LAWRENCE GLICKMAN: Hi. My name is Larry Glickman, and I'm a professor of History and American Studies here at Cornell University. And I'd like to answer three questions about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The first is, how has the pandemic changed my perspective as a scholar and/or personally?
And to me, I think the single biggest issue that has been brought home to me is the one of inequality, both looking at my students, some of whom are having a difficult time in their home life with internet connections and poverty, and others of whom are having a relatively easier time making it work in this post COVID-19 moment. Also looking around me at the work that has become essential in our society, or recognized as becoming essential in our society, seeing the fact that we are rethinking what it means to be an essential worker, and who is valued in our society. All of these are things I knew before, but this pandemic is really driving it home.
The second question I'd like to answer has to do with how this pandemic is affecting my field of study? And it's an interesting one, because historians usually are backward looking, rather than forward looking, and usually we don't have to answer questions like this. But I think it's really important to think about, and I guess the main thing that I'm focused on right now, like a lot of my colleagues in history, is crisis. We are dealing with an intense crisis, and it's a very telescoped crisis.
One of the things that I've been noting on my Twitter feed is that we are kind of experiencing what happened between 1929 and 1933, the first four years of the Great Depression, have essentially happened in the last three weeks, in terms of incredibly rapid rise of unemployment. And that makes me think about how we will be able to handle a crisis at hyper-speed. We have had very little time to change our prior convictions, our prior ideas, but yet, this pandemic is forcing many of us to do so. If you had told me a month ago that Congress, in a bipartisan fashion, will pass a $2 trillion stimulus bill, I wouldn't have believed you.
So this is really leading me to think about how crisis impacts history. It's something that we all think about, but in a very abstract way, and this has really brought it home in a very particular and specific way. And I really can't think of a crisis that has occurred at such breakneck speed.
And that really leads me to the third issue that I wanted to talk about, which is kind of what will be the long-term impact of this COVID-19 pandemic? And I'm going to be an annoying academic and say, it could go a lot of different ways, but I think, to me, one of the things I've seen from history is that oftentimes what we think will be turning points turn out not to be. They turn out to reinforce pre-existing ideas and values, and I'll be very interested to see how that happens in the United States where we have a very high level of partisanship at the moment. Will this pandemic change that in any way?
I guess I'm suspicious that that will happen. Other crises have led people and societies to reorganize and think about things differently. And I think that's certainly a possibility here. We are in really uncharted territories, in terms of the combination of a public health disaster and an economic meltdown at the same time. We've experienced these things individually, but never at the same time, and the simultaneity may make a difference in how we as a society react to it.
I guess, given my study of history over the long-term and how rare it is for fundamental transformations to happen, my money would be on this pandemic not fundamentally altering our basic structures of society. I hope I'm wrong about that. I hope that we make ourselves a stronger, more equal, more just society when this is over, using this pandemic and the economic meltdown as an opportunity to rethink our values. But that's happened rarely in the past, and so as a historian, I guess, I have to be a little bit suspicious about how that will play out in the future.
And in signing off, I'd like to send my warm thoughts to all people in the Cornell community. We, the faculty, really miss seeing you in person, although it's been really great this week to Zoom again, and to see faces, and hear voices, and just reconnect with the really important scholarly work we're doing. And I just want everyone to know that I'm thinking about you, and I know my colleagues are as well.
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Lawrence Glickman, a historian at Cornell University, says the simultaneous public health disaster and economic meltdown may lead us to rethink the country’s values. However, “given ...how rare it is for fundamental transformations to happen, my money would be on this pandemic not fundamentally altering our basic structures of society.” Glickman is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman Professor of American Studies in the Department of History, College of Arts and Sciences. He teaches political, cultural and intellectual history.