A Crisis that Teaches

This draws from a series of reflections on excellent teaching published a decade ago.

The COVID-19 crisis has created unimaginable hardships for individuals, families, small businesses and international behemoths. Crisis knows no boundaries in how it impacts people and their lives.

At universities, ancillary activities were appropriately shed in response to the outbreak of COVID-19. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) was poised to begin the national basketball tournament, the focus of tens of millions of people yearly and the source of $1 billion in revenue (without which there is no NCAA). The enterprise came to a breathtakingly screeching halt. Clubs and organizations on campuses scuttled ceremonies as the year drew to a close. Scholarly meetings were canceled. Nonessential university travel was practically stopped. Graduation ceremonies went virtual. But, one thing remained constant—students attended class, principally online, and hopefully teaching and learning occurred.

Teaching was essentially all that remained at the university. And maybe that’s as it should be. After all the purpose of any university is to help people change the way they think. For example, a student who wants to be an engineer comes to the university and, in effect, says, “I want to be an engineer, but I don’t know how to think like one. Will you help me learn to think like an engineer?” The implied contract between the university and the student is that the institution will assist the student in the process of transformation. The student has the opportunity to gain skills, critical thinking ability, knowledge, insight and attributes that are keys to vocational success and intellectual fulfillment. This is the teaching/learning process. The backbreaking economic impact that swelled unemployment rates to near-record levels and challenged individuals and families in ways unimaginable only a few months ago did not diminish the commitment to teaching.

Teaching is about leadership. Teaching and leadership require the ability to cast a vision and pursue it. Little else matters. Contemporary society has worn out the idea of vision, believing anyone who can conjure up an image of the future is deemed a visionary. I think not. Vision casting, to have meaning and value, demands that vision has a motivating purpose. Whether a student and teacher communicate face-to-face or digitally, good teaching retains the acts of leadership and vision casting. The modality of the activity is important, but, for the focused teacher and curious student, effectiveness resides outside modality.

Victor Frankel in Man’s Search for Meaning captures the essence of both vision and teaching in the tension that exists between the two: What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost, but the call of the potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.” In comparing Frankel’s experience as a survivor of Theresienstadt and that of the student in freshman English, any perceived trivialization is unintended. Rather, the importance of finding value in experience as the way to direct the future as a significant part of both teaching and leadership which leads to learning. Possibly, the tension of change may intensify result, purpose and power. That choice rests with the teacher, the learner and the institution that bonds the two.

Faculty speak with passion about what they expect from students: the ability to construct a sentence; a concept of arithmetic that allows the application of basic mathematical laws and algebraic relationships; an ability to think clearly about an idea or concept and analyze it; and a sense of energy about learning, online or face-to-face. Students and their exercise of free will are not necessarily negatively impacted by how ideas and concepts are presented. Modality has little lasting impact on a dedicated teacher and student. Modality is a means to an end.

When teaching is ignited by human passion, it empowers people to change the way they think, to have a positive impact on those around them and to see how something simple can be profound in its application. No virus, no change of modality, no vacation from sport, club or extra-curricular activity can change that. In healthy universities populated by healthy people, the intensity and value of the act of teaching and learning can grow rather than dissipate during a crisis.

A crisis will intensify those things most important. A crisis can teach if we allow it.

Walter V. Wendler is President of West Texas A&M University. His weekly columns are available at http://walterwendler.com/.

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