We Cannot Teach in Masks

by Michael Lewis and Sinéad Murphy

Open letter in response to the requirement for staff to wear face-masks while teaching, announced by the Executive Board of Newcastle University on July 22nd 2020

During the last six months, Newcastle University has repeatedly stated that its primary goal is to protect the safety of its staff and students. We respond that the primary goal of a university should be to educate its staff and students. By failing to uphold the value of education, the university is reneging upon its rightful mission.

Planned restrictions in response to the Covid virus, on learning conditions and on campus life more generally – restrictions that actually exceed current government dictates – profoundly undermine the prospect of meaningful academic experience at the precise moment when financial crisis and limitations on travel already threaten its viability.

We cannot in good conscience simply acquiesce in the repurposing of the university as an institution that valorises safety above education, and bare life in preference to the good life.

The Latin origins of the word ‘education’ reveal its role in ‘leading forth’. Never has this role been more vital, especially given that students, and young people more generally, although almost invulnerable to the virus, have arguably paid the highest price for its suppression, and now face a future of economic, social and political uncertainty.

As academics and as a university as a whole, our role is reasonably to examine and exemplify what is true and what is good, and to help our students to do likewise. This is particularly relevant for those of us in the humanities, allied as we are with the concept which, above all others, ought to have led policy responses to the virus, and which humanities academics should have seized upon immediately and promoted tirelessly: the humanity of the human.

Historically, the deprivation of the face and the refusal of contact with others (frequently in the context of virulent disease) have been the very first and most effective gestures of dehumanisation. And yet, now we are asked to imagine a truly risible classroom in which the teacher, and perhaps eventually everyone, is faceless, masked, and spaced two metres apart, so that all chance of serious interaction, human interaction – between student and teacher, but, perhaps most ruinously of all, among students themselves – is ruled out in favour of the atmosphere of the operating theatre.

Masking smothers the breath, muffles speech, and hides the face. Distancing, including the refusal of contact altogether in the form of online teaching, renders the body so abstract as to be effectively, if not actually, virtual. These measures, now mandated by the university, render higher education, and indeed all education, impossible, or at least greatly inferior to what it should be. Leaving aside their undermining of the vocation of the university in developing the humanity of the human, they are pedagogically damaging as well.

One of the first arrangements that pedagogy has recognised as essential to a functioning seminar is the physical arrangement of the classroom: the orientation of students towards one another, in flexible and mobile proximity. And there can be no disputing the fundamental importance of effective projection of the voice and its scaffolding by non-verbal cues such as facial expressions.

If we who teach at university accept the compulsory imposition of masks and social distancing rules, our words will not be heard clearly: we will be forced to keep to the bare bones of our teaching content, its ‘take-home message’, and to select the most generic, streamlined ways of explaining it. Considering that, at university, it is the nuances of often complex ideas that should be taught and discussed, such a muffling of speech is, or ought to be, utterly impractical and intellectually improper.

We strongly object to the prospect of teaching as an inscrutable, distant, faceless other, confronting a host of joyless and atomised learners. If students continue to enrol at certain universities in high numbers, it is surely not a reflection of the quality of the teaching they are about to receive or anything like an acceptance of its character, but simply the want of anything better, allied, perhaps, with a need to escape the parental home after a long lockdown during which young people have been already largely deprived of meaningful education.

Throughout recent months, our university should have seized upon its autonomy with respect to a vacillating and inadequate governmental policy and promoted the value of that which ought to be its province – critical thought, which subjects hegemonic and official views to logical, moral and political scrutiny. Its Humanities faculty in particular ought to have considered – or, at the very least, it should now begin to consider – the ethical, political and psychological effects of the totalitarian imposition of face coverings and social distancing, which overrides our capacity to arrive at our own conclusions and to decide upon our own measures according to our own understanding of the situation.

The failure to discuss the effects of this dictate – both its style and its content – have shocked us. If acknowledged at all, they are merely lamented, as if they are the result of necessary, and possible, measures; whereas, as with so much of what has been done to our social and cultural lives over the last six months, it is our contention that even if these measures were necessary, they should not have been possible – there are kinds and degrees of intervention in our arrangements for living and working that ought to be inconceivable and to remain so.

But we dispute, as well, that these measures are necessary. As educators, those who ‘lead forth’ – and here we come to the duty that falls particularly to our colleagues in the Science faculties – it behoves us to model an appropriate response to serious and sustained scientific research. And while the issues are certainly contested, it can confidently be stated that there is, at least, no serious and sustained scientific research to show that the wearing of face coverings outside of clinical settings significantly prevents the spread of respiratory disease.

On March 3rd this year, the Government’s Chief Medical Officer admitted this. On April 6th, the World Health Organisation admitted this. And there is no evidence that, scientifically, anything has changed. Indeed, on July 23rd, Carl Heneghan, Professor of Evidence Based Medicine at Oxford, stated that, given the lack of scientific consensus on the effectiveness of mask-wearing in preventing virus spread, decisions in this regard are political decisions and are not scientifically based.

While it may be the case that staff and students at universities will feel safer if staff, and perhaps students too, are instructed to wear masks, it is the first duty of the university now, in its efforts to educate, to ensure that estimations of risk by its staff and students are as reasonable as they can be, and not to succumb to unreasonable fears and expectations.

Are there risks involved in not wearing a mask in the lecture hall and the seminar room, and in not adhering to strict social distancing rules? Yes, there are. But it is a basic, though currently suppressed, fact of human life that none of us is ever really safe, and indeed that human beings are, among many other things, vectors of disease and infection – we have never been anything else.

In any case, risks from Covid are now very slight; and some things, like education, are worth risking something for; and risks can be calculated. We now know that, if we dare compare the risks of the virus, currently presented by the newspapers as if it were the only potentially fatal disease in existence, to all of the other possible causes of deaths, which in England number well over a thousand a day, even in the summer, even in so-called ‘average’ years, risks posed by the virus to university staff and students pale into insignificance.

On May 10th this year, David Spiegelhalter of the Winton Centre for Risk and Evidence Communication at Cambridge University described the threat posed by the virus to the health of young people as “staggeringly low”. On May 5th, John Ioannidis, Professor of Medicine, Health Research and Policy, and Biomedical Data Science at Stanford University, described the risks to those below retirement age as less serious than the risks involved in their daily drive to work.

Sunetra Gupta, Professor of Theoretical Epidemiology at Oxford University, has repeatedly explained that she and her colleagues recommend exposure of the general populace to the virus so that immunity is allowed to develop – a more medically effective strategy than the predominant response of isolation, distance, and protection, which is premised upon the expectation of a fully effective vaccine that can never be guaranteed to arrive.

Such scientific testimony is, regrettably, made irrelevant while the university renders its duty to educate secondary to its pursuit of the ‘safety’ of its staff and students, where ‘safety’ refers to feelings of safety rather than to actual safety, which is not, in fact, now under any threat. Following – and exceeding – the trend of governmental policy rather than exposing it to critical analysis, the University is acting as if it were possible to lead a life entirely without risk – or acting as if alleviation of risk were worth paying any price for.

And all this at the precise moment when the University might have offered itself as the very space in which it were possible to consider one vital insight that is now more urgently required than ever before: that the good life may be more important than mere life, more worthy of protection than the little-more-than-survival that we have now in prospect and have already lived through for half a year.

Instead, the University has been, not just submissive in the face of Government guidelines, but over-zealous in its attempt to outdo the supposed morality of other institutions by insisting on going beyond what is officially advised.

At the very least, we suggest that the University might allow those of its staff who have drawn some or all of these conclusions a free choice in this matter, and that whether or not to teach in masks, and to comply with some of the more disruptive measures being imposed or reiterated by the University, be left to individual discretion.

Michael Lewis and Sinéad Murphy are members of the Philosophy Faculty at the University of Newcastle

November 2022
Free Speech Union

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