If teachers faced unprecedented challenges in 2020, imagine what befell their students. No matter what government does or how the rest of society fares, children could use a shining moment from teachers in 2021.
As part of a capstone project in our educator preparation program, we decided to apply the tenets of a largely forgotten philosophy of education and turn to an unlikely expert for guidance on how to meet the latest challenges. According to perennialism, the purpose of school is to pursue learning for its own sake, developing intellectual power, moral strength, and aesthetic sensibility by interrogating enduring sources of inspiration found in art, history, music, literature, and philosophy itself.
We wondered if one source that might help illuminate a path during the darkness of our current crisis is a novel called “The Plague” where, in the aftermath of WWII, the celebrated philosopher Albert Camus traces the evolution of fictionalized events that occur in Oran, a small French village in Algiers suffering isolation and death from an epidemic. As the outbreak becomes obvious, Oran is eventually quarantined from the rest of the world while the lives of many citizens are largely put on hold. From “sanitary squads” of volunteers dealing with mounting corpses to official daily death reports and conversions of public buildings to medical use, the novel’s depictions seemed eerily familiar as “pandemic” became civilization’s centerpiece last year. After laying Camus’ storied plague alongside an actual one, our 10-month conversation yielded several lessons relevant to teachers today.
The first lesson has to do with layers of prejudice and unfairness that are exposed during times of emergency.
As the disease spreads in Oran, it becomes clear that while there maintains “an inerrable equality in contraction and death,” there is a glaring inequality in terms of dissemination of commodities like food and even the “luxury of wanting.” This highlights how one societal problem will often uncover other pre-existing conditions. On one hand, our Coronavirus crisis helped to intensify racial tensions and ideological divisions that have percolated for decades. On the other hand, our epidemic is not like Camus’ in that it has indeed stricken some groups harder than others. Either way, the author invites us to pause and consider how self-serving vultures are often found waiting to capitalize on others’ misfortune. When one part of society collapses, another is ready to consolidate and widen disparities that existed before the calamity.
As teachers, it is our charge to mitigate against these systemic injustices, refusing to treat disruptions like soap operas or sensationalist media campaigns, what Camus calls “newspapers playing ball with the plague.” A higher standard is to rise above propaganda, hyper-partisan politics, and limelight hounds looking to bolster reputations, while resisting the tyranny of opportunists whose primary purpose is to expand power. Identity seekers of any stripe should not be allowed to impose an implicit curricula based on personal or political agendas, nor should viewpoints be “cancelled” before engaging in reasoned discourse over legitimate ideas and multiple perspectives. We were taught that critical thinking in a weak sense is driven exclusively by the desire to win at all costs. According to experts at the Center for Critical Thinking and Moral Critique at Sonoma State University, strong sense critical thinking demands insight into deeply held assumptions, even making the best possible argument you can against your own most treasured views. The goal of this kind of thinking is rigorously defensible convictions about the way things are or the way they should be.
This begins with resisting dogmatic ideologues and rioters alike who only hope to profit from the delirium of the moment.
Another lesson we extrapolated from The Plague is that teachers must confront forces threatening to undermine the process of learning itself.
One force involves a dangerous capitulation to ubiquitous technology and the specter of our appetite for it. Faced with consequences of prolonged isolation, the people of Oran “once linked together by affection” are eventually “reduced to hunting for tokens of their past communion within the compass of a ten-word telegram” (the book was written in 1947). We can’t help thinking how inured we have also become to what Camus calls “intellectual pabulum” – incessantly texting or tweeting on superficial airwaves or surfing over floods of sensationalized headlines – pretending that these mindless machinations are more than a shallow substitute for substantive conversation.
Camus’ description of exhausted people “conforming listlessly to the rhythms of the plague” and who end up talking to each other “like a colloquy of statues” is reminiscent of spirit draining out of another digital meeting. We don’t have to abandon technology, but we must cultivate skepticism toward oxymoronic fads like asynchronous discussion or virtual reality. We should generate a more purposeful and lasting dialogue that nourishes mind, body, and spirit instead of cheerleading for companies who gorge themselves while, according to Camus, our children’s “souls die for spiritual hunger.”
A third lesson is the need to recognize how dichotomous thinking can be especially destructive during times of hysteria.
In our education program, for example, we talk about the separation of church and state. While it may not be our job to proselytize a particular doctrine, teachers provide a bridge between the secular and the sacred, between science and faith. They are also too often the last source of support for disadvantaged children, whose sense of hopelessness can be exacerbated during an emergency.
At the height of citizens’ hopelessness, Oran’s priest shares a story about 81 monks inflicted by a scourge in their monastery. Only four survived, and of those only one stayed behind to minister to the needs of the larger community trapped by the outbreak. Camus describes how the story’s main character, a physician named Dr. Rieux, works side-by-side with the minister as they become united around a common and humane purpose, “unpartable in their fight with death, each in their own way.” It is incumbent on faculty and staff to remain dependable caretakers and steadfast models of good moral character in a developing child’s life, especially when the going gets tough. We offer the same exhortation to teachers that Camus’ priest made to his fatigued parishioners, “My brothers and sisters, each one of us must be the one who stays!” (italics ours)
Critics have argued for decades whether The Plague is a fatalistic credo on the futility of any human response in the face of despair. Schools are often the target of criticism for societal problems while school workers who keep their post during a disaster are largely taken for granted. Even on this phenomenon, however – the simple act of showing up during challenging times – Camus has a lot to offer professionals facing a disease-infested dilemma. Of the teams of sanitary volunteers dealing with those who were near death, he writes: “Those who enrolled … had … no such great merit in doing as they did, since they knew it was the only thing to do, and the unthinkable thing would have been not to have brought themselves to do it.” There are plenty in our midst who work every day with those who are isolated or dying. Which teachers among us will go to school simply because it is unthinkable not to meet the social and intellectual isolation of children who once dwelled therein?
Our society has an obsession with casting spotlight and naming heroes, while Camus goes to considerable length to demonstrate how little such attributions mean in the daily lives of distressed individuals and troubled communities. What distinguishes Dr. Rieux is how clearly he soldiers on day after day while attending to patients both great and small, even as he describes feeling “more fellowship with the defeated than with saints.” In the face of grave doubts, the doctor discovers that “common decency” is the only lasting reward for doing one’s job. He remains tireless in his efforts to alleviate suffering when the odds become stacked overwhelmingly against all medical interventions. He explains, “heroism and sanctity don’t really appeal to me … there are sick people and they need curing. … I defend them as best I can, that’s all.” Which teachers will defend the whole child even when standardized outcomes held up by the system as measures of success are rendered meaningless by more relevant criteria such as sacrifice, persistence and integrity?
In the end, The Plague invites teachers of any era to consider what it means to lead others out of ignorance no matter the odds, embracing timeless truths without defying what Dr. Rieux poetically calls “the bleak sterility of life without illusions.” Camus muses specifically about the risk educators assume if and when they accept the responsibility to put truth ahead of personal reputation and professional comfort:
We do not congratulate a schoolmaster on teaching that two and two make four…. But again and again there comes a time in history when the man who dares to say that two and two makes four is punished with death. The schoolteacher is well aware of this. And the question is not one of knowing what punishment or reward attends the making of the calculation. The question is that of knowing whether two and two do make four.
We may ask too much of our schools, but the fact is that many children suffer their own private version of a plague, be it mental dysfunction, emotional anguish, over-diagnosis leading to prescribed medications, or separation from the people who claim to love them. These conditions are magnified yet often ignored during times like these. A teacher must face such realities without succumbing to simplistic panaceas like “more money” or equally naïve justifications for failure such as “not enough technology.” When detractors assert that the task is futile, it is paramount to face the latest crisis as Dr. Reiux and his lay associates faced theirs, with “certitude that a fight must be put up, in this way or that; … there must be no bowing down.” We simply cannot allow a change in routines to become an excuse for abandoning awareness and action on behalf of those who are most vulnerable, a designation that is not just defined by race or socioeconomic status.
The best teachers bring a voice of calm and reason when fear and hysteria get the better of pundits or dogmatists, even if it’s a well-meaning preacher or parent. At the same time, they model passion and conviction when other role models grow weary or become complacent. We can, we must, do both.
Camus reminds us that “what’s true of all the evils in the world is true of plague as well. It helps men and women to rise above themselves” (italics ours). We are the narrators of this story, and we must tell it with hope, for as The Plague’s narrator discovers, “there can be no peace without hope.”
This pandemic moment has potential to level the playing field and strengthen teaching in ways we could not have predicted. Or it can render those in the vocation more helpless. The “two plus two equals four” of our calling is to both recognize and transcend divisions between home and school, spirituality and medicine, rich and poor, black and white. We are not the first to face such challenges and we won’t be the last. Holding onto perennial ideals while addressing immediate realities is an irreducible risk of our profession, during good times and bad. It is the higher standard to which teachers are called, each and every day. One reason we know this is because we studied ourselves and Camus, in school.
Geoffrey Scheurman is professor of teacher education at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. Danielle Lewis is an elementary education math and art major and graduate of Park High School in Cottage Grove. Michaela Raleigh is an elementary education early childhood major and graduate of Merrill High School in Wisconsin. This conversation and collaborative essay stemmed from a personal philosophy project in a capstone course called School and Society.
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