Public education after the pandemic: Q&A with history professor Johann Neem
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the status quo for colleges and universities. With the shift from campuses to distance learning, students, instructors, staff and administrators faced a set of new challenges. Western Today recently spoke with WWU history professor Johann Neem, whose research interests are in the history of public education in America, about the possible lasting effects of the pandemic on teaching. superior public.
Western Today: How do you think the function of public higher education has changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?
JN: This is a big question. There is no single answer to the function of higher education, and I think the function of undergraduate education is different from the function of higher or vocational education. But the two main functions we have for higher education are to provide liberal education and to prepare people for civic leadership. Higher education also promotes social mobility and vocational training. I don’t think COVID has changed any of these functions, but it has made it clear that we need to provide people with better access and better support.
WT: Why do you think it is?
JN: Well I have one more thing to add to this first question which will relate to this. Another function of higher education in America, especially since World War II, has been to produce knowledge. One change we could see coming out of COVID is the importance of scientific knowledge produced by universities.
President Biden has made it clear that he wants to reinvest in academic research, partly to be competitive with China, partly for economic reasons, but also, because we have seen that knowledge serves public health. It serves our national welfare. I think one change we might start to see is a reinvestment in federally funded research and basic research in the arts and sciences. Already, Congress has passed legislation reinvesting in scientific research and innovation.
I think it will be a change – that COVID has only accelerated our awareness of the need for these kinds of investments.
I think COVID has also brought to light the precarious economic life of many students and their ability to complete higher education. It exposed something that academics have long been saying, that many students are now non-traditional. They have a family to look after. Students need to be supported, and I think this may be another place I hope there will be reinvestment after COVID. It does not necessarily change the function of higher education, but it does change other things.
WT: Do you think we’ll see a shift to new programs or teaching methods because of COVID?
One thing teachers were forced to do was really ask themselves, “What is the most essential part of my class?” I think it was probably healthy exercise. Getting around online and having less contact time forced professors to really focus on the essentials and think about what kind of structured learning would help students.
But I think the story is mixed. I would bet schools like Western – once we got the hang of online distance learning – probably did a better job than most of the big online schools because you had full-time teachers producing full programs.
I still think we could move forward in two ways. There is a lot of pressure to move online.
And on the other hand, the online experience was a simulation. It wasn’t the classroom, and there are two competing lessons that emerge from the pandemic on this.
One group of people will say, “Look, we can do this,” and another group of people will say how much has been lost moving online and why. Particularly for reasons of fairness, it is essential that we help students return to physical campuses.
I am with this second group. I think what is happening in America is that we use terms like “access” and “equity”. But, we give the less well off a second tier version, and we pretend it’s noble. This is the rhetoric of many online schools: “We give workers access. “
I think it is incumbent on institutions like Western to find ways to provide access for workers, first generation students, or people with family responsibilities to come to university. We’ve seen that the stakes are real, that campus matters, and that face-to-face learning is something that we really need to provide access to.
WT: What do you think it would take for this to be successful?
I think the most important thing about face to face learning is that it puts people in spaces with other people where learning is the highest goal. It takes people out of their “normality”. It creates communities that you are responsible for.
We know that people often learn by observing and watching others. It places people in a space where a teacher and his classmates can interact.
I think we need more flexible hours, to be creative about the way the program is organized and to provide more types of support for people who, for example, have to come at night.
One possibility that we could see more of is the hybrid approach, where you have a lot of interactive, common, and rich intellectual things happening in a focused way that also supports the community that is happening elsewhere.
We have to recognize that not everyone is available at 10:30 a.m. But how do you get around this? And it’s going to be tough.
WT: In your USA Today editorial on COVID-19 and public education, you wrote that we may see an erosion of support for public education. Why did you say that?
It was my fear in the midst of the pandemic. That the privileged formed groups and hired tutors, that we revert to a system where those who had the resources and the money would hire their own teachers, rather than pooling their resources through taxes to support all the children of the world. ‘a community.
When I wrote my story on the development of public schools, my book Democracy’s Schools, one of the things I discovered was – despite all the good rhetoric about all the noble intentions, all the noble goals of schools. public – as a parent you care for your child. Public schools, in a way, combined self-interest and collective good, and they did this by having these institutions in which everyone would invest in part for the good of their own child, but then invest effectively in other people’s children.
Not perfectly, we know the zoning laws and the inequality of the system, but he maintained a commitment to this system. If people can opt out, and they decide that this removal serves them, then that commitment to educating the children of others in the community would also erode, and we would return to a world of charitable schools rather than schools. public.
WT: Do you still see this happening?
I hope that will not happen. There are parents from different types of populations who, for various reasons, have found online self-directed studies to be good for their children. But I think most parents have also seen how important and essential local public schools are. My hope, again, is the same with higher education that I feel about K12, namely: this could be a disruptive moment that goes both ways, but I hope it reaffirms how these institutions are important to our society.
And rather than undermining them or going through some kind of disruptive innovation, we reaffirm our commitment to them and try to make them better.
And I think we don’t know yet, but I think it’s the same story where both outcomes are still possible.
WT: Has anything happened in the past that has disrupted higher education in this way or in the same way?
There have been plagues and epidemics before that have affected the campuses. The World Wars had a huge impact on campuses. The Civil War had a huge impact on campuses. The American Revolution had a huge impact on campuses.
And so yes, in that sense, those kind of temporary disruptions have happened. There are a lot of people who think that higher education hasn’t changed much and that there is a lot of continuity, but there have also been big changes.
The university today, with all the types of programs it offers, with the type of faculty it has, with the massive number of students it has. The mass university where so many people go to college is a modern invention and these kinds of changes were really disruptive even if they weren’t caused by natural disaster or war.
WT: Is there anything else you wanted to comment on regarding education and the pandemic?
I would add that both as the director of the history department and as a teacher teaching students, I was amazed at how determined my colleagues in the faculty were to do their best, to innovate, experiment and work very hard to provide the best possible education during a time of crisis, and how engaged the students were.
One of the cool things was that the students wanted synchronous lessons. They wanted as much of the full education as they could have and they wanted to interact with each other and with the teachers.
They had to work under difficult circumstances. The other thing we learned during the pandemic is that we are sometimes distracted by all the things that go on in life. Teachers have multiple obligations, students have multiple obligations, and we take it for granted that people are here to teach and to learn. But when it became the thing we needed to focus our attention on, we realized that it was actually the most important thing for so many people. When he was threatened, the students and faculty came forward to make sure we could continue, and I think that’s a really important idea.
Johann Neem is professor of history at Western Washington University. He is a historian of the American Revolution and the First American Republic, and an active contributor to the conversation about higher education reform. His writings include “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America” and articles published in the Washington Post, USA Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Seattle Times, and Inside Higher Education.