BARRY STRAUSS: My name is Barry Strauss. And I'm a professor of History and Classics here at Cornell University. I'm here to talk today about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on all of us. I have to say that as a historian, it has been embarrassingly fascinating for me to watch the pandemic.
I have often written about periods of history that are turning points in which society terms on a dime and in which individuals say that they're prisoners of their times. But before this, I never really understood what that might mean. I've had a pretty easy life. And perhaps 9/11 gave me some sense of it, but nothing like this experience. It has really changed our world so dramatically and turned it upside down in ways that we could hardly have imagined even a few months ago.
Of course, it's also been distressing. My wife and our dog and I, we've all been pretty much cooped up at home. I happened to be out in California this year on leave, which is very nice. But our kids were supposed to come out and visit us. They are on the East Coast. They can't, of course. We're worried about them. So there are their personal aspects, as well, in which I can understand what history means to people and how sometimes history shaped people.
Early on I was just reminded out of the blue of the song from the Civil War, "When This Cruel War is Over." And I don't think I ever really understood what it meant to people to be in that prison of history before. And now I think I have a much better sense of that and how it works.
How will COVID-19 affect my field of study? So I'm a historian with a particular emphasis on ancient history and military history. And I think that COVID-19 has already made people far more interested in the history of plagues and epidemics than it was in the past. I've gotten a number of inquiries, for instance, about the Antonine Plague in the Roman Empire in the era of Marcus Aurelius and the Justinian Plague in the early Byzantine period.
And it certainly struck me that often in history, unfortunately, plagues and wars are connected, epidemics and wars are connected. And we can only hope and pray that our current situation does not lead to any sort of military engagement.
I think another way that it's going to change the field is that it's going to make people think more about computer models and the use of data. These have both become big subjects in history in recent years. And I think our experience of the pandemic has told us, first of all, just how important data is and how important models are. But it's also reminded us that models are only as good as the assumptions that you make. And they're only as good as the work that goes into creating the models. So I think it's going to make people pay more attention to models, but perhaps use them more cautiously than they had before.
And finally, I think it's going to make people more aware of the fragility of society. I think this is going to be a big theme in many, many ways in scholarship and history. I think you will see it happening. And perhaps more of a-- what is the word? But more understanding, more compassion for people in the past and the difficult decisions that they had to make.
How do I think COVID-19-- how do I think the pandemic will change our country and change the world? I think it will do so in several ways. First of all, it's going to have a big impact on American politics in this an election year. We really don't know what that impact will be yet. But we have no doubt that it exists. The things that seemed so important a few months ago hardly seem to matter anymore. And we can't even begin to guess what's going to matter in the fall.
Secondly, I think it's going to change national debate a lot. I think we're going to hear a great deal about China and the US relationship with China. And I think we're going to hear a great deal about communism, which is a term we haven't heard about for a long time. But I think it's going to come back into the public discourse.
And third, I think the pandemic is going to have a big impact on higher education. It already has in the shocking end of semesters and quarters and the academic year for most colleges and universities, in the fact that summer school is largely not going to happen or not going to happen in person, in the fact that we're not sure what the future is going to bring in the fall semester.
I think there's been a huge national experiment in higher education in terms of teaching online. I think that it gets mixed reviews. My own experience has been that it's actually not so bad to lecture online, but really difficult to teach seminars online. That is a work in progress, at least as far as I'm concerned.
But I do think it's going to have an impact on the profession and on the industry. I also think we're going to see, unfortunately, because of the tremendous hit that our economy has taken, I think a lot of people are going to be hurting for money. I think-- I'd hate to see-- but there's some people who wanted to go to college who might not be able to go to college.
But what I think you're also going to see is you're going see a lot more online education. You're going to see a lot more budget education. And I think higher education is going to be facing a very interesting period moving ahead.
I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you. And I'd like to wish everyone stay safe and have good health.
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Cornell University historian Barry Strauss, who specializes in ancient and military history, notes that plagues and epidemics have often been linked to wars. The current pandemic will accelerate the use of computer models and big data in the field of history; however, he says, COVID-19 has taught us that models are only as good as the assumptions on which they’re based.
The pandemic will highlight the fragility of society and significantly influence U.S. politics – with unknown consequences – as well as the U.S.-China relationship. He predicts we’ll be hearing more about communism, and that colleges and universities will see a lasting shift toward online and budget education.
On a personal note, he says the pandemic has given him insight into what it feels like to have one’s life shaped by an historic event.
Strauss is the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences.