students or teachers, or for whole institutions--would do well to follow the advice that Gladwell elicits from one of the people he interviews who has experience helping people break the hoarding habit. He says that actually focusing on the emotional attachment to particular objects can break the attachment, as one realizes that the object is not the emotion.

That's good advice for deciding what objects to keep, how to pursue one's education, what job to pursue, and virtually everything. Our memories and emotions can easily become entangled with particular triggers. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that--except when the triggers misfire.

Many people may imagine that returning soon to familiar places will feel for them the way the taste of the tea-soaked petite madeleine feels for the narrator of Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a key to unlocking treasured emotions. Perhaps the experience will have such an effect, but at what cost? If the madeleine is potentially poisonous now but will be benign in the not-too-distant future, maybe it's best to delay the satisfaction of eating it a bit longer.