Profiles In Cowardice

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.


Image: Abbie Rowe, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

David Richardson

David Richardson has a M.A. in History from CSU, Fresno and has taught history in community colleges for 30 years.

10 thoughts on “Profiles In Cowardice

  1. Much of woke corruption that is destroying America’s colleges and universities is due the cowardice of their governing boards vis-a-vis administrators and faculty. That such cowardice is regrettably evident in the retreat of the majority of the University of North Carolina regents in so blatant a case as tenure for Hannah-Jones. Hannah-Jones has shown herself without any question a propagandist not fit for any position in an institution dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge.

    1. So who stood up for the trustees in NC? Anyone in the press? Probably not, forget that. So, anyone in the NC government? Probably not the governor, who is a Democrat. So, anyone in the state legislature? Not that I heard of. If people who will get support by taking such a stand, which would include a lot of the legislators, are too out of it or too cowardly, why would anyone expect the trustees to do any better?

      As it is, the journalist had enough sense and class to withdraw. I will give her credit for that.

  2. Great piece. It appears that many professors, lecturers, and administrators want to stay home & want to turn every university into University of Phoenix. As a professor of physical anthropology, teaching topics like osteology and bioarchaeology online is a poor substitute for hands-on learning. I would hate to have a forensic anthropologist, for instance, who never saw a real bone, especially since there is so much individual and normal variation that can be mistaken for trauma and disease.

  3. Let David Richardson play covid hero if he wants, but leave me out. His attitude is despicable, and is one of many reasons for our country’s disgraceful performance.

    Covid a “fauxdemic”? Shame! And shame on this website for publishibg this trash.

    1. ‘…a man who is good for anything ought not to calculate the chance of living or dying; he ought only to consider whether in doing anything he is doing right or wrong – acting the part of a good man or of a bad… Whereas, according to your view, the heroes who fell at Troy were not good for much, and the son of Thetis above all, who altogether despised danger in comparison with disgrace; and when his goddess mother said to him, in his eagerness to slay Hector, that if he avenged his companion Patroclus, and slew Hector, he would die himself – “Fate,” as she said, “waits upon you next after Hector”; he, hearing this, utterly despised danger and death, and instead of fearing them, feared rather to live in dishonor, and not to avenge his friend. “Let me die next,” he replies, “and be avenged of my enemy, rather than abide here by the beaked ships, a scorn and a burden of the earth.” Had Achilles any thought of death and danger? For wherever a man’s place is, whether the place which he has chosen or that in which he has been placed by a commander, there he ought to remain in the hour of danger; he should not think of death or of anything, but of disgrace. And this, O men of Athens, is a true saying.’ -Socrates, _Apology_

      David Richardson seems to think his “place” is on campus, in his college classroom, with his History students. “Death before dishonor,” man. David R. could get that tattoo.

      1. Oh, please, enough with the faux-Socrates. We’ve lost twice as many in this country to covid as we lost in WWII. That is enough. We didn’t need to lose three times twice as many. We certainly didn’t need to have scads of classes canceled due to professors getting covid, and perhaps even dying.

    2. Respectfully, it is YOUR attitude that is one of the reasons for our nation’s declining academic performance. What I find most telling is that no professor had to file for unemployment — the colleges kept the money but largely didn’t provide the education and got away with it.

      Employers know that the Class of 2021 spent three semesters in ZoomSkool and when they learn that this cadre of graduates aren’t any worse, it will be interesting to see if they are still willing to pay an employment premium for the college degree.

      1. Well, I taught 600 students during that time. At a tremendous cost in extra effort. I kind of thought I was helping to keep things going, while our incompetent “leaders” were floundering.

        The place I work wouldn’t have let me teach them in person even if I’d wanted to. For one thing (among many), they didn’t want to cancel my class if I got sick, as would have been pretty likely. As it was, I had to deal with enough students who came down with covid, even with all the precautions.

        You are a fool if you think no professor had to file for unemployment — higher ed was one of the hardest-hit segments.

        Your second paragraph is also ridiculous.

  4. The key sentence in this article was ‘We were not battling the Black Death or tuberculosis.’ How true and how completely lost in this whole discussion.

    My university has gone overboard to create “a safe and compassionate” fall quarter opening. Students must be fully vaccinated to attend on-campus classes—yet still have to wear masks indoors. Of course faculty must be masked at all times while lecturing. It should be entertaining watching French or Spanish instructors explaining the alphabet sounds while masked. What makes this whole thing a joke is faculty cannot ask the vaccination status of any students. They may, however, request an unmasked student to leave the classroom. I wonder what the odds are of that happening, let alone a student complying. We have staff pleading for the university to still allow them to work from home in the fall quarter. I wonder how many of them have no problem shopping at Walmart or eating at a local restaurant though. University resources are available for those experiencing stress about the fall re-opening.

    This just goes to show how divorced so many in academia are from reality. The lockdown mentality to the pandemic was excessive, ill-conceived, and formulated by the uninformed and the foolish. And to top everything off, the university is shocked that there is a significant drop in fall enrollments! It never dawned on them that their ridiculous, excessive response to a virus that is largely deadly only to a tiny segment of population—few of whom are ever on a college campus—has just provided more evidence to parents that a college education is in many cases not worth the money.

    1. And then there are places like UMass Amherst which went full-bore fascist in dimensions that are truly mindboggling — ranging from expelling three honors students for posing for a picture on a lawn some two miles from campus to demanding that off-campus employers fire their employees who happen to be UMass students. It got so bad at one point that Boston’s Howie Carr openly referred to it as “MCI Amherst” — i.e Mass Correctional Institution Amherst…

      I do wonder how fall enrollment will play out, students may be a fungible resource but they are not an inexhaustible one…

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