In 1956, then-Senator John F. Kennedy was presumed to have written a short book of biographical essays which chronicled the stories of eight U.S. senators who at times of potential crisis in American government defied conventional wisdom and made unpopular but right decisions. In some cases, these decisions cost them their political careers. He won the Pulitzer Prize that year and, in 1990, the Kennedy family instituted an annual award given to an American political figure deemed to have shown similar courage. In more recent years, one of Kennedy’s speechwriters has acknowledged doing most of the writing, and over the past few years, the award has been given to politicians not for doing what is right regardless of the consequences, but for promoting a political agenda that seems at odds with the American virtues extolled in the original book. Both Nancy Pelosi and Mitt Romney are recent recipients of this award, not for making the tough choice to put principle ahead of party, but for their single-minded pursuit of a political vendetta to punish a man that they deemed “unworthy” of holding political office.
As we near the end of the traditional academic year, I see something akin to this trend taking place in higher education. May and June are usually the months when we celebrate the accomplishments of students that we have taught, mentored, and guided as they move on to the next stage of their lives and careers. We congratulate them and ourselves as they take the knowledge and skills that we have given them and encourage them to use those things to enrich not only their own lives, but the lives of their families and communities, as well as their nation. For my college, this graduation was supposed to mean something special, as it was our first as a newly accredited college, but as graduation day approached, something seemed to ring hollow for myself and some of my colleagues. It seemed as if the college was trying to paper over the fact that for the past year and even more, we had failed in our mission to provide our students access to the educational opportunities they deserved and that so many previous generations of students got to enjoy.
In March 2020, I was part of the team that debated whether we should shut down our campus in the face of a new epidemic disease, COVID-19. As one of the older members of the group and someone who has wrestled with respiratory issues since birth, I might have been expected to argue in favor of shutting the college down out of an abundance of caution and concern for my own wellbeing, if for no other reason. But instead, I was the only member of the committee who argued for keeping the campus open despite my own personal risks. Colleagues who were over twenty years younger and far healthier than I had already stopped coming to campus. In the end, it didn’t make much difference, as the decision to close down the schools was taken out of our hands by the government, and we were told that “fifteen days to flatten the curve” was a small price to pay to keep our medical systems from being overwhelmed by this new disease. We were promised that in two weeks, we would be able to resume our normal work schedules. Two weeks turned into two months, and then the shutdown was extended to the summer sessions just to make absolutely sure that infection rates were dropping and the disease was under control. One semester turned into two, two turned into three, and here we are fifteen months later, still waiting to go back into the classroom and resume our primary responsibility of educating our students.
But wait, one might argue, we never missed a step educating students. We simply changed modalities. We still offered classes, gave lectures, and granted degrees. Online education and modern technology allowed us to continue to give our students the same kind of time, attention, and insight that we could offer in a face-to-face environment. Now, I’m not saying that online education doesn’t have its place in higher education, but to say that we could change on a dime and do all the things online that we had previously done in-person was naïve at best and disingenuous at worst. I’m sure that many instructors tried their best to provide their students with the best education possible under the circumstances. We took the training, got the certifications, and tried to incorporate what we learned in our online classes, but to say that we were still providing the level of engagement that we could face-to-face simply isn’t true— if we are honest with ourselves, we acknowledge that fact. We did what we could, but we became search engines and podcasters, not educators. There was no real connection, no spur-of-the-moment interaction, and, most of all, no ability to get to know the real people who were our students. Everything was limited by and confined to the technological parameters made available to us. We will probably never know the full extent of the damage that was done to our students academically, socially, and personally.
And now, we pick up where we left off over a year ago. At my college, the first on-campus event in over a year was a half-hearted attempt at a graduation. Students who perhaps had never set foot on the physical campus were invited to participate in one of two separate graduations, as long as they observed all the required protocols: social distancing, mask mandates, only two family members in attendance, etc. The only time they didn’t have to observe these restrictions was while walking across the stage to greet the platform party and take a picture with the college president. All this came after the CDC had revised its guidelines and multiple states had dropped all mandates, essentially resuming life as normal. While many of my colleagues insisted that it was all for the students, I was not entirely convinced. How much of it was for them, and how much of it was for us?
We tell ourselves that we were really the courageous ones who had persevered despite incredible odds, when in reality, we had been among the first to cave in response to what ultimately proved to be a fauxdemic. We were not battling the Black Death or tuberculosis. We had not even like the saints of old continued to go out amongst the masses to offer aid or comfort to those in need without regard to the consequences for ourselves. Instead, we cowered in the shadows and let our students pay the price. Now that the “crisis” seems to be passing, many of us feel the need to justify our actions. Some of us tell ourselves that we were only following orders. Forces greater than ourselves were setting the agenda. Some of the most deluded among us will simply refuse to acknowledge that anything was ever wrong, and that if anything, the quality of education actually improved because of the pandemic. And the unluckiest of us, those who actually live in the real world, will simply have to live with the fact that when our students needed us most, we failed them. But let’s not rewrite history. We were not heroes. Most of us showed little if any courage, and just like a Profile In Courage award won’t change the political legacy of Nancy Pelosi or Mitt Romney, all the self-congratulatory graduations won’t change what we did. It was not a Profile In Courage. It was a Profile In Cowardice.