What the COVID-19 Pandemic Can Teach Us about the Value of Liberal Education

In his exquisite essay on the significance of Albert Camus’s 1947 novel The Plague in relation to the current global pandemic, philosopher Alain de Botton invites readers to reflect on the existential reality that “when it comes to dying, there is no progress in history, there is no escape from our frailty. Being alive always was and will remain an emergency.” De Botton reminds us that for Camus, the absurdity of suffering and random loss of life can be countered only through decency, striving to lessen the suffering of others. Like de Botton, Harvard historian Jill Lepore analyzes the underlying themes in Camus’s novel applied to today’s crisis, yet she does so in the context of contagion fables, concluding that “in the literature of pestilence, the greatest threat isn’t the loss of human life but the loss of what makes us human.” The perspectives offered by philosophers and historians such as de Botton and Lepore are more critical than ever as we confront the metaphysics of being human and conscious of living in the world. For despite the extraordinary advances that have been made in science over the centuries, appealing to technology is futile when it comes to grappling with the most fundamental questions of human existence rendered unavoidable by the proliferation of the coronavirus.

At a time of scarce medical resources, health care professionals across the country are being asked to decide which patient should be allocated the last ventilator, to treat those who have tested positive for the virus without access to proper personal protective equipment, and to comfort patients who are dying alone due to hospital-imposed bans on visitors. As a medical ethicist, I am often called upon to provide a framework for resolving complex dilemmas around end-of-life decision making, and the principles upon which the deliberation is grounded— beneficence, autonomy derived from respect for persons, and justice— remain unchanged. What has shifted, however, is a pivot to a public health ethics model that focuses on the welfare of the community over the welfare of the patient. Physicians trained in a culture that has privileged a patient-centered ethics that encourages focusing on what will be in the best interest of each individual patient are facing a new level of moral distress.

These daily scenes are playing out amid the backdrop of controversies over whether to allow the “compassionate use” of untested drugs such as hydroxychloroquine on dying COVID-19 patients and protests over lockdowns, with demonstrators citing the devastating impact of state orders resulting in thirty-three million people filing for unemployment over a seven-week period. The expansive partisan divide in our nation that has led to clashes around these issues is showcased on the evening news, as separate media spheres with competing ideologies construct narratives that reflect radically different realities around the seventy-eight thousand coronavirus deaths in the United States.  

Under such circumstances, a liberal education, designed to provide the skills and knowledge necessary to discern the truth, to speak across differences, to engage in ethical decision making, and to inspire sympathetic imagination, is crucial to preparing students for work, citizenship, and life and to strengthening our democracy. The call for colleges and universities to expand narrow technical training at the expense of a broad-based liberal education, spurred by a skeptical public and a growing chorus of legislators seeking the most immediate path to employability, ignores the reality that we need humanists and artists, in addition to scientists, in responding to the most urgent issues of the day.

AAC&U’s new publication on the future of liberal education, What Liberal Education Looks Like, is designed to guide higher education at this time of unparalleled transformation and uncertainty by presenting a clear vision of educational excellence that is founded on equity and inclusion. It is a vision that unveils the ways in which positioning students for success by providing them with the skills and knowledge necessary to address the unscripted problems of the future will require furthering our mission of advancing the vitality and public standing of liberal education by making equity and quality the foundation of excellence in undergraduate education in service to democracy. Fulfilling this mission will enable students to combine allusions to the past with what is happening in the world right now, to speak to a universality of experience, and to have the courage to exercise the decency called for by Camus during even the darkest of days.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

 

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