COVID-19 hit the U.S. higher education system like a tsunami, uprooting long-established rules, habits and taken-for-granted norms. Faculty members, administrators and students scrambled to swiftly readjust and find their bearings within a changed educational landscape.
We still remain very much in the middle of the storm, but the process of reckoning has already begun, as has speculation of what is to come in the future. It is possible that, similar to the aftermath of the 2008 economic downturn, the restructuring of institutions of higher education struggling with financial hardships within a depressed economy will lead to shifts in focus toward workforce development and skills education. I would, however, suggest that this moment, perhaps like no other, has revealed the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education. Let me illustrate using the example of a course that was collaboratively created at my institution during the tumultuous spring semester.
Most of the stories about the swiftness with which institutions readjusted to the unprecedented circumstances of the pandemic focused on the transition to online learning. Faculty members, many with no prior experience teaching online, were lauded for their abilities to recalibrate their courses and learn new technical skills on quick notice. Those efforts, no doubt, were remarkable, especially for the lightning speed at which they occurred. But less attention has been paid to the ways that educators also took on the much more vital task of pandemic education.
Early on, it became clear that students needed help finding the intellectual paddles that would help them navigate the choppy waters of a pandemic that had upturned their lives and left them facing an uncertain and anxious future. Existential crises often face us as the realm of the unthinkable, times when comprehension eludes us. These are also the times when the search for anchors makes us more easily prey to propaganda, conspiracies and false purveyors of easy fixes. So the need for rigorous, critical, engaged thinking became even more crucial as institutions went online, sending most students away from vibrant, thriving intellectual communities to confinement at home — away from peers and professors to push and challenge them on a constant basis.
Online learning is not the most conducive forum for the cultivation of the kinds of critical thinking skills that flourish in an in-person setting in which ideas can be exchanged, challenged and revised while looking someone straight in the eye. But the pandemic still called upon us as educators to harness whatever skills we could muster to help our students make sense of the crisis that was unfolding right before our eyes.
Critical and Creative Thinking From Multiple Angles
Over the two weeks that faculty members were scrambling to overhaul the entire curriculum from the intimate, intense experiences of a small residential in-person setting to a completely online version, my colleagues at Whitman College were also exchanging notes and ideas on how to add a study of the pandemic into their existing courses. They were doing so all across the college, in areas as seemingly disparate as biology and history or mathematics and politics. Out of those efforts emerged the course, Studying COVID-19: A Liberal Arts Approach to a Global Pandemic, the focus of which was to expose students to the multiple areas of study through which they could help make sense of the global pandemic.
Twenty-two faculty members from all three divisions of the colleges — Natural and Mathematical Sciences, Social Sciences, and Humanities and the Arts — recorded lectures related to COVID-19. Each lecture ended with a question that became the prompt to student discussions on online boards set up for that purpose. Students were encouraged to keep a daily journal that helped develop the kinds of skills and thoughtful contemplation (observation, analyses of patterns, creative productions, self-reflectiveness) that helped them process what they were reading, seeing, thinking, feeling in real time.
To finish the course, all students were expected to write an integrative essay on a preassigned prompt that required them to pull together what they had learned from multiple lectures across different academic areas. Much of the course, including the lectures and syllabus, have been now made public as an invitation to anyone else who wants to learn from the course, and for educators elsewhere to use as they see fit.
The course was a phenomenal success. Faculty members created it as an offering to students admitted to the college for the 2020-21 academic year who were unable this year to experience firsthand the intellectual liveliness of a small liberal arts college by sitting in on classes and seeing professors and students at work in a classroom. What the course revealed was the hunger among young people to process their own pandemic experiences, find tools to help make sense of the profound changes they were seeing all around them and in the world, and think through the challenges the pandemic exposed and posed. Simultaneously, it revealed to students that one particular academic angle to slice into a comprehension of COVID-19 was far too narrow and reiterated the value of a well-rounded liberal arts education to understand the complexity of the pandemic itself as well as the multiple social and political worlds within which it wreaked its havoc.
Lectures from the sciences helped students understand how the coronavirus hacks into human cells, while faculty members from the social sciences revealed why this human vulnerability was disproportionately distributed among racially and economically marginal groups. Colleagues from mathematics and physics used data visualization techniques to help students determine the possibilities and limits of modeling the spread of the virus and the shape of the curve to be flattened, while a social sciences professor demonstrated the use of GIS to identify hot spots in the travels of the virus.
A colleague from psychology asked students to think about what constituted abnormal psychological behavior during a time of widespread disruptions in our sense of the normal, while a colleague from philosophy meditated on the existential paradoxes of this “new normal.” A sociology professor helped students understand how changing forms of communication during the pandemic were transforming their own social relations, while other professors from the humanities brought students’ attention to poetry as a medium for coping with past plagues, the impact of traumas on the imagination and the responses of religious communities to questions of duty and worship raised in the current moment.
A collaborative lecture with a representative from the Indigenous community upon whose colonized lands our college sits disabused students of the exceptionality of the present by reminding them of past pandemics brought by European settlers. And a professor of politics discussed how the long history of associating immigrants with disease was manifesting itself in discrimination against the Chinese during the current pandemic.
The 170 students from all around the world watching these lectures responded with long, thoughtful posts about their own lives and their communities, comparing notes about the commonalities as well as the marked differences in their experiences. They articulated how breaks in existing habits had revealed the world around them in new ways, and they expressed both concerns about the future but also ideas for how they might step into the fray with more acumen and courage. Occasionally, they sparred over different visions of the future, such as with respect to the efficacy of market solutions to public health crises. And consistently and repeatedly, they thanked the professors for offering them a perspective, an insight, a new way to get a handle on the chaos around them.
What became increasingly clear as I made my way through these discussion forums was how much a liberal arts education focused on critical and creative thinking from multiple angles — even in the imperfect medium of an online course — was absolutely necessary in these times. Again and again, I found that high school graduates on the verge of entering higher education, isolated at home away from peers and nervous about embarking on life in college this fall, came intellectually alive through having an opportunity to think collaboratively with others about common challenges.
As happens after every societal crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic will most certainly lead many institutions of higher education to take stock of their missions, their existing structures and their curriculum. A broad liberal arts education that produces well-rounded, critical and creative thinkers has been one of the best gifts of the American higher educational system. Instead of foreclosing avenues to pursue that kind of education, the interdisciplinary COVID-19 course at my college showed that we should take this opportunity to reclaim its value as a public good. And then we must work toward increasing access to a much wider population.