Ancient Philosophy, Meet Modern Pandemic

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MIDDLETOWN, Conn. — At Wesleyan University, the semester looks relatively normal, at least by pandemic standards. Some classes meet in person, and many students live on campus. So far, with extensive testing, cases have remained low.

“If we have a safe environment, we should teach a significant portion of our classes in person,” said Michael S. Roth, the university’s president. “If we don’t have a safe environment, we shouldn’t reopen.”

In one of the largest in-person classes this semester, Living a Good Life, students study philosophy as a way of life. Through traditional lectures and experimental exercises, they try to incorporate ancient ideals into their own lives.

“The whole point is to put our lives and these texts in context,” said Steven W. Horst, one of three professors team-teaching the course.

During the pandemic, those lessons feel even more critical. Horst, who works in philosophy of mind and cognitive science, teaches alongside Tushar Irani, who studies Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and Stephen Angle, an expert in Chinese philosophy.

“We don’t want to just be narrowly focused on the pandemic and what we can and can’t do,” Angle said. “But at the same time, it’s a crucial part of our lived reality right now. If you’re trying to live a good life, you’re trying to live a good life in whatever situation you find yourself in.”

During the unit on the Chinese philosopher Confucius, students separated out “lifelong worries” — morality-based questions about the kind of person you are — from “daily anxieties.” The pandemic loomed large, alongside worries like grades and job prospects.

When students studied the Greek philosopher Aristotle, they identified virtues they hoped to cultivate. Tessa Ury, one of the class’s student-led dialogue facilitators, focused on acceptance. Jimmy McShane, another facilitator, chose patience. “There’s a lot of waiting in this pandemic,” he explained.

The professors had planned to teach the course well before the pandemic and decided to press forward in person. This is ancient, intimate stuff. Values and virtues are best discussed in a group.

“The course resonates in different ways in this current moment than it would if we weren’t in a pandemic,” Irani said. “That perhaps you can still live a good life, even in the restricting conditions that we’re in right now.”

Together, they lecture in the university’s chapel, a stately building with enough room for students to spread out. Masks are mandatory, although they sometimes muffle questions asked from the back of the room. Yellow tape cordons off every other pew, and red stickers on benches mark six feet apart, so students can sit at a safe distance.

It doesn’t end there. At the start of class, a student helper projects two QR codes onto the screen. One marks students present for class. The other logs their presence in the building, in case the university needs to conduct contact tracing.

To accommodate the few students learning remotely, Wesleyan installed a 360-degree camera at the center of the room, and employed a student to swivel its lenses around. With its help, remote students can see the professor and the screen, while also looking at their peers asking questions.

“We’re constantly asking: ‘Is this how I want to be or is this not how I want to be?’” said Ury, one of the facilitators. “At this time when everything comes into question, it’s nice to have a class like this that facilitates your own personal development.”

A Utah district experienced one of the worst school-based coronavirus outbreaks in the country: at least 90 cases within two weeks, and most likely many more.

The Corner Canyon school district, in an affluent suburb of Salt Lake City, is deeply divided about the virus. Some parents urged the district to trust public health experts, who warned that the area’s high positivity rate — most likely driven by cases at nearby universities — meant the district should not have opened for in-person classes.

Others lobbied the school board to remain open, even as cases multiplied. One principal said that some parents agreed not to get their children tested for the virus even if they became ill, to avoid adding to the school’s case count.

In the absence of federal or state requirements, the district required students and staff members to mostly wear masks, but did not enact social-distancing regulations or a unified testing plan. It also changed its own guidelines about when to close down schools. That patchwork approach is reflected all across the country, according to public health experts.

“We’ve forced every school district to figure out how to respond to a pandemic on its own, and it’s insane,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health.

Once Corner Canyon shut its doors, cases among students and staff fell sharply. After a month of being closed, the school is set to reopen today.

Meanwhile, in New York City: Three weeks into the in-person school year, the nation’s largest school district has a surprisingly small number of positive cases. Out of 10,676 test results, there were only 18 positives — 13 staff members and five students — for a positive rate of 0.002 percent.

In some ways, 2020 would make for the perfect Halloween: The holiday falls on a Saturday, and it’s a full moon (specifically, a “blue moon,” an event that occurs only once every couple of years).

But, for obvious reasons, this year is fraught. We spoke to experts about how trick-or-treating and other celebrations may have to be modified. And families across the country told us how they’re planning to celebrate while staying safe.

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