8. What can we learn from the reaction of the Western population to the pandemic?

Today I found this article that I wrote in 2021, and that I had forgotten about. Reading it again, I thought that its relevance has not changed, so I have uploaded it to the blog.

An experienced teacher – and having taught 50 years in three different countries, from elementary school to graduate studies, with 44 years in university, should qualify me as such – would safely say that the behavior and attitudes of students in the classroom are a faithful reflection of the society of the moment. I think that, in the classroom, the teacher is a direct and privileged witness to the social changes that have been taking place over the years. What did I observe in my classes during the eighties?

I reside in Akron, Ohio, which until the mid-1980’s was considered the capital of the world for automotive wheel design and manufacturing. At that time, due to problems with the unions, the factories of that industry emigrated to southern states, leaving only the central research offices in this area. The immediate result was that thousands of workers lost their jobs. Many of them left, but others found new part- or full-duty jobs and stayed in the area. As a result, many of these workers decided to go back to university, some to pursue a university degree, others to complete a previously started academic degree that they had never finished. Fortunately, the university then offered evening courses for less traditional students, which allowed these students who worked during the day, most of them married with children, little by little to achieve their goal with one or two courses per semester. In a few years, the percentage of workers with an academic degree increased and the population changed, as they say here, from «blue collar» (blue collar for work overalls) to «white collar» (white collar or office shirt and tie).

It was in 1984 that I started teaching at the University of Akron, so for the first few years some of these students were in my classes. I still remember with admiration the determination and honesty they showed. They took advantage of the opportunities that were offered to clarify their doubts, they studied regularly within the logical limits that work and family imposed on them, they accepted their mistakes and did not blame anyone other than themselves. I remember that, on more than one occasion, it came out of me to postpone and even repeat an exam for students who had not been able to prepare themselves due to having an extremely sick child or a serious family problem. They came to my office to apologize for failing, making it clear that it wasn’t my fault, and they rarely asked me for another chance.

How have my experiences at the academy changed over the years?

Attitudes have been changing since the early 1990s. I began to observe how, little by little, the percentage of students in advanced courses who did not take responsibility for their tasks and blame everything imaginable for their failures was increasing at all levels, but particularly at the undergraduate level. That percentage continued to increase steadily until it reached a considerable level twenty-five years later. I must admit that I retired in 2015, in part because, as much as I have always loved teaching, from the beginning I belonged to the group of professors who believed that, lowering the level of demand below normal, so that fewer students would fail, was an irresponsible act. In fact, initially in the mathematics department to which I belonged, 40%-60% of students in the introductory courses of Algebra and Precalculus did not pass each semester due to the poor preparation and study habits with which the students arrived, an unusual percentage in the other departments of the university. I must mention that this occurred even though, aware of the deficiencies they brought from high school, I usually gave them a quiz most weeks and 4 or 5 exams a semester, with the goal of helping them develop study habits. As a result, the percentage of failures decreased in the following courses, and by their third year, most were disciplined and responsible. For someone from «the old» school like me, this deterioration of values that has been taking place in the last twenty-five years was alarming and dangerous.

Is there any relationship with what happened in the Western world during the pandemic?

Many questions come to mind when we look at the incredible number of people, mostly between the ages of 20 and 50, who during 2020, ignoring the warnings and recommendations of all experts, did not wear the mask while gathering in large groups on indoor premises, who went through the streets or attended mass demonstrations in open areas without them, as well as those who crowded on the beaches or traveled by plane for reasons of family celebrations such as Thanksgiving or Christmas without masks. Hadn’t these people heard the recommendations from experts, widely published in the media, about the risks of not wearing a mask and engaging in such activities during the pandemic? And if they weren’t concerned about getting sick themselves, weren’t they worried about making their family members, friends, or co-workers sick?

Traditionally when a country faced a common enemy, the population used to close ranks forming a united front. That has not been the case on this occasion. In the United States, the bad example of the president and many of his political supporters must have contributed, in part, to this attitude, but that has not been the case in other Western countries where many adults between the ages of 20 and 50 seem to have acted similarly. In theory, it is undeniable that true education entails being consistent with received values and should lead to acting accordingly regardless of the environment that surrounds us. Reality, however, seems to tell us otherwise.

We have witnessed a serious deterioration of social responsibility. There seem to be many people who have shown an education devoid of the values and sacrifices that this entails. It would seem, that they are unwilling to make the slightest effort for any reason, even the most meritorious, and the results, as experts point out, indicate a great deterioration in family and interpersonal relationships, in addition to poor knowledge, language deficiencies, lack of civility, etc. so visible in today’s world.

In the past, in addition to traditional values, we were taught two basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

  1. The private good is sacrificed to the common good.
  2. The end does not justify the means.

Given what is happening in many occidental countries (USA, Spain…) lately, I would add a third:

3. Basic values must take precedence over any political partisanship.

The principles are simple to state; however, it is much more difficult for a child to learn them if adults are the first to not respect them. Young people are often blamed for the lack of principles and values, to, some extent, this is unfair. Having taught at the university for fifty years of my life, I still have great confidence in the young. Last year, for example, hundreds of thousands of young people of all races and conditions, demonstrated (I clarify that in 95% of the cases peacefully) in lots of cities in this country against the mistreatment that, thanks to the irrefutable evidence provided by technology, modern police use when dealing with minorities. The “Black Lives Matter” movement was fundamentally a movement of young people, against an injustice that adults have tolerated for many years. So, before dumping all the responsibility on young people, let’s look at the families that raised them. And I say family, because this should be the main source of teaching values to children; values that will later be reinforced at school and in society, but it is in the family where the greatest responsibility for the transmission of values falls.

It must be said that it is never too late to recover good habits, to put into practice what we know and what our conscience tells us is correct. In the countries that I have lived in, particularly in the US, I have always seen many people who help everyone they can daily. I remember the very moving impression I felt when I saw, in moments of extreme need -like when Hurricane Catrina hit the South- citizens and students from all walks of life, helping the victims, some asking for their yearly vacations from their jobs to go to Louisiana, paying their bills, helping out where they could, as well as, lots of groups of college kids going there to help out on spring break.

What can we do?

Personally, I refuse to accept that all that goodness is gone. But let’s not kid ourselves, the situation is serious. In the United States alone, it was estimated in the fall of 2020 that this irresponsibility in the use of masks during the pandemic had cost the lives of more than 130,000 people. The world is facing challenges like Covi19, global warming, etc. that threatens to destroy us. The problems are not local, they are universal, and their solution depends on every one of us. If we stop blaming others and the government and accept that there is a shared responsibility in everything we face, I passionately believe that “the dice are not yet cast”. We can still change many things. If each one of us sets out to do something daily, to help where we can according to our abilities and limitations, to incorporate empathy and understanding when we talk to others, to form action-oriented work groups… All of this is already happening on a “small” scale, we need to turn it into a massive action. I insist that it is never too late to contribute, that none of us is so small that his contribution does not matter, and that the inaction of the majority has brought us to where we are.

Those of us who are believers, if we are not already doing so, let us begin by praying with humility and intensity, just as the Virgin of Medjugorje tirelessly asks through the visionaries. Of course, let us not forget that faith without work is an empty faith.

To all of you who have read this far, I thank you very much for your attention. Think about what I say, and modify what you think is appropriate, but, above all, if you agree, spread the word.

A brotherly hug.


Por Antonio R Quesada

A esta altura de mi vida reconozco que lo que creo saber es ínfimo comparado con lo que desconozco. Usando mis experiencias, trato de profundizar en algunas ideas espirituales básicas que comparto con toda humildad a fin de animar a otros a que hagan lo mismo. Agradezco de antemano cualquier sugerencia o corrección que reciba. ________________________________________________________________________________ At this time of my life, I acknowledge that what I think I know, is minimal compared to what I don’t know. Using my experiences, I try to deepen on some basic spiritual ideas that I share with all humility, with the purpose of encouraging others to do the same. I thank you in advance for any suggestions or corrections that I receive. ________________________________________________________________________________ Dr. Antonio R. Quesada, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at The University of Akron. Ohio Teaching Fellow. Director of Project AMP. T^3 International Emeritus Professor.

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