It does seem odd to write so frequently about what is really a health topic — the COVID19 pandemic — in a column entitled Educationally Speaking. Yet it’s also a health topic that has been tearing at the heart of the educational status quo in the country since March of 2020 and one which may very well leave American schools irrevocably changed.
But why is that? The Spanish flu didn’t alter the course of American education. Polio, a particularly nasty killer and disabler of young people, left my mother and grandmother aghast with fear for their little ones but their little ones still headed off to school. When I was a kid, our neighborhood, Hilltop, held chicken pox parties not to protect or immunize against that childhood disease but introduce everybody to a current carrier so that we could all get it over with at once.
So, what’s changed? Why is COVID both a national crisis and a cultural dividing line?
The more I listen to people on this issue and all of the related issues — masks, distancing, vaccinations, etc. — the more I have concluded that this disease has struck not just at our health but at our soul, at two, deep-seated, American values: progress and resilience.
That Americans believe in progress can be found in the second motto on the nation’s Great Seal, novus ordo seclorum, i.e. a new order of the ages. The American Revolution didn’t just upend British rule, it established a ‘new American era.’ And with it, a new man, a new person, an American. The American did not accept what was, just because it had always been, which seemed to be the reality of the enormous European underclasses. As I say that, please understand that I do acknowledge that the Renaissance and the Enlightenment came from Europe. But in our national mythology, that rising of the human creature on its own two feet and to its full stature was only truly fully realized by this new creation, this American. It was the America vision, the American Exceptionalism that postulated, that knew, that nothing stood in our way, that anything was possible.
Between now and then, the scientific advances of the West, of which America is such an integral part and arguably in the pole position, have demonstrated just that. Anything was possible. Small pox was eradicated from the face of the Earth. Polio driven back to far-flung, even exotic frontiers. Malaria sufficiently rare that American doctors, two decades after WWII ended, could be forgiven for scratching their heads when a veteran/patient appeared before them with latent symptoms. The chicken pox vaccination is now required for school attendance.
Our American sense of progress does not, will not, accept a pandemic because, I suspect, we all kind of thought we were past that kind of nonsense. And we are not willing to return to accepting such a disease, not willing to accept that our progress does not always go one way. No ebb, all flow.
The other conflicting American trait, and one that has run headlong into that of progress, is resilience. We do not flinch in the face of hardship or a conflict. If we did, we’d still be under British rule and, even had we managed to escape that, we’d be 13 small states clinging to an Atlantic shoreline for fear of the wilderness, of the Appalachians, of the rugged realities of life on the frontier. Or we’d be a nation divided and half a nation enslaved, having let South Carolina and her Confederate sisters peel off rather than sacrifice 600,000 of our finest on the altar of freedom. If medical science and know-how can’t beat the pandemic, a matter still under debate, then stare it down and growl ‘do yer worst’ in its face. As more skillfully put by our 35th president, “Let every nation know…that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the success of liberty.”
So why has the pandemic so divided us? Perhaps because it has split us, like a freakish national schizophrenia, between two of our most fundamental national traits.
And two of our most admirable.