Post-coronavirus: The courage to build a “village of education”
Half a year ago, in December 2019, I boarded a plane to return to Ukraine and to Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) after a research semester at the University of Notre Dame. The future looked very different than it does now.
Coming back to Notre Dame always feels good and promising. I am able to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. The beauty of the campus is an aesthetic expression of a longstanding commitment to provide an education and environment which lovingly serves the students, faculty and staff. On this visit, I was accompanied by my wife and two of our younger sons; the experience turned out to be a wonderful family adventure.
On my transatlantic flight home to Europe I was browsing through my Notre Dame “follow up” and “to do” lists while trying to figure out and prioritize the best ways to strengthen the collaboration between our universities. The future looked promising. Last June, Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins, C.S.C. had visited us in Lviv to bestow the 2019 Notre Dame Award upon Archbishop Borys Gudziak, the President of Ukrainian Catholic University. Fr. Jenkins had movingly shared his UCU experience in his homily at Notre Dame’s opening Mass in September. Both universities were aligned in their respective missions and ways of advancing them.
Both universities, for example, understand that education at its best fosters and is embedded in a culture of encounter. We experience our togetherness as a gift of shared presence on a campus, in a classroom, on a sports field, and through common prayer. As I was heading home, I felt a sense of satisfaction and security. The vision was clear, the way forward exciting.
Education amid a pandemic
Now, six months after I finished my fall semester at Notre Dame, the future of education is uncertain. Many of us working in higher education are spending long hours trying to assess the impact of the pandemic and its consequences for universities. What assumptions should guide our decisions for the immediate and more distant future? Most of the experts agree that a “new reality” is already with us, permanently replacing the conventional way of running universities and providing education.
Ironically, ‘social distancing’ has long been a cultural norm, if you think of it as a ‘social indifference’ or ‘social ignorance’ rooted in a ‘me first’ attitude.
The pandemic has underscored our shared personal vulnerabilities to the virus and the weaknesses of our public health systems. Educational professionals do not seem to be particularly reflective, however, about another social reality revealed by the crisis—a longstanding problem of an anthropological and ethical nature. Ironically, “social distancing” has long been a cultural norm, if you think of it as a “social indifference” or “social ignorance” rooted in a “me first” attitude. The physical distancing triggered by the virus is meant to minimize its spread, but it does not address the ethical and anthropological “viruses” residing in our culture.
Education shaping culture
Over many years we have built a culture that favors consumption over stewardship, competitiveness over collaboration, and market solutions over civic responsibility. Education plays a crucial role in codifying our culture’s DNA and in transmitting it to the hearts and minds of new generations. Our massive ecological problems, for example, are culturally conditioned and sustained. Our personal interiority, fragmented and strained by uncertainties, is externalized and projected into the environment: the state of nature mirrors our way of self-understanding and our way of relating to other human beings.
“Ecological thinking” and acting motivated by an “after-my-life” concern are not inherent in a culture which discourages the inter-generational spirit of solidarity.
This cultural milieu is the deeper challenge to educators. The pandemic has made clear our shared culture’s indifference to the requirements of integral human development. How do educators define a concept such as “sustainability,” for example? If we live in a culture which celebrates “resume building” and pays little attention to cultivating the virtues one would wish to be celebrated in one’s “eulogy” (to borrow the formula of author David Brooks), how can we expect people to consider the fate of future generations threatened by environmental crises? “Ecological thinking” and acting motivated by an “after-my-life” concern are not inherent in a culture which discourages the inter-generational spirit of solidarity.
Our failure to grapple with environmental degradation is a byproduct of our effort to liberate ourselves from history by neglecting our calling and responsibility to the planet and to other people. How might educators teach the most profound lesson—how to live our lives as historical agents embedded in time and engaged in an interpersonal effort to preserve and nurture the gift of our shared humanity and environment?
It takes a ‘village of education’ to restore the idea of character and the cultivation of virtue.
It might be providential that only a few months before the outbreak of COVID-19, Pope Francis announced his initiative known as the Global Compact on Education. In launching the Compact, the Pope has invited us to establish a “village of education”; education, he declared, must become an all-encompassing project of human solidarity. He is quite explicit about the moral imperative required by the Compact : “[it demands] first of all the courage to put the person at the center; secondly the courage to invest our best energies with creativity and responsibility; thirdly, and finally, the courage to form people who are willing to put themselves at the service of their community.”
Indeed, it takes a “village of education” to restore the idea of character and the cultivation of virtue. And, as the pope makes clear, it takes courage for the villagers to put themselves at the service of their community, thereby giving witness to the truth of the proclamation that “the true service of education is education to service.”
In an article published in the Atlantic titled “The Organization Kid,” David Brooks offers a telling observation about academic ethos prevailing on the campuses of the elite American universities:
“One sometimes has the sense that all the frantic efforts to regulate safety, to encourage academic achievement, and to keep busy are ways to compensate for missing conceptions of character and virtue. Not having a vocabulary to discuss what is good and true, people can at least behave well. It’s hard to know what eternal life means, but if you don’t smoke you can have a long life. It’s hard to imagine what it would be like to be a saint, but it’s easy to see what it is to be a success.”
Educating for character
How, then, might we foster a moral vocabulary that allows us to speak meaningfully of “the good and the true”? Is it possible that our shared global experience of the COVID-19 “interruption” might call our attention to Pope Francis’s idea of creating a “village of education” and of inspiring the “triple courage” required to establish it?
Even—especially—in this time of institutional crisis for higher education, leaders in the field should invest their time and efforts in deliberating the best ways to courageously approach the “new reality.” What it will take to inculcate in students a sense of shared service and responsibility to humanity must be a prominent theme in these deliberations. For nothing less than a robust and comprehensive commitment to “educating for character” will lead us to a more humane, more sustainable era beyond the coronavirus crisis.
And so, I’m rethinking my “Notre Dame to do list.” Although some things were delayed or cancelled due to the unexpected circumstances triggered by the virus, a revised agenda should reflect the fact that our partnership itself has acquired a new meaning and importance over the last few months.
Self-isolating in our private spaces as we bear with the lockdown at UCU has taught us that in times of multiplying uncertainties, the authenticity of our interpersonal relationships remains a fixed point of stability and hope. The date of my next visit to Notre Dame is unclear. But I am confident that our profound experience of a shared humanity in all its moral fragility and physical vulnerability will give birth to a sustainable and dignified model of education. Attending that birth is atop my new priority list.