Our two-year-long journey through the dark valley of the COVID-19 pandemic has suffered the loss of a multitude of victims here and across the globe.
Few have not been touched in some way personally by these losses. Words like “unprecedented” and “immeasurable” have been used to describe the collective grief.
There has also been a rise to hero status for first responders and health professionals on all levels who have labored with commitment, energy and considerable risk to serve the immediate needs of victims. When the story of this era is told, they will deservedly be in the top tier of its heroes.
A concern is emerging now for a group of what we might call “second responders” – those who are now having to deal with the expanding consequences of the interruption to normal life that the pandemic has created.
I’m thinking of the teachers and other educational leaders who have been called upon to guide the educational ship through the turbulent waters of disrupted schedules and adjusted ways of teaching, on top of the challenges that are part of their “normal” process.
Having the opportunity to watch their efforts closely through the experience of family members has intensified my awareness of how consuming the practice of that profession is, especially in the midst of the current challenges.
Their role is less urgent, perhaps, than that of those who deal with the more immediate needs of emergency care. Yet, their function of helping a generation cultivate the intellectual, moral and ethical capabilities to live responsibly in an increasingly challenging world has an importance of its own on another level.
On the surface, everyone seems to appreciate and affirm the importance of education as a means of cultivating an informed and discerning population, which our nation’s founders claimed to be essential for an “experiment” like ours to succeed. It is hard to imagine anyone wanting to be considered “anti-education.”
Yet, there is an insidious tendency claiming a place at center stage of public attention to this essential part of our community life that is increasing the difficulty of a teacher’s work. It has little to do with education and everything to do with weaponizing it for political advantage.
In a way that is reminiscent of some of the conflicts over the teaching of evolution at various points of the last 100 years, certain “hot button” topics have been seized upon by political operatives and used to create wedge issues among the people whose cooperation is necessary for education to function.
Accounts of school board meetings descending into chaos amid accusations of subversive and damaging curricular elements, leveled on the basis of partial and misinformation, offer an unsettling picture.
Legislative proposals and campaign promises pledging to “ban” the teaching of certain aspects of our history, which will hinder the cultivation of respect for inherent differences among us, should be an embarrassment to an educated populace rather than a response to a crusader’s call to arms.
The mere presence of such efforts is the best evidence for the need for the very education being railed against. After all, the goal of education is to help students grow in their understanding of their world and to live as responsible citizens in it.
The teachers who embrace the responsibility of their calling to be facilitators of wholesome education have a hard enough job as it is, even in “normal” times.
They are currently among the “second responders” to the pandemic, and they are faced with the additional challenges that come with its disruption. Their stories suggest a level of heroism that deserves recognition, affirmation and appreciation.
Those who disrupt the delicate balance of the partnership of professional, parental and community cooperation and support deserve to be called what they are: opportunists willing to do anything that might increase their appeal to a populace made vulnerable by the crippling effects of a disruptive pandemic.
The unfortunate thing is that it seems to work.
Under the guise of “protecting our children,” they create additional and unnecessary obstacles to the very education that will help us learn history and develop perspectives that will serve us in the face of future challenges.
Weaponizing education should not be an effective means of gaining public office. A way to support our second responders would be not to reward those who engage in that with a vote.
Professor emeritus of religious studies at Mercer University, a member of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the author of Keys for Everyday Theologians (Nurturing Faith Books, 2022).