Has there been a more disruptive year in modern history? 2020 is certainly setting some records in that sense. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and political polarization, we don’t seem to be able to work together on anything. Add climate change, as evidenced by the orange skies in northern California today from massive fires, and our ongoing inability to agree that climate change even exists, and this has been a year to forget.
On September 11, 2001, we realized that we could be attacked right here at home, and many of our current political divisions have their genesis in the aftermath of those attacks, including the Iraq War and the more general War on Terror. The recession of 2007-09 made us less confident about our economic and governmental structures, but it didn’t affect everyone. We also experienced a fairly strong recovery from the recession that, while not “lifting all boats,” soon made it a faded memory.
Anyone old enough to have lived through World War II could describe first-hand the economic and political upheavals of those years. Before that, the Great Depression was certainly disruptive, but there aren’t many Americans who remember that from any more than a child’s point of view.
The protests against the country’s involvement in Vietnam and the civil rights movement of the 1960s were certainly divisive. But those conflicts didn’t involve everyone, and there were many people who weren’t affected that much. Many of those who were unaffected were privileged enough to avoid the problems and learned nothing from them: those who were wealthy (and white) enough to get deferrals from military service, to not have to deal with the hippies or the student protesters or anyone else who didn’t look like them.
Going further back, the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 is probably the closest parallel for obvious reasons, including the arguments over mask wearing. The U.S. Civil War is probably the most disruptive time in American history, of course, with the country literally split in two. But both of those periods are distant, something we read about in history books or in television documentaries.
So as we enter the last months of 2020, is there anything positive to build on? We have an election in 55 days that will help answer that question, of course, and there have been a newfound awareness of the systemic injustice, racism, and economic inequality in the U.S. If we move in a different direction in 2021, will we continue to build on the changes we’ve started, or will we be tempted to return to “normal?” Is that even possible, even if we wanted to?
I believe there are opportunities to change and to improve as we recover from the pandemic and the current state of political discourse. In the field I’ve worked in for twenty years, higher education, we’re already seeing some of those changes, many of them quite small and yet still significant. Larger changes are needed and this may be the opportunity we’ve needed to address them, discuss what the future of education looks like, and move toward that future.
That’s what I’m planning to discuss here for now. I may nibble at the hand that feeds me occasionally, but to not consider the larger opportunities that this disruptive year is providing would be a shame. If you’re interested I invite you to follow me here or on Twitter (@TomKephart). I’ll tweet each new post there as well.