Why School Matters During the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the coronavirus crisis continues its surge around the world, educators are having to learn and experiment with new forms of content delivery mid-semester. For example, my university, a school that’s spent 100+ years teaching in physical classrooms, is making a complete transition to distance learning almost overnight. It’s challenging everyone — teachers, students, parents, and administrators. Lots of mistakes are going to happen, and everyone involved is going to get frustrated at some point.

In the process of thinking about education amid the current chaos of a global pandemic, I find myself remembering another turbulent moment from my educational past. On September 11, 2001, I was a student at Duke University, the same school where I currently teach.

After the planes hit the World Trade Center and Pentagon on that chilly Tuesday morning, most Duke professors canceled their classes. But not my Music In Society professor. He refused to cancel. Instead, at 1:00 on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, while all my peers — and most of the world — were still staring at their TVs in disbelief, I had to pack my backpack. I remember my roommate asking: “Who cares about a stupid music class on a day like today?”

Twenty minutes later, my professor entered our small seminar room. He sat in his chair at the head of a long conference table surrounded by 15 confused and scared students, and he said:

“I know you’re wondering why I didn’t cancel class. I didn’t cancel because the work we do here is so important that, during World War II, while German planes were dropping bombs on London, professors were teaching classes in the subways. Think about that for a second: they were teaching classes in the subways while bombs were exploding over their heads. That’s how important education is.”

The room was silent for another few seconds. Then my professor wiped away his tears, shuffled his papers, and began the day’s lesson.

I’m retelling this story because the COVID-19 pandemic is putting us in a similar situation. To be clear, the purpose of this post isn’t to compare tragedies. Is coronavirus worse than 9/11? Better? Why bother comparing the impacts of the two events? Where would that debate get us anyway?

Instead, I want to argue that something happened on the morning of September 11th that’s happening again, albeit more slowly. Our collective feeling of security is being tested by a new threat that seems entirely beyond anyone’s control. While we don’t yet know everything about COVID-19, we do know it will forever change our world.

Like a lot of teachers, I’m preparing to sit in front of my class for the first time using a remote video conferencing platform. My students are spread around the world. They’ve had their lives disrupted. Some of them are struggling to find “homes” to be in. They’re worried about their friends, families, and loved ones. And I have to ask all of them to put aside their fears, forget their concerns, and ignore their insecurity so I can teach them about entrepreneurship.

In my head, I can’t help but hear a perversely echoed version of my roommate’s words as I packed my backpack on September 11, 2001 and prepared for class — “Who cares about a stupid entrepreneurship class on a day like today?”

…they were teaching classes in the subways while bombs were exploding over their heads. That’s how important education is…

In the coming weeks, as the world deals with its forever-altered reality in the wake of COVID-19, teachers, students, administrators, and even parents are preparing for a new challenge: we have to find ways of continuing to educate people. And I don’t just mean traditional students. I mean everyone. None of us are beyond education, and the digital technologies of the world give billions of people unprecedented access to knowledge.

I believe making knowledge accessible is the world’s “silver bullet.” Education is the solution to every problem in this world from pandemics, to terrorist attacks, to environmental change, and even all the things we haven’t thought to worry about yet.

Yes, I know how naive that statement seems. Yes, I know education is also the cause of lots of the world’s problems. I’m OK with that, too. Any power strong enough to make the world a better place will inevitably be strong enough to make the world a worse place. That’s a tradeoff educators have to accept.

It’s a tradeoff I personally make every day when I teach entrepreneurship courses. After all, many of my lessons are as applicable to drug dealers as they are to people trying to cure cancer. And that’s why school matters. Educating people doesn’t just mean sharing knowledge. It means combining the knowledge we share with a sense of purpose and value so the knowledge can be used to improve our world rather than destroy it. That doesn’t stop because of a coronavirus. It can’t stop. We can’t let it.

So, when I sit down in front of my class for the first time in weeks, I’m going to start by reminding my students of why we’re together. I might have to wipe away a tear or two. And then I’ll begin my lesson.

…they were teaching classes in the subways while bombs were exploding over their heads. That’s how important education is…

I teach entrepreneurship at Duke. Software Engineer. PhD in English. I write about the mistakes entrepreneurs make since I’ve made plenty. More @ aarondinin.com

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