Teaching during the pandemic has prompted fresh approaches to assignments. Dr. Natasha Naujoks, who chaired the school's Distance Learning Committee and serves as Director of International Programs, created an assignment for her Western Civilization course that requires students to read an account of the bubonic plague in the 1300s and draw comparisons to the current moment. The assignment unfolded in the most modern of ways, via an online discussion board. She shares details and the students' insights in the article below:
The COVID-19 pandemic affords new opportunities for students to exercise their historical thinking skills and create a dialogue between the past and the present. Every year, I have my Western Civilization students read excerpts from Boccaccio’s introduction to The Decameron, which provides a firsthand account of the outbreak of bubonic plague in Florence, Italy in 1348.
This year, I also tasked them with serving as the Boccaccio of their own era by reflecting on how the current pandemic is transforming our ways of life, for better and for worse. In so doing, students practice their ability to evaluate cause and effect, to compare and contrast, and to analyze historical processes through the lenses of human society, politics, economics, and culture. Additionally, this exercise is intended to reiterate the importance of primary sources and encourage students to record their experience of the present to help future historians in their efforts to make sense of the past.
Students observed that Americans today seem to be responding to the COVID-19 pandemic in ways similar to those described by Boccaccio – “some take the situation very seriously, while others do not seem to care all too much. Between those who quarantined and those who believed that the virus was a hoax and complained about wearing masks and social distancing, there was a middle-ground of people who still went about their normal lives while adhering to the guidelines of safety against COVID, much like some did during the Black Death” (Kristin ’23).
A clear consensus emerged in students’ accounts that the biggest effects of the current pandemic seem to be in our economic life. In contrast to the Black Death, which produced a labor shortage in Europe due to the disproportionate effect it had on the peasant classes, the COVID-19 pandemic has increased unemployment and may be widening economic inequalities. Students also noted that different sectors of the economy are experiencing these effects differently - “Businesses such as restaurants and hair salons have gone out of business because people choose to not buy their products/services because of health concerns. However, goods such as exercise equipment are in high demand, and factories are struggling to produce enough to meet the demand” (Meghan ’23). On a macro level, the pandemic has interrupted trade and the supply chains that support the global economy, leading to critical shortages of both medical supplies and consumer goods.
Students also highlighted some political effects that would have been unimaginable in Boccaccio’s day, such as changes to our electoral systems to allow people to more safely cast their ballots. Several students also astutely observed that the pandemic is contributing to political polarization in this country – “the two main responses to COVID-19 have become the focal point of the upcoming presidential election, with the respective parties endorsing one or the other. Most would argue these contrasting responses have sowed countless seeds of divisiveness in the United States. Again, some demand increased restrictions while others advocate for greater freedom and more re-opening” (Ruby ’23).
Finally, students described changes in our society and culture. Much like Boccaccio observed, students noted that the COVID-19 pandemic is undermining our traditions surrounding care of the sick and funeral rites. Long-standing customs such as the handshake seem to be under threat of disappearing. Just like the Florentines of 1348, many of us are experiencing a sense of isolation due to quarantines and social distancing measures, although we in 2020 have the benefit of technology to facilitate social interactions with family, friends, and colleagues. Not surprisingly, changes in education were another common thread in these posts. “Schools have closed and will probably continue to use resources such as Zoom after the COVID-19 pandemic has ended. Schools have to rethink about the way they teach and will probably make long term changes” (Meghan ’23).
Despite all of the monumental changes set in motion by COVID-19, students also demonstrated their extraordinary resilience and sounded a note of hope in identifying one key difference between the current pandemic and the Black Death – advances in medical science. While COVID-19 has already tragically claimed the lives of over one million people worldwide, they observed that this does not even come close to the scale of destruction engendered by the Black Death, which wiped out as much as one-half of the European population in less than four years according to some estimates. “Due to modern science, we have been able to cope with it more effectively overall, and a much smaller percent of the population has fallen victim to the virus…with lockdown regulations easing in many places and progress on a vaccine against the virus increasing, many are optimistic for the near future to be without COVID-19, to be back to normal” (Micah ’23).
By Dr. Natasha Naujoks, Upper School History Teacher and Director of International Programs