The Liberal Arts, the People, and the Pandemic

coronavirus-collegecampus

When the COVID-19 emergency began, a strange thing happened in U.S. public opinion. For weeks, bizarrely, acknowledging the emergency’s existence meant taking sides on a partisan issue.[1] But something else has divided public opinion, too.

Cutting across partisan differences is the ability to conceptualize the emergency. That means not only grasping some very basic medical science, but also understanding how it relates to our economic and legal systems, our demographics, our psychology, and our moral responsibilities.

The novel coronavirus has exploited and aggravated the fault lines in American society. Other than professional experts, the Americans who understand the crisis best—regardless of political ideology—are those who have a well-rounded imagination. They have not been limited to taking orders from political leaders, but have been able to act responsibly and creatively in the moment—making enormous sacrifices to do it.

The crisis, in other words, provides vivid lessons in the need for a comprehensive liberal arts education for ordinary citizens. By “liberal arts,” I mean not just training in certain disciplines, but rather a whole package of reasoning and imaginative skills. An integrated liberal arts education is important for citizens to live responsibly together during a crisis while maintaining their own personal freedom and respecting each other’s humanity.

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‘Demics, Two Weeks Later

Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.

First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.

In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.

A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.

My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.

I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.

 

‘Demics

Desks in an empty classroom

This week, the nature of higher education in America changed, at least for the rest of the spring. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, or whether the choices our institutions have made will turn out to be worthwhile. Indeed, given the complexity of the situation, we may never get to be sure.

As recently as Monday morning, I could muse aloud that I had seen very little public discussion of the effects of spring break—when countless thousands of young Americans (and often their families) travel long distances at about the same time—on the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Within hours, I could no longer say anything of the kind.

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