In 2020 Students Feel Powerless and Faculty Feel Overwhelmed. Can Liberal Education Help?

October 29th, 2020

Lever Press author Jeff Frank offers some follow-up thoughts after his earlier post, Liberal Education and Pedagogy's Value in Challenging Times

2020 has been a tremendously difficult year. One impression I have of this semester is that many students feel powerless. And who would blame them? Covid has completely upended their lives. This election cycle has been ugly and disheartening. Hope that Black Lives Matter might lead to a more just future is being severely tested. The realities of our climate future flash across their screens, even as it feels like next to nothing is being done to avert the worst.

Professors may share some of these feelings of powerlessness, and these feelings come on top of the overwhelming demands of trying to transition our teaching to meet the needs and constraints of the present moment. I think back to the uncertainty of this summer, where I was unsure what—exactly—I was planning for. A hybrid semester, a distance semester—and if so, asynchronous? synchronous?—and even if I knew the delivery model, what would the world look like in the fall when I was teaching? How would my students handle the demands of the present moment?

In a previous post for this blog where I discuss Covid and teaching, I examined how liberal education can support the development of morale, a central theme of John William Miller’s thinking explored in my book Being a Presence for Students: Teaching as a Lived Defense of Liberal Education. Now that I am in the middle of another Covid semester, I remain convinced that morale is a gift that liberal education can give an educator and their students. In this post I explore how liberal education might also speak to the feelings of powerlessness students are experiencing.

In a series of remarks on liberal education, Miller makes a point that I’ve been returning to this semester. He writes, “In any case, the liberal spirit, if it is to survive and grow must be attractive. This attraction lies in its promise of power.”

Miller’s understanding of power is complicated, but he often connects his thinking on power to our capacity for critical thought. Liberal education, according to Miller, resides in “the minds which possessed the vigor and the tensions capable of producing [powerful thinking]. It promises association with those creative minds.”

Looking back on my time as a college student, I am reminded of the ways that I felt insignificant and powerless. But I also remember the rush of excitement I felt when reading an author who squarely faced one of life’s problems, transforming confusion and uncertainty into sense and meaning through the exercise of thought. It wasn’t necessarily a matter of agreeing or disagreeing with the conclusions of the author or finding an author who provided a blueprint for practical power in the world, it was experiencing or “associating” with the transformative power of thinking—what Miller also calls “critical adventure”—that convinced me that liberal education mattered and could give me some small degree of power when addressing the challenges I’d face in life.

It is difficult to make the case for the critical adventure of liberal education when the need for practical power is abundantly apparent. Black lives are being destroyed, our environment is being destroyed, norms of decency and democracy are being destroyed, and so much else. My own children should be enjoying their lives unfettered by fear of an out of control virus, but their childhood is being tampered with due to a complete lack of leadership in this country. How can the next generation flourish in a culture that puts complacency and conspiracy above our responsibilities to the future? Wearing a mask seems a small thing compared to the risk of destroying so much of what makes for a good childhood. But here we are. We need the practical power that can reverse all this destructiveness, and liberal education does not directly provide this power.

But liberal education is not powerless. When a student realizes their limitations, and then overcomes those limitations, they experience power. When a student makes the attempt to address a problem in the world, relying on evidence and not wishful thinking, they experience power, even if all they learn is how much more there is to learn. When a student realizes that adults in positions of authority have given up responsibility for caring for the world and they step in and take responsibility for something that matters to them, they experience power.

Moments of crisis give us an opportunity to reflect on the purposes of education, and moments of crisis provide openings to change policies and practices. I want to suggest that we might consider what we can do, this academic year, to help our students experience the power of their education.

2020 has been a terrible year, but our students have shown up, attracted by the promise of liberal education. They may be in a Zoom room or they may be socially distant and masked in your classroom, but they are with you. What activities and discussions can we facilitate so that we might help students experience the critical adventure of thought? What types of feedback can we provide that might sustain students through the difficult work of self-criticism and intellectual growth? Who are the thinkers we can introduce students to so that they have exemplars of what it means to face the worst and respond with the power of thought?

One of the most effective things I do as a teacher is find ways to demonstrate my deep respect for a student’s need to experience power. When a student writes something that shows promise, I provide feedback that very clearly articulates how they can exercise that promise. When a student raises an issue in class that they are clearly passionate about, I acknowledge that passion by suggesting thinkers they might read to deepen that passion. None of this is groundbreaking, and I know most professors already do some version of these things. But in this time, it is even more important that we go out of our way to kindle any spark a student brings to us into the possibilities of power.

This may mean covering less material than we would normally cover in a year, but this is not a normal year, and maybe we need to rethink what we’ve taken to be normal. Some scholars of education make the case that our students have become very good at playing the game of school, but playing this game comes at the cost of experiencing the transformative power of learning.

Though we are often told to hope for a time when school life gets back to normal, many of us know that what we took to be normal is partly responsible for the world we live in now. The game of school is woefully inadequate to the problems we will face in the coming years, and we need to start doing better now.

Our students showed up this fall, and though it may be harder to be a presence for them over Zoom or in a socially distanced classroom, this is what we are called to do. If we care about the future of liberal education, we can offer up a lived defense of liberal education through the ways we let our students experience its power. Every class session, every course assignment can either actively attract students to liberal education by empowering them to undergo the challenges of thinking or it will push them away.

Before resisting this idea because it seems to add more work to an already impossible semester, empowering students in these challenging times may help replace our own feelings of being overwhelmed with a newfound sense of purpose. Working even more intentionally to cultivate liberal education’s promise of power, we can do what is within our power to make sure that the worst of 2020 doesn’t become our collective fate.