We certainly know what killed Colin Powell. His weakened immune system was unable to withstand the assault of a powerful virus, despite the efforts of those around him to take all rational steps to prevent this outcome.
The question “Who killed Colin Powell?” is much more difficult to answer. It certainly was not the virus, which lacked any agency, and, therefore, cannot be construed as a “who.” To assign responsibility for his death, we would have to identify those individuals who made choices that led directly to the event. And here the number of suspects is quite large.
There was someone who failed to take the vaccine and, thus, served as a link in the chain of events that led the disease to Powell. There was the person who refused to wear a mask in a grocery store and, thereby, gave the virus to a clerk who passed it on to a family member and on and on until it eventually reached a person, whose immune system was unable to resist the attack. But the network of culpable actors does not stop there. We must include the talk show host who denied the reality of the threat and mocked efforts to prevent this sequence of deadly transmissions. And there was the governor who prevented schools from following rational protocols, and legislators who hobbled the efforts of local medical authorities to take reasonable precautions.
This network of individual decisions, based on ignorance, anger, or ambition, has, of course, resulted not just in Colin Powell’s death, but in those of tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of others. The depth of this tragedy is beyond our comprehension or our ability to bear. And so, the loss of a personal friend or of a public figure, such as Powell, to stands as a proxy for the larger catastrophe.
Those of us in academia may feel that we are we are well outside the chain of decisions that have spread the virus. Who would doubt that the professoriate is among the groups most committed to vaccination and other public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID? And are we not the most visible proponents of the kind of informed and rational decision-making whose absence has contributed to this disaster? Do not college classes explore the interdependence that underlies all social existence? We can (and often do) feel a certain superiority to those whose ignorance or ambition has led them to willingly be part of this catastrophe. From a certain perspective, the entire disaster can be viewed as a vindication of importance of the kind of knowledge we produce and as a sign that our work is not being given the kind of respect that it deserves.
Such an interpretation is, however, so self-serving that we might, as proponents of rational self-examination, wonder whether there is something smug and disingenuous about our assurance that we are entirely part of the solution and are completely free of responsibility for this disaster. We might start by questioning the explanatory framework in which things have been considered so far in this essay. Perhaps, it is inappropriate to think of the problem simply as a series of individual decisions about masks or vaccines. What larger social patterns allowed and even encouraged the kind of decision making, which we decry? What led so many people to lack the intellectual and moral resources to adequately deal with this threat?
When the focus of the problem is, thus, enlarged, it is no longer so clear that academia is removed from all responsibility for what is happening. At the core of the problem is a failure to reason and an inability to understand individual actions in a larger biological, social, and moral context. Is it possible that some of the blame might fall on those of us who have been specially tasked with fostering such abilities? We are quite ready to receive credit as advocates of science and reason and as champions of humane values. But such roles involve a duty to effectively propagate these qualities. Were there decisions that we made that may have contributed to the current dilemma? Were there institutional and cultural patterns within academia itself that led us towards choices that kept us from fulfilling our responsibilities to pass on essential understanding and, thus, contributed to the current crisis?
When we look at the inadequate response to COVID in this larger perspective, we have to recognize that in many cases the chain of causation may have run through our classrooms. Today’s skeptic of science may have set through lectures in physics or geology in which a professor, too occupied with the demands of research to think very much about pedagogy, marched students through a succession of facts without ever revealing the processes that produced and legitimized this knowledge. The medical professional, who accepts the theories of internet anti-vaxxers, may have learned little in biology courses beyond the bare minimum required for accreditation. The young people, who refuse vaccination because they themselves are healthy, may have passed through literature or philosophy courses, untouched by thoughts of their responsibilities to the people around them. History or political science courses that consisted of isolated facts or disembodied theories may have had no impact on the understanding of those who are now convinced that individual rights always trump all other considerations. And some of those who have contributed the most to our current problems may have been “educated” in institutions so committed to narrow technical training that their years in colleges gave them no tools whatsoever for dealing with complex social and scientific questions.
It is easy to respond that the problem is most serious among those portions of the population who never went to college. That, of course, ignores the fact that a significant portion of the COVID deniers, anti-vaxxers, and avoiders of collective responsibility actually did attend universities. And virtually all the others were exposed to K-12 teachers who spent time under our official tutelage. I have too many memories of colleagues’ disdain for education majors and my institution’s refusal to respond to the needs of these future teachers to imagine that the failures of primary and secondary education have nothing to do with what has happened within the ivory tower.
Of course, there is more than enough blame to go around, and higher education is only one of the institutions whose failure to respond to the needs of our society has contributed to the current disaster. There are most definitely limits to what we can accomplish, but we have only begun to collectively explore what those limits might be. The scholarship of teaching and learning has made the first, crucial steps towards actually fulfilling the promises that universities have made to their students and to society as a whole. But a real shift in our individual and institutional priorities is necessary if we are to be sure that we are not part of the terrible dysfunction that may bring our species to ruin. We can begin this transformation by acknowledging that our professional universe is not separated from the larger world and its problems, that the decisions that we make in the classroom will have unseen reverberations for generations, and that we do have responsibilities that are of greater significance than the furthering of our personal career goals.
David Pace, “Decoding the Ivory Tower,” October, 2021
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