Feeling Nostalgic for In-Person Schooling? That May Hurt Our Chance to Rethink It.

Jun 25, 2020

Around the world, people are mourning. For loved ones, principally. But also for the rituals and rites of passage from our former lives. Students and parents grieve for lost promotion ceremonies, prom and high school graduations.

Yet, in the midst of this widespread longing for school-as-we knew-it, educators are equally relishing the opportunity to reimagine education post pandemic. We seem to be simultaneously mythologizing the past and the future of schooling—or, rather, experiencing a serious case of collective nostalgia.

While shared nostalgia can make us feel more socially connected and empathetic toward others, it can also drive us apart

It’s something of a curious concept. The word nostalgia has Greek roots—nostos meaning “return home” and algia meaning “longing;” nostalgia is really the longing for a home that no longer exists or has never existed, writes Svetlana Boym in her essay on the subject, from her book “The Future of Nostalgia.”

Certainly, it is healthy and normal to exercise feelings of nostalgia—to yearn to return to school, for many of us our home away from home. We miss our students and colleagues, our familiar routines and want life to go back to the way it was. In fact, research suggests that feelings of nostalgia help humans cope with traumatic experiences and comfort them as they remember time spent with loved ones.

Constantine Sedikides, a psychology professor at the University of Southampton, has studied the effects of nostalgia on existential concerns, such as the sudden awareness of death during a global crisis. His research suggests that finding meaning in life helps us cope with such concerns and that nostalgia helps provide that meaning. When we experience nostalgia, especially through cherished memories that involve friends and family, we feel a social-connectedness that can protect us during times of uncertainty.

But there is a certain paradox to it, argues Boym. While shared nostalgia can make us feel more socially connected, and thus more empathetic toward others, it can also drive us apart. “Algos (longing) is what we share,” she writes, “yet nostos (the return home) is what divides us.” In other words, the feelings of nostalgia may be mutual, but what each of us is nostalgic for ends up setting us apart.

It is here—at the end to mutual understanding—where the danger lies for education. Whose school experience are we collectively mourning? The social critic and author Chris Emdin, a professor at Columbia University, says this:

“In the midst of the adult dissension about online learning, some children are having the best learning experiences they have ever had. For some, the school building was a site of trauma. Not having to return to the place that implanted a lack of value for self is a small victory. A chance to see themselves as smart, worthy, and whole again.”

Emdin’s quote cuts to the core of the nostalgia paradox. He reminds us that disenfranchised students, students of color, students who were victims of bullying, gender discrimination or sexual harassment, and students oppressed by a dysfunctional system aren’t longing for the way things were. For some students, school was a source of pain or alienation. When we evoke nostalgia in a way that replaces the reality of these students’ stories of school with the abled, white, male, heteronormative version of school, we are idealizing a home that for many never existed.

The same is true for teachers and administrators who, thanks to the emergency closures, were suddenly unsaddled from standardized testing and rigid educational mandates; they are now able to practice more humane and liberatory pedagogy that puts the student at the center of their learning. The benefit of asynchronous, or time delayed, learning is that students set the pace in the virtual classroom and teachers provide just-in-time support when needed. For many educators, the disruption had them experimenting with new digital tools and personalized learning resources. They made rewarding connections with students who previously fell under the radar.

Yet for educators who see the pandemic as a launchpad to educational reform and closing digital gaps, to freeing students from arbitrary and oppressive structures, the work has only just begun. When it comes time to open the doors to the building again, we can’t let ourselves be seduced by the comforts of the past or nostalgia’s strong allure of “history without the guilt,” as the late cultural historian Michael Kammen puts it.

According to futurist Amy Webb, there is the chance that educators are being overly optimistic about the way the pandemic will change the nature of learning. She warns, “Any time a new change is foisted upon us, very quickly there is a bias to thinking that the new present is the future. That is almost universally never the case.” The new present of remote learning may not be the norm forever, but the sudden shift to virtual instruction has revealed glaring inequities and significant flaws in time-based schooling that many of us aren’t willing to ignore.

In response, my own state of Michigan, where I oversee two project-based high schools, has formed a coalition of educational leaders to support districts with their plans for learning continuity during the closure, and to ask the tough questions about the future of schooling in our state. Our group is forming virtual professional learning communities to think about how to transition students and teachers back to public learning spaces after extended social isolation, to leverage the benefits of lifting seat time and testing requirements to bring about lasting legislative change to our flawed structure and to ensure that internet and digital access is treated as a utility, not a luxury reserved for the privileged. We hope this can be a model for other states looking to accelerate the adoption of innovative teaching practices that support all students, whether they are learning remotely or in person, both during and after the pandemic.

As we are caught between the tension of longing for a familiar structure and the romance of a new and exciting future, I believe it is possible and necessary to practice critical nostalgia—to both feel the equalizing effect of confronting our mortalities together and respond to the way the disease disproportionately affects communities of color; to both support one another through profound uncertainty and hold each other accountable for making radical changes to a broken system. Coordinated statewide education task forces are one way to, as Boym eloquently puts it, “take responsibility for our nostalgic tales.”


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