The World, Remade
SAM KLING Fleeing to the suburbs doesn't help you, necessarily. We don't have evidence of that.
BOB GARFIELD Busting urban legends about life in the urban jungle during a pandemic and beyond. From WNYC in New York, this is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. On the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. We looked at how the movement changed the world for all of us. Like the ubiquitous curb cut.
SARAH HENDREN If you're somebody who pushes a stroller through the built environment, if you're someone walking a bike, you participate in those politics, too.
BOB GARFIELD And even as campus life shrivels and universities ponder their futures, some students will thrive in the academic environment shaped by the virus.
MICAH LOEWINGER Is it too strong to say that online school saved your life?
OMAR I mean, I was suicidal at the time because I had failed and felt that I had no other options. So maybe it's not too strong to literally save my life. Yeah, I would say that for sure.
BOB GARFIELD It's all coming up after this.
BOB GARFIELD From WNYC in New York, this is on the Media. Brooke Gladstone is out this week. I'm Bob Garfield. Hey, it's over, 2020, the year from hell is behind us. So let's begin grateful for some of the nightmare left behind, yet cognizant of what polite people call: the challenges ahead, because vaccine or no vaccine, the impact of the devastation wrought in the last 10 months will continue to be felt for years to come. Particularly by those left behind in the wake of 300,000 plus dead of COVID-19, and by a generation of children who missed a vital year of school and by all the business owners who could not, in the end, keep the lights on. The pandemic touched most everyone OTM included. At the outset, New York was the epicenter of the virus in this country, and as we dealt with life in a lockdown, Kat, our executive producer was sickened with COVID. It was a bleak and frightening time. But out of darkness, as they say, comes light. In this hour, we'll look back at some of the conversations we had with scholars and writers, architects and advocates who told us that contrary to popular belief, the best place to be in a pandemic is a big city, and about disabled people's fight for a better built environment that wound up benefiting us all. And about how the disaster of online learning could actually be a boon for those who didn't have a place in the traditional system.
We'll start with cities. Was New York City's epicenter status just destined to be?
GEORGE MCFLY Lorraine? My density has popped me to you.
GEORGE MCFLY I'm your density. I mean...your destiny. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What if pestilence is simply a city dweller? Pandemics naturally thrive most in big cities. Joel Kotkin wrote in Tablet magazine back in March, quote, People live cheek by jowl and are regularly exposed to people from other regions and countries. Well, that all sounds reasonable, maybe even obvious.
SAM KLING Well, it seems to make sense. You know, cities are places of crowds, interaction, lots of movement.
BOB GARFIELD But as Sam Kling wrote in CityLab in April, when you look at infections on a per capita basis, you'll notice that coronavirus does not always seek out the most crowded city blocks.
SAM KLING But outside of New York, a lot of the suburban areas have rates that are just as high, sometimes higher than Manhattan. In northern Italy, it wasn't really Milan that was hit hardest. It was the smaller towns and villages surrounding it. There are cities that are denser than New York, some of the most built up places on the planet, like Hong Kong and Singapore and Tokyo and Seoul. They've all managed to overcome, I think, cities vulnerabilities. So I think it's a bridge too far to say that density is destiny. And this idea that cities are particularly vulnerable to disease, to crime and vice and all these things, this is a very old idea making a reemergence right now because people don't really know what to think.
BOB GARFIELD Cities have maybe always been associated with language like: squalid, hotbed, miasma. In your piece for CityLab, you quote one of the great American anti-urbanists, Thomas Jefferson writing, quote, pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man. He didn't seem very thrilled about city life. He was not alone.
SAM KLING No. And this really came to a high point in the mid 19th century. In the United States, before the mid 19th century, there weren't really many cities of size. But then all of a sudden, with industrialization and urbanization, cities were growing faster than ever before and people noticed great poverty next to great wealth, political radicalism, social unrest, poor sanitation. And a lot of it was encapsulated in this new type of neighborhood that people called the slum. Civic leaders and reformers, they noticed that disease and vice and crime all concentrated there, and their explanation was that these social problems were a product of their environment, you know, the physical space of the city, the built environment. This is something that historians call moral environmentalism. The idea that the environment not just shapes people's physical character, but it also shapes their moral character. And of course, if the problem is the city environment, then that suggests all sorts of policy solutions that are aimed towards improving the city environment.
BOB GARFIELD Well, on that point, over the years, social reform has been conflated with and central to urban reform. And speaking of central, you in your work, cite one famous park at the time, a well intentioned answer to the physical and moral infirmity to which you refer, but you say the wrong answer.
SAM KLING Well, a partial answer parks were really the centerpiece of this urban reform movement based on moral environmentalism. The most famous example is Central Park in New York City, designed by Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. And the idea there was that the design wouldn't just give people fresh air and open space and all of these things that we appreciate today, but that it would literally solve the most pressing social problems of the 19th century city. In Central Park and in a lot of other Olmstead parks. He would build these promenades that were visually prominent so that if you were sitting on a lawn, you would be naturally inclined to look at it. And the idea was that moneyed people would walk down these promenades and their nice clothes and their middle class manners and working class people would observe them. And as if by osmosis they would adopt their values and they would become good Republican citizens.
BOB GARFIELD What like go to the privilege zoo?
SAM KLING Yes, sort of. And some of the things that we take for granted in parks today, like playing ball or even walking on the grass - that was banned in Central Park because Olmstead wanted this to be a place of quiet reflection, where you could escape the busy chaos of the city and just relax. And he didn't want people engaging in active recreation.
BOB GARFIELD In the 20th century, we saw that mentality of anti urbanism laid bare by the language of the slum clearance movement.
NEWS REPORT In an effort to correct blighted conditions. City lands are reevaluated and undesirable areas are leveled to the ground. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD Whether it's gangrenous limb or in Dutch elm disease. The treatment is removal of the rot. And you believe that these metaphors actually dictated or at least influenced public policy?
SAM KLING Yes, the ways that people understood the city in the 19th century, in the 20th century, and even in modern times is often through metaphors. And one of the most prominent metaphors in the early 20th century was that the city was like an ecosystem and like ecosystems. It suffers blight that suggests certain policy prescriptions. You want to remove the blight or else it'll spread throughout the city. Now, of course, when you have a metaphor like that, sometimes it kind of obscures the real contours of the problem. So, maybe the solution to blight isn't to cut it out, but it's to address the root cause. One thing that happens when we picture density as destiny, it really lets our political leaders and our bad policies off the hook. We look past the inequality, the structural racism. And if we're focusing on the densest neighborhoods, well, that doesn't really map onto the most vulnerable populations. Now, I'm not arguing that density doesn't play any role, but density can also bring strengths. Big cities have a lot of tools in their toolkit to combat coronavirus. They can concentrate resources, they can concentrate social services and density can nurture, what the sociologist Eric Klinenberg calls social infrastructure. These are the community organizations, the senior centers, the libraries and yes, even the public parks that nurture social ties among people. Klinenberg found in a study of the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995 that neighborhoods that had the stronger social ties tended to do much better in disaster because people check up on their neighbors, they make sure that everyone's doing OK. The challenge for cities is to figure out how to build on those strengths and minimize the weaknesses.
BOB GARFIELD This whole conversation is premised on the idea that we as a society have already sort of begun to formulate the notion that we've got to get out to the fresh air. You know, it's like Greenacres.
[SINGING] Spread out so far and wide. Keep Manhattan, just give me that countryside. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD What is the risk, you know, in the wake of coronavirus wave one that people flee?
SAM KLING By blaming density, you're putting people at risk. Fleeing to the suburbs doesn't help you necessarily. We don't have evidence of that. Social distancing is much more important than the place that you live by defining this as a density problem, we're really missing a lot of how this actually plays out. You're ignoring the people in the small towns, you're ignoring the people in the suburbs, and you're ignoring the vulnerable populations in cities who are particularly at risk. Not because they live in dense neighborhoods, but because they don't have PPE or they have to keep going to work or they don't have health insurance. And those are some of the big structural problems that I think we have to address.
BOB GARFIELD Sam, thank you.
SAM KLING Thank you so much, Bob.
BOB GARFIELD Sam Kling is a global cities fellow with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. I spoke to him in April. Coming up, there were living in a world that wasn't built for them, so they changed it. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. The pandemic that turned life upside down, will live beyond the actual contagion. Society worldwide will be retrofitted on a grand scale. And in one dimension in particular, the retrofitting will be literal. The built world, streets, homes, offices, transportation arenas, they're all destined to change. If you think about torn out theater seats and vacant office buildings, it's changing already, but history, like biology, is the story of adaptation. This isn't the first time our cities, buildings and public spaces have adapted in the wake of infectious disease. Writing in Slate back in April, Vanessa Chang explained how spatial intervention and innovation in a time of illness can be traced to the early 20th century. When cholera, tuberculosis and flu pandemics savaged the world.
VANESSA CHANG Until the discovery of the tubercle baccilus and towards the end of the 19th century, treatment was primarily environmental, and sanatoriums emerged as a way to treat tuberculosis because it was understood that ample exposure to air and sunlight were crucial in mitigating the worst effects of this respiratory illness.
BOB GARFIELD Wherever they were located, they all had essentially the same design. Can you describe what the typical sanatorium looked like?
VANESSA CHANG There were a lot of roof terraces and balconies. Healthier patients might ascend to these roof terraces if they were weaker. There were lots of open balconies where they could recline. In the best sanatoriums. They had lots of separation. For example, in the Paimio Sanatorium in Finland, each patient had their own handwashing station. There was a lot of really minimalist design as well to prevent the accumulation of dust that the TB bacillus could reside in and lots of opportunity for the movement of patients as well as air through the spaces that they inhabited.
BOB GARFIELD The design principles of the sanatorium spread outside of these health resorts to other structures and, you write, informed a good part of modern architecture for decades. How so?
VANESSA CHANG A lot of the major modernist architects were informed by this movement. I mean Le Corbusier and a number of other major modernist architects, even designed sanatoriums like Alvar Aalto, who did the Paimio Sanitorium and Jan Duiker at the Zonnestraal TB Sanatorium. These early modernist architects were really interested in rejecting ornamentation, for example. So you see that in a lot of this modernist aesthetic in the furniture, in the way in which space is designed trying to disavow clutter.
BOB GARFIELD The esthetic was also very clinical, minimal scrubbable, a lot of right angles and a lot of white.
VANESSA CHANG Yeah. And also a continuity between inside and outside. So large windows spaces as well. And opening windows. Ribbon Windows was a popular design feature for Le Corbusier. These are ways to kind of bridge the interior and the exterior world.
BOB GARFIELD Now you write that this went beyond hygene. That cleanliness and light and openness were deemed not just an aesthetic, but a moral imperative. Brocade and carpeting and ornamentation were poisonous to the soul.
VANESSA CHANG The philosophy that most embodies this idea would be Adolf Loos's tract Ornament and Crime. He was a an early modernist architect, and he designed a building in Vienna called the Loos House. And it really scandalized the Viennese because it had no eyebrows or adornment over its windows. He argued that the ostentatious decor of early 20th century architecture was a crime because it was a waste. That these would go out of style and become obsolete. And it was a crime to waste that effort when it would go out of style. He also suggested that ornament was immoral and he described it as degenerate. And it's a problematic text. In a lot of ways. There are some kind of troublingly colonial and racist ideas in it about what ornament is.
BOB GARFIELD There's so much to unpack there in the notion of ornamentation as degenerate. First of all, it anticipates things that Hitler and Stalin would say later in the century about various kinds of art. Is there any evidence, though, that modernism was, in fact genuinely helpful, physically, socially, morally, any which way? I mean, did it work?
VANESSA CHANG Some of these buildings, like Alto's Paimio Sanitorium were very successful and I think it's still a rehab center for children. You know, so the best of these principles, when put into practice and put in practice thoughtfully and in the right context, could be healing. But it was a vision of utopia that didn't actually take everyone into account, right? I think the most major failures of architectural modernism were in public housing. So it became quite popular in the 1920s, along with the rise of Le Corbusier, other major architectural figures. But the community's living in this housing, weren't consulted about their lifestyle and wishes. I mean, I think it really reflects some of the problems around sanitoria as well. A lot of these treatments for tuberculosis were pretty expensive, and so they weren't available to everyone. You know, you had to be fairly wealthy to be able to go and enjoy these treatments in these wonderful, lush, open spaces.
BOB GARFIELD Thomas Mann, yes. Joe Lunchpail, not necessarily.
VANESSA CHANG Right, exactly. So when you don't take those uneven class dynamics into account and you don't take into account the needs of different kinds of communities and you try to impose this vision of utopia and hell from above, these larger visions of healing fail.
BOB GARFIELD Vanessa, thank you for joining us.
VANESSA CHANG You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD Vanessa Chang is a lecturer at California College of the Arts and lead curator with CODAME Art + Tech.
Well, isn't this awkward? Eight billion people living in an environment constructed over centuries and suddenly that infrastructure is dangerous to us. Narrow passageways, cramped indoor spaces, poor ventilation, the virus is hyper contagious and the world is a gigantic subway car. So now we have to play catch up to retrofit the entire built world to accommodate a new biological reality. To some people, though, that's a movie they've seen before, namely those with disabilities for whom reconceptualizing the design of things is lifelong practice. And it begins with the simple matter of perspective. The model for defining disability - medical or social?
MIK SCARLET The medical model says, I am disabled by the fact that my legs don't work, that I have a spinal injury, and that left me paralyzed.
BOB GARFIELD Mik Scarlet is an expert in the field of access and inclusion for disabled people in the UK.
MIK SCARLET The social model says that's my impairment, but I'm disabled because when I go out in my wheelchair, the world around me is designed for people who can walk.
BOB GARFIELD In a COVID environment, Scarlet says, suddenly, more people than ever are comprehending what it's like to be at odds with the built environment.
MIK SCARLET It looks like that, non disabled people have finally got that idea of what it's like to be told, No, I'm sorry, you can't come in. Why? Oh, we don't have access for you. Well, that's exactly the same as being told I'm sorry you can't go out because there's this pesky virus out. It's having your world shrunk and it's not your fault. And it's been quite an eye opener to see people really not knowing how to cope with suddenly not having any control over their lives. Which is for many of us, this is what our day to day life, all the while.
BOB GARFIELD Having spent a career battling resistance from able-bodied skeptics and competing political constituencies, such as historical preservationists and bike path advocates, Scarlett cops to some ungenerous feelings along the: I told you so, toldya so, what goes around comes around lines, but mainly he's hopeful that his moment of vindication, it's also one of universal opportunity.
MIK SCARLET Actually, I'm really hoping that this whole terrible period for this virus has shown the world that we need a new way of thinking and that actually now's the time to listen to those disabled people like myself. An inclusive society would be much easier to lock down. It would be much easier to come out of lockdown and it would be much easier to socially distance.
BOB GARFIELD The activist. Alice Wong, the founder and director of the Disability Visibility Project, has described disabled people as modern day oracles. Heroically imagining our infrastructure future. Scarlet says that the comparison works for him.
MIK SCARLET We want to be, like Alice said - your oracle. We want to say when you come out of this, if you ask us how to get it better and how to cope, we can help. I also really hope that all the people that have had COVID and I really hope that we as a community, disabled community, are given the opportunity to help and support those people and bring them all of the stuff that we've learned over decades. They'll be blaming themselves and the disease for not being able to do the stuff they did before. And actually what we'll say is, no. It's society, If we build a better world, those people could come back into the world quicker. They can do more, we won't lose them, they won't disappear into this horrible, excluded world that, you know, we grew up in. Disabled people have grown up in. For them alone for them alone, we owe it to society to make a better place for us all to live.
BOB GARFIELD Scarlet is a consultant in the field of access and inclusion for disabled people in the United Kingdom. As Scarlet suggests, we can adjust to the new built reality by taking lessons from the disability movement, which has over the past half century yielded infrastructure accommodations, now so ubiquitous we take them for granted. Sarah Hendren, a professor at all in College of Engineering, is author of the new book What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World. She's reminded of the work of Ed Roberts.
SARAH HENDREN He was a college student in the 1960s at UC Berkeley. He was a polio survivor and someone who used quite a lot of complex medical equipment his whole life, and he attended high school by patching into his classroom via telephone and also to his local community college while living at home. But once he got to Berkeley, Roberts wanted to live on campus. So he worked with a doctor, Dr. Henry Browne, who was on staff at the Cowal Hospital, which is the hospital on campus at Berkeley. And he and Brown figured out that if he could turn what had normally been just a hospital room into a. Makeshift dormitory room that he could actually reinvent what it meant to be a student on campus. And so Roberts then was joined by a dozen other students who were newly able to come to Berkeley with their kind of medical needs intact. And once they finished at Berkeley, they thought, well, we need a way to make creative housing that's independent with help outside of the campus also. And in doing so, they were trying to say there are lots of things that we can't actually do physically for ourselves, but with help, we can be independent in a redefined way. That is, we may not be doing everything in a self-sufficient body, but we are enacting a kind of self-determination by orchestrating the help that we need. And so this was an idea that started with design and architecture in a key way, that became an idea that influenced the world.
BOB GARFIELD Well, to quote a cigaret ad jingle of that era, we've come a long way, baby. Public bathrooms, sidewalk curb cuts, ramps, they're now ubiquitous. Remarkable, really only when they're absent.
SARAH HENDREN That's right. Curb cuts, people may know, are just the cut that happens from the sidewalk to the street and then back up again. You go down a ramp now instead of a hard step down. That was a hard won fight and a legal guarantee that was rolled out at infrastructural scale. If you're somebody who pushes a stroller through the built environment, if you're someone who's dragging wheeled luggage behind you, if you're someone walking a bike, you participate in those politics, too. And even one generation behind, it's easy to forget just how improbable that seemed when people were lobbying for it, but also to see, like, wow, the built environment actually isn't as fixed and permanent as we might think. That it can be edited, it can be unmade and remade, and that is also the work of design. Not just shiny new products, but taking a look at the status quo and asking whether it might be otherwise.
BOB GARFIELD Some of this stuff like curb cuts, like closed captioning on television.
SARAH HENDREN Yeah,.
BOB GARFIELD They benefit not just the disabled. They're kind of crossover adaptations, no?
SARAH HENDREN That's right, and that's often called in my field universal design. So deaf watchers of television were saying, a long time ago, we want captioning to be a standard part of every television set. And a lot of people from the outside would say, well, this is a niche market. But it turns out that once closed captioning became a kind of feature of everyday life whereby if you're at an airport or a restaurant, you can follow along with the game or the debate, or you can watch videos on silent if your kids are in the next room trying to get to sleep.
BOB GARFIELD The point being, though, instead of thinking of these crossover benefits, is serendipitous. If you begin with the notion of universal design, you will be accommodating not just the disabled but the entire population. So why not start there? Is that the premise?
SARAH HENDREN It's certainly one call to take a look really at what are the so-called margins. It turns out, though, that disability is a particularly interesting case because for one thing, the WHO put out a report in 2011 saying that over a billion people globally live with some condition of disability. So it's not quite so abnormal as we might think. But also, if you think about the span of your life, you enter the world quite dependent on other people. We often, in the latter part of our lives, also experience greater and even acute dependance and interdependence on other people. So disability concerns are genuinely universal. If we see that is actually a feature of our everyday lives, then we start to see it not as something to be only pitied or avoided. Right, but instead to say, oh, I locate myself here too. I'm a human being with a body that has needs. And so I can ask myself, can I bring my body to the built world, or will I ask the world to adapt a little bit to me as well?
BOB GARFIELD Coronavirus has made the universality imperative all the more urgent. We are facing what wheelchair bound neighbors have faced their whole lives. An infrastructure, that just doesn't work for us anymore.
SARAH HENDREN It's true. And if you ask disabled people I've watched this closely in my own disability community, they will tell you we have been asking for things like more flexible, remote work options and things that we're seeing now suddenly made quite robust because they're needed in the mainstream. But disabled people have been asking for those for a long time. The key invitation here again is to say, where are the places where we might look to the temporary kind of rebuilding of the built world? And I mean things like seniors only shopping hours and shared street initiatives. Those are things that are being prototyped right now under the conditions that we're in. And the call to us is to say, might there be the glimmering light of a good idea in general? We want to continue some of these things in order to make a friendlier world for a lot of bodies. I must say, when I'm looking at the neighborhood listservs in my own neighborhood about shared streets, opening them up to pedestrians and bicycles and a more robust way, you know, those listservs, those discussion boards are full to the brim of people saying before it's even started, this will never work. The way things are is the way things must be. And I find we constantly need resources and reminders and indeed, like a basic social trust to say, what if we prototype a little bit? What if we try?
BOB GARFIELD I want to ask about silver linings. Is there anything in this suddenly urgent need for redesign that makes you feel, uh - hopeful?
SARAH HENDREN So many of the stories in my book are of people who not only found the status quo to be insufficient, but they were willing to do the kind of five or 10 years of bureaucratic work to see that new thing made real. And that, of course, is a longer story. And it defies the time scale of social media. It defies picking up the right books right now in this kind of fervor. I'm for reading good books, but boy, the thing I have learned watching disabled people is that the long work of structural change takes a kind of longer time scale and a commitment, and it takes that generous thinking. And there yes, you might say that that sounds Pollyanna. I think it's actually the deepest call for the deepest work we can do. It requires us to keep practicing trust, even in the face of deep pessimism and uncertainty. That is, history shows how we do get an edited world at the least, and and sometimes altogether new structures.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah, thank you very much.
SARAH HENDREN Thank you. It's an honor.
BOB GARFIELD Sarah Hendren is a professor at Olin College of Engineering and author of the new book, What Can a Body Do? I spoke to her in July. Coming up, math, schizophrenia and the story of a life saved by the Internet. This is On the Media.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.
BOB GARFIELD This is On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield. After the holidays, tens of thousands of students will be heading back to campus more than last fall, but still far less than normal. And many campuses remain completely shuttered, where once there were boisterous classroom discussions and group projects, now there were awkward Zoom calls and online quizzes. But the old way wasn't perfect either. Brick and mortar schools could be alienating and unforgiving, especially for marginalized students. Some of whom might be better served by virtual school. On the Media, reporter Micah Loewinger tells the story of how distance learning saved his friend's life.
MICAH LOEWINGER I'm going to change your name to Omar and keep the personal details fuzzy, you know?
MICAH LOEWINGER I thought maybe we could just start with. Do you remember when we first met?
OMAR [CLEARS THROAT] I believe we met through friends during our freshman year of college.
MICAH LOEWINGER Well, I remember the first, like, real interaction that we had. We were walking on Fifth Avenue and you were like: "Micah wassup man, hit me up if you want to smoke some time" I was like, "who is this guy?" You always had people around you. You know, one of the first things that drew me to you was just how unabashedly kind of intellectual and nerdy you were. I could just see that there was this kind of glowing energy about you.
OMAR Oh, that's very nice of you to say.
MICAH LOEWINGER But what really solidified our friendship was when we started playing Super Smash Brothers.
[SUPER SMASH BROS. INTRO]
MICAH LOEWINGER Smash became a kind of watering hole for a group of friends to catch up and talk shizz. I had a fascination with documenting my life during college, so I got into the habit of recording.
MICAH LOEWINGER The funny part of it is that I obliterate you basically every time we played.
OMAR I don't remember it quite that way.
[OMAR HOWLING; FROM LOSING].
OMAR I'm kidding, I do. Those were some of the happiest times of my life, I would say.
MICAH LOEWINGER I knew now that even when he was thriving, Omar was suffering from a severe mental illness. He didn't hide it.
OMAR I might tell someone what I was going through the first time I met them.
MICAH LOEWINGER You guys have like battles over religion with your parents. If your parents were religious.
OMAR Late one night I captured one of these moments on tape. I used this footage in a student documentary about Omar's life and his turbulent journey through college.
OMAR My family's made me drink holy water on multiple occasions. They think I'm possessed.
FRIENDS Possession of what?
FRIEND [LAUGHS] With intent to distribute?
OMAR [LAUGHS HALF-HEARTEDLY] [END CLIP]
OMAR The first time I remember being very depressed was when I was in first or second grade. And one day it struck me that things would change. You know, like my brother is going to leave, my parents are going to die and, you know, then I'll be on my own and I won't be with my happy family, blah, blah, blah. My first visit to the mental hospital, I was in my senior year of high school. And I mean, I was out for like about a month. I was having psychotic symptoms like hearing voices. There are sometimes a single voice, sometimes multiple voices. Sometimes they're male, female. You know, I don't want any voices. I don't care if they're saying good things or bad things. And they're annoying. You know, I can't sleep sometimes. I can't focus.
MICAH LOEWINGER Not long after we met, Omar was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It's common for mental illness to flare up right around the time a student ships off to college. 18 to 21, his condition got worse as school went on, but he clung to the one thing that gave him hope: his dream of becoming a math professor.
OMAR Everything was, you know, in my mind was just chaos. There was no order to my thoughts. Life seemed like a big paradox. Math was a safe haven for me to retreat to. It's like this crystalline world where things sort of make sense. In math, you have what are called axioms, which are things that you assume to be true. You know, from there you're the builder and you have your tools of logic and you can prove things to be true or false. It helped give my life structure and meaning and purpose, and my dream was to learn as much math as possible, get the best grades, go to the best graduate school and have the best chance at what I considered was a fulfilling life.
MICAH LOEWINGER The genius academic who suffers from schizophrenia is a controversial archetype. Most people think of the film A Beautiful Mind, a biopic about John Nash, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician who helped develop game theory.
JOHN NASH If we all go for the blonde. Not a single one of us is going to get her. So then we go for her friends, but they will all give us the cold shoulder because nobody likes to be second choice. What if no one goes to the blonde? We don't get in each other's way. And we don't insult the other girls. It's the only way to win.[END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER But the list of troubled mathematical geniuses goes on. Isaac Newton, Alexander Grothendiek, Ludwig Boltzmann, Omar looked up to those men and I saw his work ethic up close when we became roommates our sophomore year. But we also went to parties together, stayed up late, playing Super Smash Bros. One time I filmed him shaving his head in the bathroom.
[HAIR CLIPPER BUZZING]
MICAH LOEWINGER The footage shows his black hair sprinkling over the big red Anarchy tattoo on his right shoulder. Omar had been radicalized in high school by Michel Foucault's 1961 book Madness and Civilization. Foucault helped influence the anti psychiatry movement, arguing that modern medicine dehumanized the mentally ill, robbing them of their rights. This inspired Omar to refuse medication until college, when his psychosis and his paranoia got worse. The drugs definitely helped, but they made him sleep constantly, sometimes like 18 hours a day.
OMAR With a lot of these antipsychotic medications, people become very, very sedated and it might help the problem. But at what cost? I guess you could ask.
MICAH LOEWINGER It upset his doctor, but he went off the meds. But that made sitting in lectures unbearable.
OMAR Going to class was really a sensory overload and a stimulus overload. I was full of dread at being around others.
MICAH LOEWINGER What was it about other people?
OMAR They haunted me.
MICAH LOEWINGER Were you haunted by me and our friends?
OMAR If I have to be honest and yeah, it would drive me crazy every time I would talk to someone, you know. I was so paranoid about what they might go away and stay behind my back, what they were thinking about me. My mind took it to the worst possible place.
MICAH LOEWINGER Our junior year, Omar went to the Center for Students with Disabilities with a last ditch solution.
OMAR Which was to not have to go to class because I just couldn't handle it. I was fine reading the books myself and doing the assignments myself without the classroom instruction. I suppose there's a pretty rigid hierarchical administrative structure to what they can and cannot do. You know, they can give you more time on a test, for instance. But for me to ask not to go to class, they said they couldn't do it. So I just stopped. I stopped going. I just kind of want to learn and seclusion. One day I was like, you know what? I'm going to just find some words and stay there for a few days and just take my books with me and be left alone.
MICAH LOEWINGER He left his phone, wallet and a scribbled note at his desk. He took the ferry to Staten Island and he wandered by the water in the moonlight.
OMAR Made myself a nice place to sit at the foot of a tree. The roots are kind of hard on your back at times. And, you know, there are a lot of ants and stuff crawling around, so you don't want to get all beaten up. But all in all, it's pretty manageable and you get used to it. I just brought three of my textbooks. One was called Abstract Algebra, one is called Real Analysis. One was called advanced logic. I made, I think pretty good progress.
MICAH LOEWINGER What did you eat?
OMAR I'm a vegan, so I brought a loaf of bread and I went out to buy another one. As I was coming back. There's like a security checkpoint. The guy's like – "hey, where are you going?" Like, "can I see your I.D.?", and I was like - "I don't have one." And he's like, "Do you have any idea what you're doing?" I said, "no." He's like, "well, this is a military base, so turn around and walk the other way." I was like, "Oh, OK," and that's, that's when I came back.
MICAH LOEWINGER It turns out that Omar had spent two nights in Fort Wadsworth, a Coast Guard base at the foot of the Verrazano Bridge. Meanwhile, his parents and his shrink had been freaking out.
OMAR I was pretty much asked to go to the hospital immediately. And they don't force you physically, but they look pretty darn well, force you verbally.
MICAH LOEWINGER When he got out, the school administration placed him on temporary medical leave. Omar knew he wasn't coming back. The day before he left the city, I asked him to meet up with me and tell me what he planned to do after he dropped out.
OMAR I have like a log cabin, West Virginia, the mountains. I just want to be there on my own, studying and learning this stuff. And my psychiatrist points out like, you need a job, like you need to support yourself and deal with things at some point. You know, you can't live in a fantasy world forever. And, you know, I want to live for that fantasy world, I guess. Someone wants to be a musician. Someone wants to be a basketball star. I want to be a mathematician, because that's the way I'm going to be doing what I love and making a living out of it. And otherwise, I think I'll feel very unsatisfied. Let's say I want to publish something at some point in time. Well, first of all, you have to submit it to a peer reviewed journal or something. You don't have a college degree. Maybe no one's going to take you seriously. Even if you do get published, no one's going to pay attention to it. There are maybe some exceptions, but that's the general principle of things. I mean, there are always exceptions. And maybe in the back of my mind, I'm like, I really want to be one of those exceptions. But it's just so unlikely. But we all have this thing called optimism bias. So I think I can do things which really are highly unlikely. It's unlikely for me to make it my mark anywhere, teach anyone anything, do something new without graduating.
MICAH LOEWINGER After a semester off, he decided to give school another shot and he enrolled at a public university in Virginia. But within the first couple of weeks, he found himself overwhelmed by the stimuli of the classroom.
OMAR And basically what I asked them to do was turn in all the assignments of tests. I just want to have to come into the lecture. They weren't OK with that. And I understand that I might well fail or not do well, and I just want the opportunity to try.
MICAH LOEWINGER He explained all this to me over video chat after he dropped out again.
OMAR I was very upset because I had felt like an education had been made inaccessible to me because of my problems. If you have a physical problem like this, I'm blind or deaf. I'm in a wheelchair. This is something people can see and they'll come to you right away. But if it's a mental issue or something they can't see, then people are more skeptical. They're less willing to work with you.
MICAH LOEWINGER He ended up stuck at home with overprotective parents and no prospects. As a way to keep his mind off of things. Omar found a job that would let him work with people without the crushing anxiety of face to face interaction. He became an online math tutor.
OMAR You get connected with a student and then there's like a virtual whiteboard and like a little chat box on the side. And then they'll ask the question, will write it on the whiteboard, and then you do it in real time. You work out the problem.
MICAH LOEWINGER That job gave him a lot of confidence and it helped him see the Internet as a way to participate in society.
OMAR I did some research and actually found that there was, a at the time, I believe it was the only one there was a bachelor's degree in mathematics that could be completed entirely online through a small Midwestern university.
MICAH LOEWINGER This was not one of those predatory schools that you might have seen in a TV ad. Omar's program was 100 percent legit, just the online version of a traditional university.
OMAR Back when I was in school in New York. I never even spoke to anyone, especially this is the nature of a mathematics lecture. You go in, you sit down, someone talks at you for an hour and then you leave. And if you have a question, you might ask your question. But in my experience at this particular school, there's a lot of encouragement of collaboration. You have to post a minimum number of posts on the course webpage per week, even though there are many miles away. I feel like I know them better than I knew any of the students who were in my classes before I left brick and mortar school.
MICAH LOEWINGER His classmates were local students in their early 20s, soldiers stationed abroad, and people with full time jobs finishing their degrees at night. They made his program feel human. He didn't feel paranoid, interacting with them through a screen. Finally, Omar could study in peace.
DEAN He has been one of the top students in upper level math classes. During his time here. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER That year, his school flew him out for an awards ceremony where he was named Math Student of the Year. Out of all the students at the school, online and in person,.
DEAN For example, in fall 2004, 14 excuse me, he took six mathematics courses. Six mathematics and 19 credits. And his GPA was 4.0. [END CLIP]
MICAH LOEWINGER Is it too strong to say that online school saved your life?
OMAR I mean, I was suicidal at the time because I had failed and failed and felt that I had no other options, so maybe it's not too strong to literally save my life yet, I would say for sure.
MICAH LOEWINGER I finished my student film about Omar in twenty fifteen, the year he and I graduated. One of the last scenes of the movie featured this comment from his older brother.
OMAR's BROTHER He could potentially do his PhD online, so I think the future is very bright in that regard. The fact that he's doing so well speaks for itself.
MICAH LOEWINGER Omar's future was bright. He went on to enroll in two online master's programs, one in computer science, one in applied math. He got a lucrative full time job, and on weekends he saved lives as a certified volunteer fireman. Neither jobs triggered his illness, but the prospect of returning to a campus terrifies him. So he's still waiting for really good math program to offer a completely online doctorate because the ones that are available now aren't respected by other mathematicians.
OMAR There's just this culture of you're a researcher, you're on the chalkboard with your advisor, Day and night, hashing things out.
MICAH LOEWINGER But why couldn't you just be at a virtual chalkboard? It makes no sense to me.
OMAR Yeah, doesn't make a lot of sense to me either. But sometimes institutions are slow to change.
MICAH LOEWINGER Of course, we could never have anticipated how much the higher education system would be radically transformed.
NEWS REPORT Princeton University is reversing course and having undergraduate students be fully remote for the fall semester. [END CLIP]
OMAR I think society has been forced to accept the notion of distance education. Maybe now there might be some universities that are open to offering remote doctoral programs as well.
MICAH LOEWINGER Omar's hunch really interested me, so I emailed about 25 professors from several of the top ranked math departments in the country, public and private schools, and I called Omar back to tell him what I'd learned.
Keeping things vague, I explained why someone like you in your position wouldn't want to do the program in person and you'd want to do a completely online. And whether they were more likely to accommodate a student with your kind of disability because of the pandemic. I think it's worth saying that no one professor has all that much pull in a admissions process. But several people very enthusiastically at several different schools across the country told me that they would work with somebody like you. Oh, wow. This is from Katrín Wareheim from UC Berkeley. "Micah, my hesitation would be lack of community and support. That's a hard one for students with marginalized identities and backgrounds even before we go online. In theory, going online could help to remedy that, but it would require intentional effort. And in most top math departments, I haven't even seen the intention. Personally, I did start a PhD advising relationship with a student that I had only met once in person. He eventually transferred to my university, but honestly, our meetings were more productive online, so I wouldn't hesitate to advise someone remotely." One professor wrote to me, said, "hi, I was the math consultant to A Beautiful Mind the film. The math was incidental, although they took my contributions seriously. We were really making a movie about mental illness after all. Yes, of course. I'd take a fully virtual PhD student."
OMAR [LAUGHS] What are the odds of that?
MICAH LOEWINGER I don't know.
OMAR Well, those two seemed like out of the park. Great responses for someone like me. I mean, I consider those people heroes. People like that can really make a big change in certain people's lives. I'm actually very excited. It's actually, it's a bit of a lot to take in in some sense because, you know, I had sort of given up hope. I will definitely have to dust off the old transcripts and everything like that. Polish up the resume. I haven't applied to school in a little while. In some senses, out of this tragedy, there comes a silver lining for me and some hope that I'll be able to do the thing that I love most.
MICAH LOEWINGER Historic cataclysms can sometimes clear a path for people who never had one. As David Bayer pointed out, he's the guy who worked on A Beautiful Mind. He's also the chair of the math department at Barnard College and a Columbia University student adviser. World War II was actually the best thing that had happened for women's equality because it drew all the men overseas. Perhaps we're on the cusp of an accessibility revolution in academia, or at least as we reimagine and rebuild our education system for the web, a door that was always closed will suddenly pop open for those who hoped but never thought it would. For On the Media, I'm Micah Loewinger
BOB GARFIELD For anyone considering hurting themselves. You can speak to someone right now by visiting SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
That's it for this week's show. On the Media is produced by Alana Cassanova-Burgess, Micah Loewinger, Leah Feder, Jon Hanrahan and Eloise Blondiau. Xandra Ellin writes our newsletter, and our show was edited...By Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Hudson. Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme.
On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. Brooke Gladstone will be back next week. Happy New Year! I'm Bob Garfield.