21 Questions for 2020: #16

#16. Whither education in the time of the pandemic, and after?

This is a question that cuts close to my bone, since education has been my calling and profession for my whole life: as a college professor, I am the perpetual student, always wanting to explore my own cutting edge, never content to simply offer again what I already know. 

In recent years, as you might have guessed if you’ve been reading this series, I have become far more interested in questions than in answers. In the Internet age, we can find 100 expert answers to any research question we might pose, and students are always whipping out their phones in class to consult their pocket oracles.

But the kinds of questions that interest me cannot be easily answered by a Google search, or even a virtual trip to the library database. 

I want to explore the questions that have not been answered yet. Big ones that I ponder regularly include: 

  • What happens to the spirit after death? 
  • How can we access the energetic and material realms that scientists say compose 98% or more of the knowable universe, the so-called “dark matter” and “dark energy” fields? 
  • How can we engage in more frequent, widespread and reliable communication with the mysterious voices that a few open channels among us have been blessed to receive? 
  • How can we make more intentional and regular use of the potential of the dream world as a portal for telepathic communication, healing and guidance?

Answers to these questions lie tantalizingly out of reach of my rational mind, and yet my intuition continues to circle them, probing for a way in to understanding. Especially at this juncture in history, when the systems that uphold our physical world and our social structures are under such strain, a better understanding of the non-physical realm beckons urgently. 

If we knew that death was a gentle return to a dazzling energetic sea, a chance to reset and renew in the company of our loved ones, with whom we have returned to physical form over and over again, beyond time…how differently we might live our lives and contemplate our deaths. 

I have been thinking about Socrates lately; how he insisted that the job of a serious student of philosophy was to prepare for death. A well-educated person is a person who is able, ready and willing to make that ultimate journey into the unknown. And the method of education, for Socrates, was asking questions. 

My students and I frequently get annoyed with Socrates for asking leading questions and tangling his interlocutors up in sticky spiderwebs of nuance that never lead to any clear answers.

But the example he set in his own death, as recorded by his devoted student Plato, was crystal clear. Death for Socrates was a blessed release, for which he had spent his life preparing. In his own calm, peaceful death, he gave his weeping students the greatest lesson of all. 

Enjoy life. Be a lifelong student. And be not afraid of death.


As an educator, I am always questioning my own goals and methods. With a PhD in Comparative Literature and an expertise in personal narrative by women from different parts of the world, for many years I offered classes where we used the course texts to open windows into complex identities, social structures, and dynamic communities. In particular, I have been interested in patterns of resistance across cultures—how women found their way and claimed their voices and their power despite individual and societal barriers. 

But now it seems that resistance is no longer the right thread to be following in exploring the ever-shifting tapestry of life.

I don’t want to push angrily against what is; I want to explore, eagerly and with an open heart-mind, what might be. 

Young people today do need to learn the real, unvarnished history of the centuries of pain and injustice inflicted by the powerful on whomever they could subordinate and dominate in the service of their greedy goals.

But having learned what was, students today need to turn their bright minds and spirits to imagining what could be

How can education focus itself around the urgent task of creating a happier world where people live well in harmony with the flourishing more-than-human denizens of our planet? 

Shifting the questions we’re asking seems key. 

If we were to ask not “how can we maximize profits” but “how can we maximize happiness,” as Bhutan did in establishing its Gross National Happiness index, the goals of every field of education would shift. 

Instead of applying our intelligence to domination and extraction, the black magic of turning exploited workers and natural resources into money in the bank, we would be looking at how to make an entire system thrive, from the tiniest microbe in the soil on up.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to trigger massive social and economic shifts that we can’t yet measure, one question keeps surfacing for me urgently:  What do today’s young people need to know? 

What talismans of knowledge and rites of initiation can educators offer that will light young people’s paths on the shrouded road ahead?

I am pondering this question, with no sure answers to offer yet. I would be grateful for your thoughts. Whither education now?

Leave a comment


  1. Reblogged this on It is up to us, the People and commented:
    Wonderful blog, must read!

  2. Penny Gill

     /  April 27, 2020

    absolutely central questions. But not really so new. Some folks have pushed those questions for decades, and the liberal arts colleges, in their stunning diversity, have been spaces where that has been welcomed. As you know. The trick is, visioning without “knowing stuff” is ridiculous and wasteful of time and energy. Knowing stuff, without any vision, is killing. How to create and protect that very difficult tension is the task. You do that, so please, please keep it up!

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  April 28, 2020

      Yes, you’re so right, Penny. I love Joanna Macy’s phrase “seeing with new and ancient eyes.” A lot of what we need to know to move successfully into the future is ancient–we just need to see, listen, respect it anew, and adapt it for our times. These are the kind of “worldwrights” I am especially attuned to these days–yourself included! However, unconventional thinkers are not always (or often) respected in traditional educational settings. I suppose that is why I am restlessly prowling the margins of academe….

  3. Robin Sloane Seibert

     /  May 3, 2020

    A quick reply would be a return to viewing education as learning rather than vocation. How many kids even study Socrates and Plato now? Or even learn how to ask questions? Even liberal arts colleges have become places to specialize, and they do that, I think, in large part to operate as a business and please the customer. Translates into what kind of job can a kid get from studying humanities? It’s terribly upsetting to me to hear that from parents, and then their children. I think an examination of varying political systems would be helpful, even our capitalist democracy compared to other democracies in western countries. Our collective value system is so far off the mark now, but I do believe that younger generations will begin to examine what is important to them, and perhaps gravitate to a slower pace.

    • Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D.

       /  May 3, 2020

      Yes, it’s true–very few are reading Socrates and Plato now, and the focus of education is still way too much on memorizing answers to pre-established questions, a practice that keeps us treading water as far as innovation goes. At the same time, I do think we have to be offering an education that will be of value to students as they move into this 21st century, which translates into some awareness of vocation. Vocation as Calling–how we can we support students to find their purpose in this world, this moment in history, and equip them with the tools and skills they will need to make meaningful contributions to the good of the whole, as well as to be successful in their individual lives? Such questions keep me up at night….Thanks for helping me to think it through!


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