Teachable moment

Pandemic intensifies classroom explorations of enduring societal questions for professors, students

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A Kansas City TV news reporter recently contacted me to discuss teaching at the University in the midst of COVID-19. She began the interview by asking how I explained the unprecedented nature and impact of the pandemic to my students.

Now, I’m a historian, and we historians are generally of the Ecclesiastes school of thought: “There is no new thing under the sun.” Unprecedented? If you want to talk about a pandemic, try the Black Death, which killed millions of Europeans during the Middle Ages; the waves of smallpox epidemics that devastated American Indians from the 17th to the 19th centuries; and, of course, the 1918-’19 influenza pandemic, which first became evident at Fort Riley and killed at least 675,000 Americans (in a total U.S. population of just over 100 million). Nonetheless, the reporter had a point.

We have responded to COVID differently from how Americans reacted to most previous public health crises. Almost from the beginning, the pandemic became a fiercely partisan political issue. Americans quickly came to have radically divergent understandings of what could and should be done to manage the illness, and those divides have only deepened over time. KU students, I soon learned, likewise held widely different views on COVID—often based on their political leanings.

KU Voice | David Farber

Consequently, discussing the issue with students remains tricky. As a professor, I feel strongly that it is not my business to push an ideological or political position on my students. At the same time, as we professors like to say, COVID has presented the University community a useful “teachable moment.”

The battles over how to respond to COVID open the classroom door to some of the most vexing questions of our time. In the morass of social media, cable TV and the near-endless recesses of the internet, how do we know which information is trustworthy? What is and what should be the basis of expertise and cultural authority in America’s democratic society? How should we balance individual freedom with the public good? And, from a vantage point of institutional self-interest, what does or should education at KU, one of only 131 Carnegie Research 1 universities in the United States, contribute to the search for truth in a world where so many, regardless of their training or analytic sophistication, feel called upon “to do their own research” on all matter of issues, even the most technical and scientifically complex?

None of these questions, obviously, have simple answers. That’s part of the learning experience at KU: embrace complexity and be open to intellectual uncertainty. I know my students live in a culture driven by social media bluster and clever memes, but I want them to learn how to recognize and make a well-substantiated argument based on the best available evidence. 

To develop those skills, as is a historian’s wont, I ask my students to look to the past to prepare themselves for the future. During the early months of the pandemic, for example, we read essays crafted in two distinct eras by two starkly different American thinkers: conservative philosopher Russell Kirk’s “The Essence of Conservatism” (1957) and President Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism,” the address he gave in 1910 at the dedication of the John Brown memorial in Osawatomie. How do these two Americans, I asked my students, envision good citizenship? How do they justify their claims to their respective audiences? How do they establish their authority to make such claims? To what extent do their essays reflect the times in which they lived? By examining  these and other readings and by answering such questions, students can develop the habits of mind that just might enable them to see through the carny shenanigans of too many of today’s public figures and withstand the dark rabbit holes of internet “research.” 

Teaching at KU in the Age of the Pandemic has offered both students and instructors unexpected opportunities for intense educational exploration. COVID and the fraught political battles that have swirled around it have forced us all to confront the meaning of leadership in our democracy, the utility of evidence in the search for truth, the acceptable balance between conflicting values and interests and much more. At KU, many of us have done our best—even amid so much COVID-related sorrow and uncertainty—to use our classrooms to grapple with the enduring questions the pandemic has placed in such tight focus. 

—David Farber

Farber is the Roy A. Roberts Distinguished Professor of History.

Photograph by Steve Puppe.

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