• Conversations on Diversity

    A blog by Eboo Patel, Mary Ellen Giess and Tony Banout that looks at identity and diversity issues from multiple angles.


Idealism in the Time of COVID-19

What inspiring things await us just around the corner from this crisis?

April 23, 2020

I run an organization called Interfaith Youth Core that works with college campuses and young leaders on interfaith cooperation efforts and there is something I want to shout from the rooftops: this is a time for idealism.

Don’t get me wrong -- I am well aware that we are in the midst of a global crisis marked by profound human suffering. Nevertheless, inspiration is all around us. IFYC’s alumni are clergy of different faiths who are taking inspiration from each other’s sacred texts and sharing tips on how to best offer comfort and lead services online. We have been in touch with dozens of health-care workers cooperating in interfaith circles of care, serving others and saving lives, sacrificing their own health along the way.

Read more about how alumni are serving -- Hannah Kardon, pastor of Urban Village Church, is virtually supporting her congregation, Rabbi Josh Stanton led the world’s largest virtual Seder and Aamir Hussain, M.D., is serving on the front lines in a New York City hospital.

The faculty and administrators that we know on campus are working together more closely and collaboratively than ever before. They are doing right by their students, they are giving strength to each other, they are continuing to be a community during a time of dislocation.

All of these people remind me of one of my favorite lines from the poet William Carlos Williams:

Who shall hear of us
in the time to come?
Let him say there was
a burst of fragrance
from black branches.

There are hard times ahead, and tough decisions to make, but I want us to linger on something else for a moment: we need to prepare to welcome a deluge of idealism to our campuses in the days and years to come.

We have all seen the media images of young people who partied on Florida beaches when they should have been physically distancing. But those of us involved in higher education know another truth: young people can have a momentary lapse of reason, but they are idealistic to the core. They want to help solve the hard problems.

The military understands this, too. That’s why the commercials for the armed services all advertise the difficulties of serving in the army. People join for the challenges, not the comfort.

Higher education knows this, too.

After Hurricane Katrina, the leadership team at Tulane University, under President Scott Cowen, instituted a community service requirement for all undergraduates. President Cowen described Tulane as playing a kind of Peace Corps role in New Orleans that required rebuilding.

The response? Applications soared. Just a few years after Katrina, Tulane received the most applications of any private university in the country. The community service requirement played a huge role. Idealistic young people wanted to be part of building something better.

What inspiring things might be awaiting us just around the corner from this crisis? Perhaps a doubling of students seeking to specialize in health-related fields? An increase in people wanting to advocate for adequate broadband access everywhere? A growth in those committed to improving online pedagogy?

My guess is we are going to see all of this and more.

By all means, we need to address the emergency at hand and attend to the grief and suffering in our midst -- but let’s also save some energy to tap the idealism that this moment will undoubtedly unleash.


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