As academia emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Waterloo Region Record asked recipients of four honorary doctorates from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University to offer their thoughts on how the pandemic has changed their perspective on the importance of higher education.
These are their answers:
The question: With the World Health Organization officially declaring an end to the global COVID-19 emergency, how have the last three years changed and shaped your views on the importance of higher education?
COVID-19 has made students both more resilient and independent as learners, even as it has sapped energy from more synergistic and cooperative forms of learning. We must enhance student gains in seeking knowledge themselves, in accordance with their own aspirations, which also meet disciplinary and curricular requirements. As we do this, we must also help them understand and experience that all learning builds upon others’ insights. In the legal realm, judgment is best exercised by taking account of different angles of vision. Learning how to exercise sound judgment is a social good. If judgment is to be refined and meet broader needs it must be learned and practiced in diverse classroom settings and in other dynamic group contexts.
The past three years, marked by the global COVID-19 emergency, have significantly influenced and shaped the importance of higher education. The pandemic forced educational institutions to adapt rapidly, leading to the widespread adoption of online learning and highlighting the need for flexibility and technological integration in education. It also revealed the existing disparities in access to education, emphasizing the importance of equity and inclusivity in higher education. The interdisciplinary collaboration among various fields to address the crisis underscored the significance of multidisciplinary approaches in finding solutions to complex problems. Furthermore, the pandemic prompted a re-evaluation of priorities, emphasizing the long-term consequences of neglecting investments in education and research. Overall, these experiences have reinforced the vital role of higher education in fostering adaptability, equity, collaboration, and resilience, and the need to prioritize and support educational institutions to drive progress and social development.
Education helps you question what you hear and read. In many countries, and especially the USA, the social networks were flooded with amateur and anti-science opinions and advice. This spanned all levels of society, and shockingly included wild and irresponsible opinions from the highest level of government. Sadly this led to widespread COVID denial and anti-vax sentiment. Of the roughly one million deaths in the USA by May 2022, it is estimated that because of vaccines and mask denial, one third were preventable (333,000 lives, NPR report, May 17, 2022). Higher education helps society make informed decisions; it gives individuals the ability to be selective in what they read, and arms them with a language to counter false information with rational reasoning.
The COVID-19 outbreak was and should be a warning shot for us as a civilization and humanity. The world saw first-hand just how vulnerable we all are to new borne diseases that can quickly spread across the world. It also gave us the opportunity to witness first-hand the importance of those seeking higher education to do research and problem solving for emerging issues that arise — in this case, to develop a vaccination to counter COVID-19. We also witnessed the demand and strain put on our health care systems and the urgency to support more health care professionals and first responders. The ability of our education systems to adapt to changing circumstances and realities was and is paramount to ensuring student success and that societies’ needs are met. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the pandemic also brought into focus the often-underappreciated workforce that keeps our societies functioning; we are all beneficiaries of the divisions of labor and tasks that keep our human existence advancing. Through these collective contributions, the next generation will continue to thrive.
Wilfrid Laurier University honorary doctorate recipients also include: global Indigenous rights advocate Wilton Littlechild, 11-time national boxing champion and Olympian Mandy Bujold, opera singer Jane Archibald and global teaching prize winner Maggie MacDonnell.
University of Waterloo honorary doctorates also include: former dean at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering Cristina Amon, former management sciences engineering professor John Buzacott, Canadian theater artist and director Seana Bridget McKenna, clinical and research psychologist Debra Pepler, mathematician Arlie Petters, hydrogeology and environmental engineering professor Yanxin Wang and medical microbiologist Mark Willcox.
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