Public Education After the Pandemic: A Q&A with Professor of History Johann Neem  

by Sofia Pappalau
Office of University Communications intern

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered business as usual for colleges and universities. With campuses shifting to remote learning, students, instructors, staff, and administrators were made to grapple with a set of new challenges. Western Today recently talked with WWU Professor of History Johann Neem, whose research interests involve the history of public education in America, about the possible lasting effects of the pandemic on public higher education.   

Western Today: In what ways do you think the function of public higher-education has changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic?  

JN: That's a big question. There's no one answer to what the function of higher education is, and I think the function for undergraduate education is different than the function for graduate or professional education. But the two primary functions we have for higher education are to provide a liberal education and prepare people for civic leadership. Higher education also promotes social mobility and professional training. I don't think COVID has changed any of these functions, but it has made clear the need to provide people greater access and support.   

WT: Why do you think that is?   

JN: Well, I have one more thing to add to that first question which will relate to that. Another function of higher education in America, especially since World War II, has been to produce knowledge. One change we might see coming out of COVID is the importance of university produced scientific knowledge.   

President Biden made clear that he wants to reinvest in university research, partly to be competitive with China, partly for economic reasons, but also, because we saw that knowledge serves public health. It serves our national wellbeing. I think one change we might start to see is a reinvestment in federal funded research and basic research in the Arts and Sciences. Already, Congress passed a law reinvesting in some scientific research and innovation.   

I think that will be a change — that COVID just accelerated our awareness of the need for those kinds of investments.   

I think COVID also illuminated how precarious many students’ economic lives are and their capacity to complete higher education. It brought into the open something scholars have been saying for a long time, which is that many students now are nontraditional. They have a family to care for. Students need to be supported, and I think that may be another place where I hope there will be a reinvestment after COVID.  That doesn't necessarily change the function of higher ed, but it changes other things.   

WT: Do you think we will see a shift towards new curriculum or teaching methods because of COVID?   

One thing that professors were obliged to do was really ask themselves, “What is the most essential part of my class?” I think that was probably a healthy exercise. Moving online and having less contact time forced professors to really go for the essentials and think about the kind of structured learning that would help students.   

But I think the story is mixed. I would wager that schools like Western — once we got a handle of online remote learning — probably did a better job than many of the online big schools because you had full time faculty producing full curricula.   

I still think that we could move in two ways. There's a lot of pressure to move online.   

And on the other hand, the online experience was a simulation. It was not the classroom, and there's two divergent lessons coming out of the pandemic in terms of that.   

One group of people will say, “Look, we can do it,” and another group of people will point out how much was lost by moving online and why. Particularly for equity reasons, it's essential that we help support students to come back to physical campuses.   

I'm with that second group. I think what happens in America is we use terms like “access” and “equity.” But, we give less well-off people a second-tier version, and we pretend that's noble. That's the rhetoric of a lot of online schools, “We are providing access to working people.”   

I think the burden is on institutions like Western to find ways to provide access for working people, for first-generation students, or people who have family responsibilities to come to college. We've seen that the stakes are real, and that the campus matters, and that face-to-face learning is something we need to really provide access to.   

WT: What do you think would be necessary for that to succeed?   

I think the most important thing about face-to-face learning is that it puts people in spaces with other people where learning is the highest goal. It takes people out of their “normal.” It creates communities with whom you're accountable.   

We know that people learn often by observing and watching others. It puts people in a space where a professor and fellow students can interact.   

I think we need more flexible kinds of scheduling, to be creative about how the curriculum is organized, and to provide more kinds of support for people who, for example, need to come at night.  

One possibility that we might see more of is the hybrid approach, where you have a lot of the interactive, communal, rich intellectual things happening in focused ways, that also sustains the community that takes place elsewhere.   

We have to acknowledge that not everyone is available at 10:30 AM in the morning. But how do you work around that? And that's going to be hard.   

WT: In your USA Today Op-Ed on COVID-19 and public education, you wrote that we could see an eroding support for public education. Why did you say that?   

That was my fear in the midst of the pandemic. That as privileged people were forming pods and hiring tutors, that we were moving back towards a system where those who had the resources and money would hire their own teachers, rather than pooling their resources through taxation to support all the children in a community.   

When I wrote my history on the development of public schools, my book “Democracy’s Schools,” one of the things I discovered was — despite all the good rhetoric about all the noble intentions, all the noble purposes of public schools — as a parent, you look after your kid. Public schools, in a way, combined self-interest with the collective good, and they did it by having these institutions that everyone would invest in partly for the sake of their own child, but then effectively investing in everyone else's children as well.   

Not perfectly, we know about zoning laws and the inequality of the system, but it maintained a commitment to that system. If people can opt out, and they decide that that opting out serves them, then that commitment to educating other people’s children in the community would also erode, and we'd return to a world of charity schools rather than public schools.   

WT: Do you still see that happening?   

I am hopeful that it's not going to happen. There are some parents of different kinds of populations that for various reasons have found online, self-directed studying good for their children. But I think most parents also saw how important and essential the local public schools are. My hope, again, is the same thing with higher ed as I feel about K12, which is: This could be a disruptive moment that goes both ways, but my hope is it reaffirms how important these institutions are to our society.   

And rather than undermining them or going through some kind of disruptive innovation, we're reaffirming our commitment to them and trying to make them better.   

And I think we don't know yet, but I think this is the same story where both outcomes are still possible.  

WT: Has anything happened in the past that has disrupted higher education in this way or similarly?  

There have been plagues and epidemics before that have affected campuses. The world wars had a huge impact on the campuses. The Civil War had a huge impact on campuses. The American Revolution had a huge impact on campuses.   

And so yes, in that sense these kinds of temporary disruptions have happened. There are many people who think higher education hasn't changed much, and there's a lot of continuity, but there's been big changes as well.   

The University of today, with all the different kinds of programs it has, with the kind of faculty it has, with the mass numbers of students it has. The mass university where so many people go to college is a modern invention and those kinds of changes were really disruptive even if they weren't caused by a natural disaster or war.   

WT: Is there anything else that you wanted to comment on regarding education and the pandemic?  

 I would add that, both as the History Department chair and as a professor teaching students, I was amazed at how committed my colleagues in the faculty were to doing their best and innovating and experimenting and working really hard to provide the best education they could during a time of crisis, and how committed students were.   

One of the interesting things was students wanted synchronous classes. They wanted as much of the full education that they could have and they wanted to interact with each other and with professors.   

They had to work under trying circumstances. The other piece that we learned in the pandemic is sometimes we get distracted by all the things that go on in life. Professors have multiple obligations, students have multiple obligations, and we take for granted that people are here to teach and learn. But when that became the thing we had to focus our attention on, we realized that it was actually the most important thing for so many people. When it was threatened, students and faculty showed up to make sure that we could keep going, and I think that's really an important insight.  


Johann Neem is a professor of History at Western Washington University. He is a historian of the American Revolution and the early American republic, and an active contributor to the conversation on higher education reform. His written works include “Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America,” and pieces published in the Washington Post, USA Today, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Seattle Times, and Inside Higher Education.  


Tuesday, July 13, 2021 - 11:29am