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?