As children return to school this fall – in the time of Covid – teachers once again attempt to cultivate the virtue of respect. Every year in Core Virtues schools, our September focus is on treating others with high regard -- regardless of their race, creed, ethnicity, age, economic circumstance, physical disability, or anything else. In past years it seemed easier to model respect as a self-evident human excellence. Most teachers love teaching kids to see beyond genetic attributes or economic circumstances. We love the stirring picture books that encourage children to focus on the real person, disregarding externals. The picture books we feature in September -- Strictly No Elephants or Carla’s Sandwich -- make the point, celebrating individual essence and even quirkiness.
But in the time of Covid, respect for others—particularly for their choices, their thoughts, their intentions—is hard to cultivate. The pandemic has afforded a new gift and challenge. How do we cultivate respect for those who have different ideas? What if I believe that your ideas and choices endanger my health? Or what if you believe that my ideas and choices imperil normal child development and even education? How do we stave off mutual contempt? For contempt is the sworn enemy of respect.
The challenge is daunting, particularly regarding masks in schools. This year, in schools where masks are required, teachers will have to interact respectfully with parents (and students) who find the mandate injurious to their children’s education and to civil liberty. In schools where masks are optional, teachers will have to deal respectfully with parents (and students) who find the choice to unmask irresponsible and a threat to their health. Teachers will have to model respect for both choices as legitimate, keeping their opinions to themselves.
That’s very hard. But there has never been a better opportunity to practice what we preach: respect for dignity of the human person in all our diversity – even (and especially) diversity of thought, point of view.
Perhaps one virtue that will help us model that respect is humility. We are living in complex (and as we’ve been told repeatedly) unprecedented times. Our death toll (as a percentage of the population) does not yet rival the bubonic plague. But we are surpassing 1918 mortality rates, and in new territory with this extended, morphing international disease. We don’t know what we don’t know. We’re not sure of the evolution of this disease, and we’re not even sure of the long-term effects of our choices. There are no “twenty years out” studies. The only thing we know for sure is that much of what we currently believe will turn out to be incorrect. That has been the case historically for medical practices, pandemics, and public health.
So, rather than demonizing the other, let’s practice listening to those with different views. We might learn something. If not, let's practice saying: “Thank you for helping me understand your thinking on this. I’m not in the same place, but I'm grateful you shared that point of view."
The novel, Love in the Time of Cholera, had a cult following. It’s time for a new novel: Respect in the Time of Covid.