Debates are raging around the dangers associated with reopening schools in the fall. While there is, I presume, some degree of danger in reopening schools, Catholics should, I say, face it rather than fall to the greater danger of disillusionment and demagoguery. In fact, education should be dangerous. Education at its best is dangerous, and our brave new COVID world affords an opportunity, both symbolically and actually, to restore this forgotten educational attitude.
COVID-19 has given the mantra “Safety First” an all new meaning. And safety should be first when it comes to rampant mortal dangers such as pedophilia and child abuse, pornography, drug addiction, violent crime, and moral relativism. But when it comes to those things inherently worth doing—such as experiencing creation, discovering humanity, encountering divinity—such life-altering things can’t be called “safe,” and they are the actions of an authentic education.
If our children must be taught anything it is that they should live their lives and how they should live them. They must learn to be the salt of the earth, and not cowering slaves or compliant serfs. They must learn to stand out, not assimilate. They must learn to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves—which means knowing the balance between love of neighbor and the limits of government. They must learn to shine with the Image and Likeness of God, instead of how to capitulate with the ungodly like faceless, mindless, subservient cogs.
Fear and trembling, therefore, should not be in the curriculum.
There’s no such thing as an eradication of all threats, microscopic or otherwise. While children should be protected with prudence, prudence also demands they should be presented with the dangers inherent in all that is meaningful from cradle to grave in a manner that does not cause terror or trauma. Fear discourages the dangers inherent in knowledge, love, and life. Most things worth doing are dangerous and hard, like going to school in a climate that values physical health above spiritual and intellectual health.
There is a strong push from President Donald Trump, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, and educators across the country for schools to resume in-person, full-time instruction despite the fears and dangers associated with COVID-19. Even the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an article recently on the importance of reopening America’s school’s this fall, estimating that it is actually more dangerous for children to be out of school than in school due to the “the harms attributed to closed schools on the social, emotional, and behavioral health, economic well-being, and academic achievement of children, in both the short- and long-term.”
The consensus is that the distance-learning programs adopted by most schools was fundamentally deficient, that young people have a 99.9 percent chance of surviving the virus, that asymptomatic carriers are not as contagious as once thought, that schools can open without a death toll, and that the damage being done to the formation of our young through isolation and a politicized culture of fear is deep. Be safe, by all means. Keep sick kids at home. But don’t cancel education in the name of “health and safety.”
Though experts and leaders advocating actually going back to school are not denying the risks involved, they are saying that whatever the risk is, it can be mitigated—and, further, that it is worth running. And it is this spirit of risk-taking, of fighting and refining the dangerous fires of the human spirit, that has been largely dismissed in the art of education. Real education is about maintaining and managing the risks of the human condition, so that children can learn through the dangers they must live with as adults. This excludes, of course, risks that are never worth taking against dangers that have no business in human experience, let alone human education. Reasonable pandemic safety-measures underscore this reality as steps are taken to manage the risk of the virus together with all the other risks education should undertake.
A school system that has replaced Virgil with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Shakespeare with Harper Lee has taken the safe route because it is easier. Education should not be easy or without danger, without some element of uncontrollable reality. An easy, fearful education can leave students listless, insecure, and uninspired in a cooped-up world to measure out their lives with coffee spoons. A dangerous, difficult education can challenge students to strike out beyond their comfort zones and engage in robust experiences and rich material. By embracing the dangers of human frailty, emotional exposure, intellectual wonder, spiritual exercise, and social honesty—coronavirus and all—students assume the perils of the unknown and gain a real knowledge of themselves and the world based on findings and failures alike.
COVID-19 is actually an educational opportunity to face fear with common sense and uncommon bravery. Young people have an intrinsic and intense desire for such experiences and their emotional corollaries. Incident and involvement are driving forces in their psychology, with appetites and interests fixed on encounters that flirt and fence with the dangerous and the amorous. This is what makes most youngsters tick, and it should be the tempo of their education.
Education should draw out these drives, though they are dangerous, and not dwarf or discourage them. As with all things natural that need guidance, heavy restriction or fearfulness produces deformities that result in a crippled person. A mature Faith can’t exist in a body, mind, and soul that have been inhibited by excessive caution. Education, like life, is risky; and the course of a true education should allow life to run its course, even though it tends to take risks. Those risks can be calculated and controlled—and so they should—but not eliminated. But, as it stands, there are many wholesome dangers that are being suppressed with the unwholesome—like the best that has been thought and said in Western Civilization.
When convenience, gratification, and now inconsistent public health standards are held as central to human existence, the experience of risk for the right reason can be a true awakening. Let’s make education dangerous again because it is remedial, because it is real, because it does not meander through virtual reality, but rather braces for an encounter with actual reality, daring to provide an appetite for truth when untruth is applauded far and wide. In a world of lies, truth is the most dangerous thing in the world. Similarly, a real education is dangerous in an unreal world.
Our Teacher taught, “Do not be afraid.” Let’s open our schools and fearlessly face the dangers that we must face together with our children, despite the flags of falsehood unfurled against them or the hostilities that await those who approach education with the order of Danger First.