As many of us are waiting for school to start (or not), it feels like we are standing in the eye of a hurricane. As both as a parent of school-aged children and a university instructor, I’ve been asked to prepare for a dizzying array of possibilities for what education might look like as we ride out the rest of Covid-19, and none of the possibilities are appealing. Schools and families have very difficult decisions to make, and it’s not clear that any of the answers are obvious. Covid-19 has not gone away, and lots of people are still dying. At the same time, though my family personally survived the trials of distance learning and teaching this past year, it was pretty harrowing, and our own circumstances shielded us from many of the hardships that devastated so many other families.
People have managed to get their children educated during wars and famines and plagues throughout history, so we know this moment is not singular. Since the global coronavirus emergency has put so much of what we’ve always done out of the question and so much of what we could otherwise do out of reach for the time being, this is a good moment to reevaluate what our young people really need right now.
Initially in jest, I was thinking about paring down expectations—à la Marie Kondo—for what I will be able to do in my (real or virtual) classroom and what I can expect for my children’s schooling: get rid of whatever doesn’t spark joy. Now, I don’t think this is a joke. It’s clear that we have to shift our expectations. I’m convinced that joy is the most important thing we can offer our young people right now.
People have managed to get their children educated during wars and famines and plagues throughout history, so we know this moment is not singular.
I could tell across the Zoom distance this past Spring that my University students were suffering and anxious. Those were the students who actually showed up. I fear for those who just ghosted midway through the course. Before the pandemic, we were seeing a sharp rise in anxiety and depression among children and young adults. After we are all vaccinated and the death counts plummet, our young people will remember that our planet is heating up and will go back to panicking about impending ecological disaster. The world will always be scary, and educators cannot single-handedly address the mental health needs of our students. It would be foolish to leave that all up to us.
However, as we decide what to teach and how to teach it, we should remember that more than anything, our young people need to have hope that they will be okay and the work they do as students is a rich source of value and meaning in their lives. We send them to school (or school them at home) not just to make them fine workers and citizens, but because they are human beings who will only find fulfillment if they are allowed to search after the truth. So for now, let’s foreground the joy of learning, just for the sake of learning, to give our young people some consolation in the midst of such fearful times.
After we are all vaccinated and the death counts plummet, our young people will remember that our planet is heating up and will go back to panicking about impending ecological disaster.
This does not mean we should coddle them, and no matter how sorely we are tempted to edutain them with the whistles and bells of the new technology we’re adopting, we mustn’t confuse joy with sheer fun either. Yes, learning should be fun sometimes, but should also involve hard work and perseverance through assignments that will bore at times. Likewise, we do not have to shy away from subjects that make our students uncomfortable. This term I will be discussing such lighthearted topics as global warming, racial inequality, and famine in the developing world.
Even when the subject matter is intense and the challenges of learning are many, the goal is to give students the opportunity to fulfil their natural longing for knowledge and to inspire them to look for answers and solutions and beautiful new possibilities that we, in our old age, can’t even imagine. That aspiration, I’m sure, is part of every educator’s biography. Now more than ever, we need to hold on to this admittedly idealistic goal to survive the hard times ahead.
We cannot give our children joy. They must catch it. They must see their instructor’s love of learning and engage in the educational process themselves in ways that allow them to experience the pleasures of learning firsthand. This is the time for educators to remember how to love what we do, and to let that love show. Keeping that in sight might just be what we need to be able to shoulder the seemingly impossible burdens before us.
Faith Glavey Pawl teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota
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