COVID, Learning, and Liberty

Bend the curve. Social distancing. A few months ago, these might have referenced grading trends or high school dances, but now, they seem destined to enter 2020’s lexicon as something we’d like to forget.

What’s it like to do distance learning at Providence? Two personal first impressions:

1) Providence teachers and students pivoted to online learning over a weekend, and though it wasn’t seamless, it was amazing. We are still doing excellent work! Just speaking for myself (other teachers are far more creative and competent than me), I’ve given lectures, had one-on-one tutorial sessions, class discussions, conducted a mock trial, and zoomed quizzes and tests. And, of course, students get grades. 

2)  But. There’s always a “but,” right? Online learning teaches you why a traditional face-to-face education is so valuable and “lockdown learning” (that’s my term) is so confining and incomplete. I miss lunchtime and study hall and before school and after school conversations with students. I miss the ease of traditional education. I typically had nearly 2000 minutes of face to face interactions with students each week, which is why I never longed to talk to anyone right after school—I was too tuckered out. Now, I’m lucky to get a few hundred virtual face to face minutes with students per week and I’m talking to myself too much at home.

The good news is, this will pass. No longer will I hear a freshman say, “Raise your virtual hand!” I won’t miss the occasional garbled audio feeds, the “just got out of bed” appearances from some students, the barking dogs and binging computers, and my own steep learning curves with distance learning.

Life will get much better. I have always reminded students how good we all have it. We are 35 times, give or take a few “times,” wealthier than our ancestors. Our problems are often (though certainly not always) trivial. The Black Death killed a third of Europe’s population in the 14th century. Chinese peasants mugged each other over the results of their retrieval of  buckets of “night soil” from the common latrines. Life is strained now, but our ancestors faced worse issues. We will defeat this virus, and when we do, inexorably, life will not only return to normal, it will be so much more sweet! The pent up demand will find goods, businesses will rehire workers, we’ll be able to sit down at restaurants, and the koinonia will return in full measure to our church gatherings.

Some things may change. In the past, crises tended to birth a statist leviathan; I hope that doesn’t happen. The handshake had a good, 1000 year run; that may be over. Some ways of doing business will evolve. We might want to stomp, virtually of course, on our Zoom software. And some good will perhaps emerge–a re-emergence of federalism would be refreshing, as states do their own experiments in reacting to the virus.

But let’s also embrace the “not change” portions of our lives when the corona virus is dethroned. Let’s enjoy lively give and take, good communal meals, hugs and shoulder rubs. Let’s continue caring for the vulnerable, and look forward to the day when students and teachers can both return to our classrooms, white boards, shared dining tables, sports, plays, games, lounging on the artificial turf—the things that make life sweet.

See you all, hopefully soon—in the classrooms, not at all virtually, but in flesh and blood, and sooner than we expect or fear.