November 14, 2021
In the summer of 2021 in Quebec, returning to the classroom was demanded by our government in order to mitigate some of the negative impacts of a set of drastic health measures. Students must be able to have in-person classes, we were told. Certainly, that is good news. But at what cost?
The wearing of masks is imposed, and teachers are suddenly called upon to engage in policing. Protocols are established and imposed, yet again. Any student not wearing a mask is thrown out by security guards like a criminal. Farewell to the benevolence, tolerance and accommodation that were so fashionable before this crisis.
Without a very specific medical exemption (one difficult to obtain, by the way), there is no other choice but to wear a mask or else there can be no access to education. A new choice is imposed: to learn or to breathe. Teachers were never consulted. This involuntary policing role has been added to their daily work, with the assumption that teachers must adhere to this measure and to the intervention protocol established. Today it is assumed that all adhere and that they should even do so with conviction. But what if this was not the case? For teachers it has always been important to be able to breathe freely, since oxygenation is recognised as playing a basic role in overall health and well-being, and constitutes one of the essential (if not always remarked upon) conditions for learning. It seems that we often forget what we are doing in classrooms. We forget the conditions that are conducive to learning. But if we dare to share this kind of thinking we are attacked because, “It’s a pandemic! Don’t you understand? It’s normal that nothing is normal!”. It’s normal that even if the effectiveness of masks is far from being agreed upon in the scientific community, we accept without any questioning that we have to wear masks to protect ourselves and especially to protect others. What others, you may ask: Is it the 90% who are “vaccinated” and attend university and who are “protected”? Or the 10% who are not, for their own reasons?
As teachers our role is to include, to listen, to adopt a respectful and caring attitude towards all of our students. It is not our role to judge students who have made the choice to not be “vaccinated,” and even less so is it our role to convince them that their choices are not the right one. Who are we to judge personal medical choice?
When we were hired, we were never told that one day we would have to participate in political campaigns. On the contrary, many of us have the role and the duty to observe, analyse and criticise political movements—or at least some used to do so. In fact, as academics we are socially considered as if we were the world’s special class of thinkers. Since when does a thinker adhere unquestioningly to political directives? Since when does a thinker not think?
This is our greatest blight: forbidding us to think, forbidding (or even ridiculing) those of us who presume to read scientific articles on the subject to make up our minds. If we have come to work in academia it is because, presumably, we have learned to think, to question, to analyse, and we enjoy doing so. Are these skills really limited to the area of expertise for which we have been hired? This is doubtful since many of our skills are portable. This is why in graduate courses (research methodologies, qualitative and quantitative analysis, etc.) it is not uncommon for students from different fields to be brought together.
However, it is true that apart from a few colleagues who are experts in the field, we are not in a position to make recommendations on the management of a pandemic. But this does not mean that we cannot, as citizens and thinkers, point out inconsistencies, breakdowns in reasoning, lack of evidence, etc. We even have a duty to do so. We also have a duty to express our discomfort with policing the use of masks or with a colleague openly judging his or her students’ choice of “vaccines”. We must assert our deepest values, those that make us teachers, researchers, thinkers, and citizens. Our role is not that of a politician or a director of public health. We do not—contrary to what people would have us believe—have to blindly adhere to the choices that are being made. We are not delegated the task of upholding a particular political discourse. We do not have to keep quiet for fear of being frowned upon.
For many people, what is happening is almost innocuous. The scenario is clear (and we’ve seen it in a variety of films): a virus arrives, everyone is vaccinated, the virus is eradicated and life returns to the way it was before. The problem is that we underestimate everything that can happen at each stage of the process. The virus arrives and for months the anxiety builds, and mental health problems increase. The health measures impact everyone. The vaccine arrives and hope returns. But we quickly understand that the saviour “vaccine” is not perfect and that “vaccinating” everyone is an unattainable goal without causing major damage. We also realise that vaccinating everyone is useless because the virus will always circulate. Despite this, the authorities keep to the same course. They certainly do not shine for their humility and adaptability. Nor do they shine for their global analysis of the situation. How many researchers have they consulted during all this time? How many researchers are part of the crisis management team? What social good is it to have experts if they are not consulted? What good are we doing? Not only is the crisis approached through the very narrow lens of epidemiology and virology, but very few experts in these fields are consulted. We are told of a scientific consensus, but where does this consensus come from?
For researchers to have reached an agreement, there must have been an exchange of ideas and debates. However, what image of science are we instead transmitting to the public today? It seems that science is a small group of people who hold “the truth” and who dictate the terms for acceptable human behaviour. Today we are told that we must “believe in science” as if it were a religion, and we even conflate a technology developed based on certain scientific research results (a vaccine for example) with science. So, masks are science, vaccines are science, public health is science. And the more time passes, the more these conceptions are reinforced. The population adheres to this simplistic vision because the vision is in line with their thinking. We cannot blame them. One only understands what research is when you become a researcher. And what else can they do but trust their leaders?
But what about us, as academics, what are we waiting for to speak out? What are we waiting for, to set the record straight? Because if this is what science is all about, we are really useless. Why seek to advance scientific knowledge if we accept that a small group of people already holds “the truth” and that this “truth” is immutable? How can we teach our students to think and develop their critical thinking skills if this is no longer socially acceptable? Yes, we can be silent, but it is to be expected that with this distorted and reductive conception of science and the advent of digital technology, we will soon be of no use. We will thus have useless research, teaching without reflection, and, after all, a computer can do our work for us.