Building a Better Future Through the Pandemic

Colleges and universities have a responsibility to mitigate and direct its impacts in innovative and positive ways, writes Fernando M. Reimers.

July 30, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic is having profoundly disrupting effects in many spheres of life, causing much suffering in the present, and it is likely to shape our collective future for years to come. It is not just the obvious death toll from COVID-19 that will impact individuals, their families and their communities. The multipronged consequences of the pandemic in multiple areas of life will also shape the life chances of the survivors.

Take the economic impact, for instance. The pandemic will create financial burdens on individuals and nations that will likely accelerate and extend an economic recession. That recession, in turn, and the financial toll resulting from the public health costs of the pandemic, will constrain the ability of federal and state governments to fund other needed social services, such as education, further limiting the opportunities to advance human well-being.

We can’t easily foresee all those impacts, and they will undoubtedly interact with each other in various domains, creating further unanticipated challenges. For instance, the pandemic and its direct effects will very likely intermingle with pre-existing levels of economic inequality, the processes that cause climate change, growing political polarization and pre-existing constraints on education financing. And those effects will accelerate and amplify others, perhaps producing entirely new challenges. That is why the true ramifications of this pandemic will only be known after the fact.

Indeed, the study of the historical record of pandemics shows that they can have surprising and even opposing impacts. Those impacts are not linearly traceable to pandemics as the single cause. Rather, pandemics have often interacted with other processes like economic and political crises, resulting in significant social and political disruptions.

For example, the social disruption caused by the Black Death -- which arrived in Italy in 1348 and took the lives of 25 million people in just a few years -- also disrupted the rigid social hierarchies of medieval Italy. That enabled the social mobility of families like the Medicis, who would play a crucial role as patrons of the intellectuals and artists who helped spark the Italian Renaissance. The Medicis’ support of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Machiavelli and others whose ideas and work cross-fertilized in the small city of Florence, coupled with the increasing questioning of established truths, fueled a new intellectual curiosity in politics and philosophy, especially among urban elites in northern Italy.

In contrast, the influenza pandemic of 1918 and its economic aftermath compounded the political challenges in Germany when the Weimar Republic was proclaimed there in November of that year. The downward impact of the pandemic on municipal spending and the ensuing economic challenges facing the Republic, along with upheaval caused for the government once the public knew the full terms of the treaty of Versailles, revived and radicalized right-wing extremists. They resorted to political violence, assassinating 400 politicians in a period of just two years. That growing extremism eventually provided the basis for the coalition that the relatively small National Socialist German Worker’s Party and their leader Adolf Hitler formed to attempt a coup in November of 1923. Economic turmoil over the ensuing decade, accelerated by the onset of the global economic depression in 1929, eventually resulted in the rise of Hitler to power in 1933.

Toward a Renaissance

We do not know what disruptions will be caused by the COVID-19 pandemic or how they will interact with other challenges of our times, political or economic. Whatever those challenges, colleges and universities can contribute in distinct and important ways to steer the course of developments following the pandemic toward a renaissance -- and away from breakdowns of the democratic political order -- as they focus their research, teaching and extension missions on those challenges and contribute to generate options to mitigate their impact.

Take, for example, the pandemic’s probable impact on education. In the short term, the social distancing measures to contain the spread of the virus have limited the ability of educational institutions, at all levels, to deliver their services until a vaccine is widely available. As a result, a significant number of students could lose learning opportunities with predictable long-term results to them and to society. That could, in turn, further augment social inequality and social exclusion, as well as diminish America’s prospects for economic recovery or ability to produce the changes needed to slow or revert climate change.

Under the surface of the such challenges, however, considerable innovation is taking place in elementary, secondary and higher education institutions as they seek ways to sustain educational opportunities. Such innovation is valuable not just to continue to educate until a vaccine is available but also to address pre-existing deficiencies of education systems. Those include, for instance, the insufficient attention given to developing the breadth of skills essential in the 21st century and the substantial inequalities in the opportunities to learn among children of different social or racial backgrounds. Colleges and universities can play a valuable role in studying and disseminating such innovation -- or more directly, in contributing to generate it -- not just for their own students but also for those at pre-collegiate levels.

In so doing, higher education institutions would be fulfilling an essential part of their role: to be engines of social innovation, advancing knowledge that contributes to the improvement of the human condition. And they would also be teaching their students how to solve emerging unexpected challenges, which would be a valuable way to prepare them to lead in a world of increased complexity and volatility.

For instance, many of my students and former graduates at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, in partnership with colleagues at the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, the World Bank and the nonprofit organization, have been studying innovative responses to sustain educational opportunity in primary and secondary schools around the world. We have conducted two large-scale surveys to assess how teachers, school leaders and government officials are continuing to educate during the pandemic. We’ve also curated a list of online education resources to support remote instruction, and we are studying cases of educational innovation in which local, state and national governments, as well as school leaders and education entrepreneurs, are finding ways to sustain education amid the challenging conditions created by the pandemic. Such activities fit squarely within the research and teaching missions of the university, and they require more goodwill and curiosity than an inordinate amount of resources.

If only a fraction of the approximately 28,000 colleges and universities in the world took it upon themselves to engage in the study, generation and dissemination of educational innovation to support primary and secondary schools as they face the challenges of education during the pandemic and those that persist after it, and if we engaged our students in similar work in other domains affected by the pandemic -- public health, local government, business, arts and culture -- we would be preparing our students for the increasingly volatile and uncertain world they will have to lead. We’d also be steering the course of events unleashed by this pandemic toward a renaissance and not the alternative.


Fernando M. Reimers is the Ford Foundation Professor of the Practice of International Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he directs the International Education Policy Program and the Global Education Innovation Initiative.


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