Unpacking the 2020 Crisis in Education

COMMENTARY: Pandemic showcases opportunities for all educators, both parents and teachers.

Assessing how to best engage students in self-motivation is key to a full education.
Assessing how to best engage students in self-motivation is key to a full education. (photo: Shutterstock)

Questions of the education and care of children came to the forefront of public debate during the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. Teachers, parents and administrators poured hours and untold personal resources into developing plans and programs for remote learning, hybrid learning, pod learning and “safe” in-person learning. Late into the year, school districts are still seesawing between remote and in-person options. 

The pandemic showcases several broad trends and opportunities for all educators, both parents and teachers. It is a moment of challenge that Catholics, given our robust understanding of the human person, are best equipped to meet.


The Broken System

The lockdowns laid bare to the public eye the fragility of the U.S. education system in both the public and private sectors. Bloated school districts across the country displayed a marked unpreparedness for any disruption to brittle, test-based achievement structures. Many administrators rejected experimental solutions from teachers and parents, such as learning pods or micro-schools. Their alternative was to assign hours of mandatory Zoom classes for young children. The adults responsible for collaborating on creative solutions for children found that the best they could do was settle for a banal copycat version of corporate, adult America. This was a moral failure to think outside the box of traditional classrooms. 

The system’s only real strength — the heroic self-sacrifice of teachers who genuinely want to serve their students— also shone through only to highlight the education bureaucracy’s inability to put decisions into the hands of teachers and parents for the benefit of students. 

Parents, too, felt keenly, and with no small measure of shock, their utter dependence on a system suddenly unable to care for their children for 40 hours per week. While some families could ride the storm by hiring private tutors, running neighborhood “pods” or even withdrawing from conventional schools to home-school, others were without the free childcare, electronic devices, phone lines and access to basic educational tools (books) U.S. society depends on. At the same time, parents were shocked to see firsthand that the academic support they assumed their children were receiving was, thanks to Common Core standards and mandated testing, itself deficient. 

Dire warnings were made to credulous parents that an entire generation of children would be “behind,” socially stunted and disadvantaged even more than they were before the pandemic. 


Education Without Children

The primary cause of the failure of the public and private schools in the coronavirus lockdown is that the system has no coherent explanation of its own business. Simply put, the system has forgotten what a human child is and what schools are for. 

How does the education monopoly define its goals? The National Education Association (NEA) says, “Meeting the needs of every student requires a holistic approach to education that extends well beyond academics.” The NEA’s professed philosophical framework for understanding the child is the inadequate Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, a U.S. psychologist’s attempt to appropriate a faulty understanding of Native American (Blackfoot) worldviews. Certified U.S. educators perpetuate the view that a human person is a vast chasm of needs and, until you fulfill their more basic needs (such as food, sleep and safety), you cannot fill their higher-level needs (such as knowledge and self-actualization). NEA policies, priorities, funding allocation, teacher training and oversight, and Common Core standards are based on the understanding that a child is defined not by human nature or any transcendent end, but is a passive recipient whose happiness rests on how well their (school) communities can fill their needs. This is an anemic vision of human children and sets up any system for failure. 

The “whole child” vision of the NEA and higher education departments at Western universities does not create schools in which children can learn the academic skills they will need to become lifelong learners. It does create an overblown educational system that sees its worth as identical to its ability to provide all things to all children. 

The worldview of such a system dooms it to failure and frustration: In trying to do all things equally, the schools can only do a few things poorly, as evidenced by the United States’ dismal academic rankings on the world stage. Not only will the system fail, but it will be (and is) unable to adapt to unexpected crises. Failure and frustrations, however, were not the last word in the 2020 pandemic. 


The Desert Blooms

As schools and corporate offices emptied, neighborhoods and family homes suddenly filled. Every crisis in human history has also been an opportunity: The pandemic has brought teachers and parents the opportunity to rediscover children and the entire purpose of education outside of the school environment. In finding that true education must be far more expansive than any school can provide, schools themselves can reclaim their own particular excellence while parents can reclaim their primary role in their children’s lives.

Educators who seize this opportunity will hold the advantage as society readapts to post-pandemic living. The children of those educators will carry that advantage into the future.


What Is a Child?

To rediscover the child, we must first rediscover the human person, and here the Catholic personalist movement offers us insight into where our education systems should pivot. This movement gained momentum in the 20th century among a multitude of intellectuals and practicing educators: Charlotte Mason, Simone Weil, Edith Stein (St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross), Pope St. John Paul II and Dietrich and Alice von Hildebrand, to name only a few. All rested their educational theory on the conviction that the human person is a creature composed of body and soul and made in the image of God. Stratford Caldecott made this more specific still: The human person mirrors in his origins and destiny the relational existence of the Holy Trinity. 

A human child must be received and understood not merely as an individual social unit in need of material necessities and self-actualization. Such a being could be dependent on one institution for all its needs. A real child, however, is a person existing in and learning to live in relationship with others, for others, and ultimately for God. Only an education emerging from many relationships and institutions, all tending to the child’s final end, has the elasticity to contend with lockdowns. Cultural and historical circumstances can become different opportunities rather than tragic interruptions to a child’s education.


The Better Way

A true education that outlasts crises embraces the reality of the child and, using human creativity, finds practical means to help children grow from infancy to flourishing adulthood in a variety of circumstances.

This creativity must be attentive to the realities of child development, best articulated by Dorothy L. Sayers in “The Lost Tools of Learning,” the essay that became the seminal work of the Catholic classical home-school movement both for its vision and its eminent practicality. A careful ordering and slow mastery of the skills needed to become lifelong learners reduces not only the time needed on a day-to-day level for formal studies and “schooling,” but also frees children to pursue the most vital of human relational skills: attention to others

Sayers’ approach, as applied by multiple classical academies and in homes throughout the English-speaking world, frees children to play and to lose themselves in their individual interests. They learn to contemplate. Because their academic priorities were well-ordered, these children are experiencing the lockdowns as a change, but not as a hiatus even in their academics.

“All men by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing,” writes Aristotle in the first line of his Metaphysics. For many reasons, not all children want to go to school, but all children can learn and want to learn. The role of the educator is not to star in the classroom show, but to provide appropriate guidance and then recede into the background as much as possible. Armed with this truth, educators can spend less time trying to get students back in front of certified teachers over Zoom and more time equipping the people they actually are with (parents, caretakers) to recognize educational opportunities as they naturally arise. Great educators do not rely on grades or candy prizes to motivate students — they know how to draw out the intrinsic motivation.

Finally, true education also recognizes that the human child has free will. Charlotte Mason famously wrote: “All education is self-education.” This means they are not to be manipulated, but ways must be found to help them freely choose to take on the work of education for themselves. Learning in our postlapsarian state requires real effort, so educators must show the child the good, the true and the beautiful. This is best done not by telling children that getting good grades will get them into college or a career, but by educators — parents and teachers alike — learning alongside them, and with great enthusiasm. 

Edith Stein wrote that the teacher in a school has three means of winning the heart of the pupil: by the teaching word, by the pedagogical act and by personal example. All three must be in place, but the final takes precedence: “The children do not need what we have, but who we are” (Ganzheitliches Leben, Vol. XII). Children want to know the truth of things. They know inherently that adults are responsible for telling them the truth, caring for their needs and loving them. What the U.S. education system needs most now are men and women who are themselves pursuing intellectual wonder and truth with purity. Then they will flourish in all circumstances and give thanks for the world and for life.