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Thoughts on Education in the Time of COVID


Apologies for not “blogging” more often. I’ve always had trouble compressing my random daily thoughts into just a few sentences and, for the past couple of months, I’ve been busy writing research articles and grant proposals. But, though dint of hard work and sheer “bloody-mindedness”, I’ve managed to get a bit ahead of my current work schedule and so carved out time to reactivate this blog.

For the last week or so a big story in the UK seems to have been when children of all ages are going to be freed from their current confinement – in their houses, with (gasp!) their parents – and be allowed to go back to school. Of course, education is arguably the most important function of a society after the safety of its members, so this seems a perfectly legitimate concern. Aside from the knowledge necessary to operate in the world successfully, education provides, for the most part, a safe, wholesome, monitored environment for children during the day. This service allows both parents to be employed outside the home which, for many (most?) families, has long since become an economic necessity. Accordingly, there’s a society-wide economic incentive to reopen the schools.

The third issue of concern in this area has to do with socialization and mental health. Quite aside from the provisions of education and physical environment, schools provide an important social context within which children explore their own personalities, forge social bonds with others and gain experience in navigating their way through human social environments generally. Whether this latter aspect of school life is as organized and thought through as thoroughly as the topical curriculum, or whether it’s simply the inevitable by-product of gathering large numbers of people in a restricted physical space, is a matter of debate. Certainly aspects of each school’s social environment have been created to serve specific instructional goals (e.g., sports, clubs, student government) while others are wholly self-generated and beyond any conceivably positive educational remit (e.g., bullying, verbal aggression, stigmatization, social factionalization, exam apprehension, occasional instances of assault). That aspects of the latter appear to have made their way readily into the social-media counterpart of scholastic culture is a matter of pressing social concern. But in this essay I’d like to focus on the educational issue and consider three questions: (i.) Is school the location where education takes place? (ii.) Does education have any necessary connection with schoolteachers? (iii.) What lessons about the provision of education should we take away from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Is school the location where education takes place? If I asked the question a little differently (e.g., What is the location where education takes place?) probably I could extract the response “school” from many readers. But is this really the correct answer? Yes, school is the place where we are sent to be “educated”; usually as children, but occasionally well into adulthood. Yes, aspects of our education take place while we are physically in the school building. But is this a necessary, cause-effect relation? Indeed, is it even a healthy relation? Do we benefit, as a society, from promoting the idea that school is the only, or even the primary, place where we receive education? I think not.

First, what is “education”. Of course, there are many definitions. Biologically education tied necessarily to memory and, without getting into the biophysics of memory (which is poorly understood, regardless), it’s safe to say that memorization can and does take place anywhere, anytime, as a response to a wide variety of stimuli. Naturally, education is more than memorization. At the very least it involves recalling previous experiences and deciding how to respond to both similar and novel situations. But try doing that without a well-stocked memory!

Memory, and so education, has nothing to do with school either as a building or as a concept, as is illustrated by colloquial phrases such as the “school of hard knocks” and “street smarts”. Memory comes from experience and experience can happen anywhere. Schools are associated with education because they are designed and organized to provide students with the experiences required by the state for them to incorporate certain sorts of information into their memories. But schools do not have a monopoly on the provision of educational experiences.

In order for education to take place students must not only be provided with experience, they must be open and receptive to the experiences being provided. This is often where the school environment inhibits education for many students. As any visit to an actual classroom will show, even where the teachers are particularly knowledgeable and talented, most schools are rife with distractions that take students away from their lessons. These distractions come in many forms; some from the school’s physical environment and facilities, some from students’ close associates (incl. teachers), some from the students’ homes and families, some from the communities in which the students live. Some distractions can be compensated for within the school environment (e.g., uniform dress codes, free meals, health care, good counseling). Many cannot. They are simply part of life.

This fact isn’t emphasized in the scholastic environments of most schools. Neither is it emphasized that, over time, schools have been lumbered with a wide variety of social, medical and psychological responsibilities they were never designed to meet, largely because the family and community-centered institutions that provided these services previously have been allowed to atrophy. Naturally, the level of interference these extra-educational aspects of the school environment have on the educational core has become even more problematic as the student body has become ever more diverse culturally, religiously, ethnically, politically and economically. As a result, school — and so the educational role with which it’s most closely associated — has come to be regarded as an increasingly remote and intrusive factor in many students' lives; as if it represents something that must be endured for a specified time despite the fact that the popular culture signals copiously that the distractions from school work are much more valued than the school work itself. This “Swiss Army knife” concept of what schools are supposed to be for has, in many cases, undermined their educational roles to the point where students have bought-in to the idea that, like it or not, schools are places where they are force-fed “education” that has little or nothing to do with their actual lives, aspirations or personal interests. As a result, progress towards these, more personal, goals must be deferred until graduation: the time at which students will have achieved “immunity” from education and need not repeat the treatment. To recall the words a particularly trenchant social critic from my own school days:

          “It's almost like college was invented by Madison Avenue so that after
           you've gone for a certain number of years and spent a certain amount
           of money on products which they're helping to sell to you, you'll get a
            piece of paper that says you're educated.”

           “If you want to be educated go to the library.”
                                                                                                                         - Frank Zappa

The standard attitude toward education, adhered to by most schools, is that its purpose is to prepare you to find employment; as if employment is the outcome, and the proof, of being educated. There’s nothing wrong with employment, of course. It’s just that employment, like school, has little or nothing to do with being educated.

There is a general correlation between level of educational attainment and income. This correlation is why many politicians advocate increasing the time spent in school-sponsored training by their young constituents. However, as correlations go, this one is not all that remarkable, especially at the top where income level is also correlated with a number of other, decidedly non-education-related, factors. Today, many people who have remained in educational programs into their late 20s and 30s struggle to find employment and settle into jobs that not only make little use of the information and/or skills they have gained through their education, but that force them to undergo economic and emotional privation as they struggle to repay the debts incurred as a result of their decision to pursue advanced education. This burden often continues well into their adult lives.

The “get a job” argument also falls particularly flat when made to secondary school students who (naturally) have little idea what they want to do with their lives and so what they should study to achieve that goal. Indeed, it’s an argument that makes a lot more sense to the student’s parents, who need to provide for their families, than to students who, for the most part, are shielded from such responsibilities. But since it is the students — not their parents — who need to make the effort to become educated, this motivational discrepancy constitutes a serious conceptual failing in how educational systems present themselves to their actual consumers.

Leaving aside issues of what education is and why it is desirable, the simple fact is that education takes place in the mind of the person being educated and so has nothing to do with where that mind happens to be located physically. Of course education can take place in a school. But it also can take place in the home. Or in the workplace. Or in the pub. Or at a party. Or walking down the street. Or looking at the stars. Education can take place anywhere. Most importantly, for those who are educated properly, it tends to take place everywhere and at all times.

Throughout our lives we are all confronted with problems to solve based on the understanding we have gained previously and in the hope that the decisions we make will turn out well for ourselves and those we care about. The learning we achieve from having made those decisions, and discovering what consequences result, are no different from the far more abstract and controlled lessons we are provided with in classrooms. Curiously, the latter is referred to as “education” whereas the former is referred to as “life”; as if the two are different. They are not. They are the same. The only difference is that, in the case of education, someone else has determined what needs to be learned, why, when and how whereas, in the case of life, once a student reaches a certain age those determinations are made by the person being educated. Given the profound, though to my mind false, distinction that is made between the other-directed education that is done in school and the self-directed learning we all engage in all the time, is it any wonder that “education” gets a bad rap.

Most people find being told what to do by others day-in and day-out difficult to accept. But those same people are intensively invested in their personal interests, many of which are regarded as having nothing whatsoever to do with what we term “education” or “school”, but all of which they are extremely well-motivated to pursue. By erecting a false conceptual distinction between these spheres of human activity – by defining “education” as those activities that take place in a school and “personal interests” (for many) as those that take place outside of school – have we not erected, both for our children and for ourselves, a substantial impediment to achieving the very result we desire: to become knowledgeable, to understand the connections between different types of activities, to make progress toward the realization of our personal goals based on correct understanding, to learn correct lessons from our mistakes, to become educated?

Conclusion 1: Education can take place in schools, but in reality it can take place anywhere. Moreover, the scholastic environment often makes the process of education difficult for many students because of its inherent artificiality.

And what of teachers? Many will say that education must be delivered by teachers who are qualified, certified, and skilled in delivering their parts of a curriculum that has been devised by specialists and whose goal is to “make” students “fit to be productive members of society”. What does any of this mean? Is there any indication it has delivered the objectives it espouses? Teachers of history certainly need to have a knowledge of history. But do they need to be historians? Teachers of English certainly need to have a knowledge of English language and literature. But do they need to be writers or poets? Teachers of biology certainly need to have a knowledge of zoology, botany, anatomy, ecology, taxonomy etc. But do they need to be zoologists, botanists, anatomists, ecologists, or taxonomists, especially if they are teaching primary or secondary-school, pupils?

When I was a high school teacher in small and relatively poor community outside Dallas, Texas, the Head of the Science Department, who was a very experienced and effective teacher, once told me, “A good teacher is someone who knows their subject, but a great teacher is someone who also knows their students.”. In terms of achieving true education, these two aspect of the process – to know the subject and the person being taught – are inseparable. Of the two, knowing the student is almost always much more important than having a detailed knowledge of subject.

If education is the transmission of knowledge and its preservation in memory, that transmission can be enhanced immeasurably, and made more efficient, through the actions of another person. But it does not require a teacher; at least not a teacher in the sense most schools understand teachers to be.

Obviously, knowledge can be gained through doing. We have all gained knowledge in this way. No teacher was involved. We all have gained knowledge from our parents and other family members, our friends, our work associates, those who have visited us, those we have visited, and those who we have interacted with in a wide variety of contexts. We might say we have learned from these individuals or that they have “taught” us certain things. But they are not regarded as having been our teachers in the scholastic sense of that term. We all have, of course, also be taught formally by schoolteachers in school settings. But think back to the schoolteachers who have influenced you most. Were they just schoolteachers; people who were qualified, certified, and skilled in delivering their parts of a curriculum? Or were they people who transcended those bare-bones requirements and managed to make a personal connection with you; one which resulted in you being more receptive to the information they were providing than would have been the case otherwise? Think how your life might have been different if those people had not made the effort to take an interest in you, or if those connections had not been made. I know mine would have been very different.

These people channel and give structure to our lives in the same way our family and friends do. In fortunate cases they become friends and we regard them has members of our informal extended families. But my point is that the educational experiences that matter most to us, and to our lives, are not delivered only, or even primarily, by those who are merely qualified and certified in delivering their parts of a formal school curriculum and who do what they do to make us fit to be productive members of society. Genuinely being involved in the education of another goes well beyond this.

Conclusion 2: We are taught by many people, only some of whom are schoolteachers.

The false equation of education taking place only, or even primarily, in schools and in the presence of schoolteachers has, and will continue to have, a particularly pernicious effect on all of us as we attempt to make our way in an increasingly technological world. Either directly or indirectly, advances in technology have been an increasingly important driver of the global economy since the industrial revolution. Even since World War II they have been the primary driver. Today, of the 50 largest corporations that publish financial summaries (, all are either technology companies themselves (e.g., Amazon, Apple) or companies heavily invested in, and reliant upon, continual advances in technology to remain competitive (e.g., Walmart, Royal Dutch Shell, British Petroleum).

More importantly, while the pace of technological change has always been much faster than organizational or infrastructural change, this pace has increased markedly over the past 30-40 years. We are all now living in a world where the technical knowledge and skills acquired by current teens and 20-somethings will be of little use when those same individuals are in their 40s and 50s. Yes, people will be the same and jobs that involve the management of people will require many of the same people-management skills taught today in business schools across the world. But people management is a means to some corporate end, not an end in itself. Managers who do not understand the ever-changing technological principles and aspects of the tasks their teams are being asked to perform can hardly be expected to be of much assistance in helping those teams deliver positive outcomes effectively. The exceedingly long list of corporate and governmental projects that have failed recently because the managers, and in some cases the workers themselves, didn’t understand the technical and technological complexities of the tasks they were assigned to deliver provides evidence that schools are not providing even the training (much less the education) needed for individuals to cope with our increasingly technological world.

Moreover, the looming presence of artificial intelligence is widely predicted to make substantial inroads into routine corporate tasks at the middle, and even senior, managerial levels. Although it is true that the coming AI and green revolutions will likely create as many new jobs as they displace, these positions won’t be filled by those with low levels of technological understanding. The need to embrace life-long learning and learning outside the traditional primary, secondary, and (even) university environments has never been more urgent and will only grow more important over time. Though it does’t seem to be well understood yet, this change has substantial implications for the process by which we all become educated and maintain our educational edge.

The COVID-19 pandemic has wrought many changes in everyone’s lives, not the least by removing direct, physical access to schools and teachers for students, as well as by nullifying many (if not most) of the everyday experiences of life for just about everyone. This is a huge social experiment and one that has been undertaken in a rather sloppy and disorganized manner (e.g., without a control group); not because that was the plan, but because that was necessary to avoid even greater losses of life than our societies have sustained to date. Online education has been a large part of the way we have been required to learn the new skills we needed to cope with life during the course of this experiment; from the formal “remote learning” classes students have been obliged to sit through to the news bulletins and programs we listened to or watched in order to learn what we were allowed to do, and what we have been prohibited from doing. Online learning was not invented over the past year, of course. But prior to the COVID-19 pandemic online education’s impact, uptake and recognition of effectiveness was limited in a world where eduction was still being regarded as something that took place by students going to school physically and being taught by schoolteachers. However, just as, over the past year, we have all learned that, for many of us, commuting from our residences to our offices was actually not a necessary requirement for “going to work”, and just as we learned that attending a meeting or a conference did not necessarily mean leaving our houses, being taught, even by schoolteachers, can no longer be regarded as being synonymous with going to school physically.

Some will see all three of these online activities as temporary stopgaps that enabled us to carry on through a time when it was no longer safe to be in close proximity to each other, either for ourselves or for them. I think this the wrong lesson to learn from the past year’s educational experiences. In the same way that social media provided new ways to contact, interact with, and stay close to family, friends, colleagues, online education provides new, more efficient, more diverse and more interesting ways to learn. Indeed, this transition had already become part of many (most?) people’s lives even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Think about it. The last time you needed to fix something around the house, did you sign up for a handyman course at the local junior college or community center, or did you go onto YouTube and watch a video? The last time you needed a fact for an e-mail you were writing to a friend or colleague, or a report you were writing for work, did you consult a schoolteacher or reference text written by such a person, or turn to Wikipedia?

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t create the need to do any of these things online, much less the demand for the technology to do so. The latter has been around for decades now. As for the former, that’s been around (literally) forever. The pandemic simply showed us how much we could to online in so many ways and provided the incentive for us to acquire the technologies and gain the skills necessary to take these parts of our lives online. Contrary to the opinions of many media pundits, that’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. More importantly, now that we know how much we (ourselves) can do online, that knowledge isn’t going to go away. Just as the advent to social media didn’t mean we never needed to spend time in physical proximity of our family members, friends and colleagues, online work will not mean we never have to go into the office again. Similarly, the availability of online meetings and educational opportunities will not mean we never have to attend conferences or set foot inside a classroom again. These technologies never can, and never will, replace any of the wide variety of human interactions we can have entirely. They merely give us more options and force on us the responsibility to make appropriate decisions regarding when and how to use these technologies.

And therein lies the rub. Before we didn’t need to decide where to live, it was decided for us by our employer’s location. We didn’t need to decide where to be during a conference we wanted to attend, it was decided for us by the conference organizer(s). Now we have the ability not only to decide what we want to learn about and when, but from whom, irrespective of either their, or our, physical locations. This seems to me to be an incredibly exciting advance. We may, of course, need to acquire the technologies and the skills necessary to benefit from the decisions we can now make in this area. But as we have seen during this pandemic, these technologies are not expensive and the skills required to gain access to the resources, while occasionally counter-intuitive, not overly complex. Most importantly (to me) the existence of these technologies has returned the decision about what to study, how, when and where, to where it always needed to be; to each and every one of us.

Conclusion 3: The future is uncertain by its very nature. To a much greater extent than most people realize, we create our own futures by the choices we make. Communications technology has greatly expanded those choices in the context of education and given each of us much more control over the education we can obtain than any group of humans has ever had in the past. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how much we can do with the tools already available, as well as where new developments in this area can (and will) be made. To the extent that any good can be said to have come out of the COVID-19 pandemic, the fact that we now know we can use online technologies, not to replace the educational experiences we had access to before, but to enhance, diversify, focus, and offer alternatives to them, fits that bill rather well so far as I can see. Most importantly, the pandemic has emphasized that, instead of someone else being in control of what, how, why, when and where we learn, it’s clear that control is now where it always has been actually, with each of us.

What will you do with your education and who will you select to be your guide(s)? It’s an age-old question, but one that has never been more pertinent, more open, or more important.

Norm MacLeod
18 February 2021

Are We in a Race with the COVID-19 Virus?


Image of COVID-19 virus.

Ever since the COVID-19 vaccines began being approved for use in the UK, US and EU I’ve been listening to news reporters on television and radio describe the global situation as a “race” between virus and the vaccine. This seems to me a rather fundamental misunderstanding of the science that, unfortunately, exposes news organizations’ fondness for using popular, widely understood and simplistic metaphors to make not-very-complicated situations (esp. in the area of scientific developments) “understandable” to the general public, irrespective of whether these metaphors are accurate or whether they actually do lead to greater understanding. Is the world now in a “race” with the virus? Yes. But it’s not the sort of race you might think and its outcome will be very different from the outcome of a standard race.

In popular parlance a race is a competition in which two or more competitors attempt to outdo one another in some aspect of performance related to speed. It might be a foot race, a horse race, a dog race, a car race, a boat race, an air race (race between airplanes) or even a race to the moon and back. The common features of all races are that competition begins at a specified point in time (the start), ends when the competitors achieve a pre-determine goal (cross the finish line, return to Earth from the moon), and the winner is decided on the basis of who achieved the goal in the shortest time interval. This metaphor does not provide an accurate, or an adequate, description of efforts to control transmission of the COVID-19 virus. The race metaphor also implies that, at some point in the future, we will “beat” the virus and be declared the winner of the race, after which the race will be over and life will return to its normal routine. This implication is also neither accurate nor adequate. Indeed, it is highly misleading.

Viruses are not competitors with humans for world domination. They are not enemies to be vanquished in a fair, open and rule-based contest. They are, simply, aspects of the earth’s environment.

Viruses appeared on Earth hundreds of millions of years before humans (Thézé et al., 2011) and I daresay will outlast our species by an equally long, if not longer, interval. Controversy exists regarding whether viruses are living constituents of our planet in that they lack the cellular machinery required to reproduce themselves (Villarreal, 2008). Accordingly, they must inject their genetic material into other cells. This co-opts the infected cells’ machinery to make copies of the virus. If this lack of internal reproductive capacity is ancestral – if it has always been part of virus biology – it could be argued that viruses occupy a gray zone between living and non-living entities. However, if this loss was secondary, the result of an evolutionary development from some fully reproductive ancestor, viruses would be considered highly evolved cellular parasites and definitely part of the living world. It’s doubtful this issue will ever be resolved insofar as the ancestor(s) of viruses have yet to be discovered and evidence of microbial reproduction would not be expected to fossilize readily. Irrespective of this nomenclatural uncertainty, viruses certainly do exist and they certainly effect the living world.

Humanity is not in a race with viruses any more than it is in a race with bees, newts, or palm trees. We are all part of the web of life and humanity needs to do a much better job of getting along with its furry, feathered, scaly and slimy neighbors. With regard to the COVID-19 virus, the physiological by-products of its cellular invasion are truly horrendous and heroic efforts must be made to ameliorate them to the greatest extent possible. Unfortunately, these effects have been made much worse, and more widespread, than they could, or should, have been in countries that did not prepare adequately to deal with what was universally acknowledged to be a major global health risk, not to mention one that was known to have occurred in the past repeatedly. All qualified experts were also in unanimous agreement that a pandemic would certainly occur again at some point in the future and had made this prediction plain to medical policy makers, again, repeatedly. Hopefully we now have all learned our lesson that we must take the risks imposed by the appearance of new, virus-based, respiratory infections seriously and prepare for their inevitable occurrence.

Another implied aspect of the race scenario is that, once the competition has begun the competitors are not allowed to argument their performance capabilities in any way. If I was running a foot race with a colleague I would not regard the race as fair if, in the middle of the competition, my colleague was allowed to … jump in a car and speed toward to finish line ahead of me; or turn into a bird and fly away. That’s not what races are about. Yet that is exactly the situation we find ourselves in with the COVID-19 virus.

Owing to its high mutation rate COVID-19 can, and has, turned into different forms, termed variants. These variants, which now number in the 100s, have different physical and biochemical characteristics that may effect their transmissibility, virulence, tolerance to environmental changes, and susceptibility to vaccine control. Variants arise through the normal processes of genetic mutation and there is absolutely nothing humanity can do to prevent that from happening. All we can do is respond by developing vaccines designed to control the new variants transmissabilities and/or mitigate their effects on our bodies. But because mutations happen randomly we cannot predict what new capabilities the COVID-19 virus might acquire through mutation; or when, or where these might occur. Thus, we are now destined always to be on the back foot when it comes to addressing the medical fallout from COVID-19; always responding to, never out in front of, the virus.

When some reporters refer to our race with COVID-19 they might mean a race to prevent as many lives being lost as possible. But again, this falls far short of a precise analogy insofar as, regardless of what we do or how well vaccination programs are organized, we will never know how many lives were saved. More importantly, it is by no means clear we will ever be able to stop lives being lost to COVID-19. So, where is the winner in this scenario? Moreover, if lives continue to be lost, how can the race end? A race that has no finish line is not a typical race.

While our situation with regard to the COVID-19 virus cannot be described accurately as a normal race, there is one sort of race that does provide an accurate analog, not only with regard to what humanity’s situation actually is, but what it must prepare for: an arms race. This term was coined in 1984 to describe the situation where nation states compete in the development of their respective militaries in order to intimidate one another politically, and so gain concessions, by threatening to overwhelm each other in a military conflict. Thus, from 1987 to 1914 the UK and Germany entered into a naval arms race in the run up to WWI. Similarly, from 1947 to 1991 the US and Soviet Union were engaged in a nuclear arms race, of which the race to the moon was a part. This arms race contributed ultimately to the economic collapse of the Soviet Union, but the arms race itself was unchanged even by this drastic development. It continues to this day under the sponsorship of the US and the Russian Federation.

Fig. 1

Examples of species involved in evolutionary arms races. Top row: the common periwinkle (Littorina littorea) and the European Green Crab (Carcinus maenas). Bottom row: moths (Heterocera) and bats (Chiroptera).

In 1987, in his book Evolution and Escalation, the evolutionary biologist Geerat Vermeij co-opted the concept of an arms race to explain trends in the morphological histories of predator and prey species (see also Vermeij, 1982). Vermeij argued that parallel trends among ecologically-linked species, such as larger claw sizes of shell-crushing crab species and larger, thicker, and/or more highly ornamented (= strengthened) shells in their gastropod prey, could be seen as the result of positive feedbacks in an evolutionary race for survival – the biological equivalent of a military arms race – which, once begun, channels morphological variation along ever more elaborate and specialized lines. This view of evolution remains somewhat controversial, but it has enjoyed a good deal of popularity and is now regarding as a mainstream concept in evolutionary biology. To me, an evolutionary arms race is the best biological metaphor for our current, and likely future relation with the COVID-19 virus.

If, as is desirable, the current crop of CVOID-19 vaccines is effective in preventing the virus’ transmission, selection will be high for mutations that allow new virus variants to circumvent the limitations imposed on old variants by vaccination. Meeting the challenge posed by new, vaccine-resistant variants will require the development of new vaccines. This, in turn will (likely) induce the appearance of new variants that are resistant to the new vaccines. And so on. And so on.

With the appearance of the new COVID-19 variants in Kent, South Africa and Brazil humanity has likely entered the first stages of an evolutionary arms race with the COVID-19 virus. But arms races aren’t really races, they’re positive feedback loops and loops, as we all know, don’t have an end. There is no finish line and no winner. The race goes on until one competitor simply leaves the field (e.g., Germany’s renunciation of militarism in the wake of its defeat in WWII) or arises again in another guise to continue the race (e.g., The Russian Federation). With regard to evolutionary arms races, some believe this process has driven morphological changes in competing species for literally tens of millions of years (ter Hofstede & Ratcliffe, 2016).

To prevent my having to end this essay on an (apparently) despondent note, let me hasten to add that the idea of humans engaging in an arms race with disease-producing microbes is nothing new. This is what happens every year with the influenza virus, which belongs to the same virus family as COVID-19. Each year new vaccines are developed to control new variants of the influenza virus that have appeared over the previous year. Each year, lamentably, deaths occur as a result of influenza infections. These go largely unnoticed by society at large because we have accepted influenza as a normal part of our environment and adjusted our medical infrastructure to counter its effects as best we can. This normalization of, and adjustment to, COVID-19 will also happen in time. The existence of effective COVID-19 vaccines will help us more toward its normalization, and the sooner societies move to this view of COVID-19 better it will be for all of us. But the outcome of our arms race with COVID-19 will not be victory, it will be acceptance.

We will learn to live with this virus. We’ve done it before with other viruses. We really have no choice in the matter. What we do have is a choice about though, is how we will live our lives alongside this new viral aspect of our environment. What will we change? What will we retain? Who will these changes fall on most heavily and what will the rest of us do to help them bear that burden? So far as I can tell that debate has yet to begin in earnest though many seem to be hard at work on their position/demand statements. Let us hope a genuine debate follows and let us also hope it is conducted more widely, more thoughtfully, more constructively and with a more accurate understanding of the issues involved than many of the previous public debates we’ve had recently.

Norm MacLeod
30 January 2021


The recent PaleoNet post from Phoebe Cohen about the upcoming Paleontological Society networking and careers event (see here) got me thinking. The event features a panel discussion provided by a group of experienced academic paleontologists all of whom were referred to as “mentors”. What is a mentor? How do mentors differ from supervisors, teachers and colleagues? And how do you know when you’ve found a mentor?

The dictionary definition, I’m afraid, isn’t much help. Most dictionaries define the term succinctly as a “trusted friend and adviser”, especially in juxtaposition to someone less experienced and/or knowledgeable. We all have, and will have, many friends and an even larger number of colleagues at each stage of our careers, but we’ll only have a few true mentors. Thus, these designations seem misleading. The true sign of mentorship is trust.

Mentorship goes well beyond the standard social relations we have with friends. Of course, this is not to say friends are either unimportant or untrustworthy. Only that, for the most part, we don’t tend to choose our friends in order to advance us in any particular area of our lives. Friends can, and often do, help us accomplish particular goals in our lives. But to me this is a fortuitous by-product, rather than a necessary condition, of friendship. Indeed, our friends can lead us down paths that make accomplishing our life goals more difficult as often as they can make it easier.

Mentorship also goes beyond the (largely) transactional relations we have with most of our teachers. In most cases teachers feel a responsibility to impart the course information to the students and, in many cases, they will go to great lengths to meet that expectation. But in most academic course programs this represents part of a transaction mediated through the college or university. The university hires the teacher to teach, the students pays the university a fee to be taught. The telling character of this relationship is that, in most cases, the teacher feels no responsibility to provide the student with instruction or support in areas outside the topic being taught. In some cases the teacher might supply a student with a letter of reference for a further prospective job or university placement, but this hardly qualifies as mentorship.

Academic supervisors often serve as mentors in a limited sense, and on occasion can tip over the (ill-defined) line into true mentorship. But all-too-often it takes the form of another transactional relationship. In large academic departments undergraduate students are typically assigned academic advisors or tutors whose role is to “look after” the student while they are in the department’s course program. So long as the interaction remains formal and infrequent the more holistic aspects of true mentorship rarely come to the fore. The academic supervisor provides a service to the student as part of their professional duty. Of course, on occasion the student’s needs are, or situation is, such that deeper engagement on the part of the supervisor is required. But even in such extreme cases the service-provision aspect of the interaction is rarely overcome.

The hallmark of true mentorship is its deep, yet informal, character. You don’t apply to become someone’s protégé. By the same token, “mentors” don’t select mentees at the beginning of a school term from a pool of available candidates. Like a fine wine, the mentor-protégé relation develops over time as a result of the frequency and quality of interactions that occur between the participants. Contrary to the dictionary definition, true mentors is rarely, if ever, a matter of advice per se. Rather, it’s grounded on the informal transfer of knowledge about aspects of a field of study, an institution, and/or a professional community that lie well outside the facts and figures of academic instruction. Moreover, true mentorship is grounded on a mutual exchange of psycho-social support that’s difficult to define objectively, but unmistakeable when present. The protégé gains valuable knowledge, understanding and insight into the more intangible – but no less important – aspects of the communities they wish to become part of and be accepted by. The mentor gains a receptive audience for the information and experience they possess and the satisfaction that comes from rendering assistance to someone who’s life they have become part of. Often the impetus for becoming a mentor is to fulfill a perceived personal debt to former mentors from the time they themselves were the protégé.

Unlike simple friendship, mentorship can, at times, involve much criticism. Yet, unlike simple supervision, the mentor wields no power within the mentor-protégé relationship to force the protégé to do anything. Whatever influence the mentor has over the knowledge, attitudes and actions of the protégé, those must be acquired and/acted upon, or rejected by the protégé freely and without any sense of coercion. In this sense it is a mistake to conceptualize a true mentor-protégé relationship as a one-sided exercise in inter-personal power dynamics. Indeed, while a protégé might will enter into a mentoring relation in what they perceive to be a relatively powerless state, the purpose of mentoring in its purest sense is not to train or guide them per se, but to empower them through informal training and guidance. The result of being mentored successfully is to increase one’s independence rather than reinforce subservience.

I suppose it's possible to complete an academic career without having been mentored by someone at sometime along the way. But I think it’s unusual. Most academics can point to several turning points in their careers that were facilitated in one way or another by mentors. My own career certainly has been. Consequently, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank those who have mentored me over the years, though one – arguably the most important – is no longer here to receive that acknowledgement.


Bob H. Slaughter - Bob was undoubtedly the most unique, iconoclastic, unconventional, generous and supportive person I ever had the good fortune to meet. In 1978 I arrived at Southern Methodist University’s MSc program on probation, after a lackluster academic record as an undergraduate geoscience major at the University of Missouri. Having spent two years teaching high-school science in Dallas, Texas I was scared to death I wouldn’t be able to re-enter academics and compete successfully alongside my younger and — undoubtedly smarter — fellow MSc students. But I was determined to try. One day, a few weeks after arriving on campus, I approached Bob, who seemed to be the only paleontologist around, and more-or-less demanded he give me a research project to work on in the spare time I’d have outside my classes. Although he had no particular reason to do so, Bob took me to a lab and showed me slab of chalk with some unusual teeth sticking out of the matrix. I could have that as a project, provided I was able to research what sort of teeth those were and identify them correctly. They turned out be the teeth of the Cretaceous pavement-tooth shark, Ptychodus rugosus Dixon, which I studied, reconstructed the dental arcade of, and about which I wrote my second scientific, and first single-authored, article. Oddly, I was never a formal student of Bob’s having been lured away from vertebrate paleontology by other SMU faculty members and, ultimately, by micropaleontology. But I never lost my interest in VP and, as my formal advisor was hardly ever on campus, Bob was the one who taught me, inspired my love of all paleontology's aspects, and set my feet firmly on the path I would follow henceforth in my so-called career as well as, to a large extent, in my life. What did I learn from Bob? Everything that really mattered, and much more besides.


Emile A Pessagno - Emile was my PhD supervisor at the University of Texas (Dallas) and a world-renown planktonic foraminifer and radiolarian biostratigrapher and taxonomist. My own research interests lay well beyond these topics per se. But Emile, much to his credit, insisted that all his students learn not just the fundamentals, but the detailed theory and application of taxonomy and biostratigraphy; both critical aspects of paleontology. I had no objection to this instructional program. But my other research interests ranged so far from these areas it often left Emile and I with little to talk about regarding the details of my research project. In addition, much of my time was spent away from the university campus at the nearby Atlantic Richfield Co. (ARCO) research facility where I held several consulting and software-development contracts. I’m sure such extra-curricular activities were not typical of UTD Geoscience graduate students. Quite probably they were contrary to university policy. Nevertheless, Emile understood my family situation at the time and allowed me the freedom I needed to get through my PhD program while, at the same time, making financial ends meet. I never became the taxonomist and biostratigrapher Emile’s program was set-up to produce. But the training in these areas I received from Emile stood me in good stead, not only to understand how important these topics were to the the practice of paleontology, but how they could be incorporated usefully in the quantitative analysis of palaeontological data. All my subsequent work with paleontological databases, high-resolution stratigraphy, extinction boundaries and various forms of graphic correlation began in Emile’s classroom.

Tim Carr

Tim R. Carr - Tim had just arrived at the ARCO Research Lab from the University of Wisconsin where he’d completed a PhD in conodont paleontology. We met at one of Bob Slaughter’s Friday afternoon “seminars” at a local Dallas bar not far from the SMU campus. That meeting led to an invitation to visit Tim at the ARCO lab, which led to our having regular discussions about current paleobiological research, which led my being offered ARCO contracts to write reports about useful morphometric methods for sediment-particle and porosity analysis and to develop new morphometric software, which led ultimately to Tim encouraging me to apply for, and be awarded, a post-doctoral position in the University of Michigan’s prestigious Michigan Society of Fellows program under the supervision of Tim’s fellow UoW student, Jennifer Kitchell who was, by then a member of the UM Geoscience Faculty. Tim’s interests and enthusiasms for paleobiological research and morphometrics sustained me intellectually during my PhD years and his support in the lab brought the contracts my way that sustained me financially. More importantly, though, through Tim and his colleagues at ARCO I saw that commercial work in paleontology had its own unique character, challenges, joys and disappointments which mirrored those of academic life.

John Whittaker

John Whittaker - John was Head of the Micropalaeontology in The Natural History Museum’s Palaeontology Department when I arrived in 1993. I don’t think he knew quite what to do with an expat American paleobiologist who was far more interested in general morphological and extinctions-related research problems than foraminiferal taxonomy and systematics. But John was unfailingly welcoming, encouraging and supportive, both of myself and my research interests, even when others in his group, not to mention the larger department, were far less so. This extended throughout the time I worked under his supervision and continued when, after 1999, he worked under mine, first as Associate Keeper of Palaeontology and then, in 2000, as the NHM Keeper of Palaeontology.


Paul Henderson & Richard Lane - Paul and Richard are considered together here since they where successive NHM Directors of Science under whom I served as Keeper of Paleontology. Although they were my direct supervisors and neither was a paleontologist, the guidance and support they gave to me in my administrative role were a large part of the reason I was able to make that role successful. Both also had a knack for forming and leading a team of senior scientist-administrators with grace, style, fellowship, good humor and a palpable sense of shared purpose.

If you’re young and just starting out in this business, be on the lookout for those who might make good mentors. Your career, and you personally, will benefit in ways you can scarcely imagine. If you’re in the middle of your careers, be mindful of what a good mentoring relationship is all about and strive to live up to that standard. Like your own protégés, you too will benefit in ways you can scarcely imagine. And if you’re towards the end of your career, as I am, take the time to thank the mentors who helped you along the way. The time will come when some won’t be there to thank personally so don’t leave it too long. You probably contributed to their lives, and their careers as much as they contributed yours, albeit in different ways. But that’s beside the point. If you have any difficulties sitting down to write that letter or make that call, just try imagining how things might have turned out if they hadn’t been there for you.

Norm MacLeod
12 October 2020

Top Science Cities 2020

Last week the Nature released its Science Cities Index which I find to be a somewhat unusual, but informative, summary of where in the world science is actually getting done. Obviously, this effort is linked conceptually to the ever-popular academic “ranking lists” (US) or “league tables” (UK) that purport to summarize the quality of colleges/universities, academic departments, secondary schools, kindergartens according to some standard set of criteria. In terms of their accuracy, such lists are dubious at best as the ranking achieved by any institution depends entirely on the degree of conformance between the realized strengths and effective priorities of the institutions in question and the set of characteristics used to establish the ranking. Often the latter are evaluated subjectively by a comparatively small group of evaluators whose identities, and qualifications to be members of that group, are rarely made clear. As a result, such exercises usually fail to meet scientifically acceptable standards of rigor or transparency as well as being rather easily capable of manipulation to produce virtually any outcome designed a priori. Nonetheless, such logical quibbles fail to explain the extraordinary diversity of topics for which ranking lists have been produced, much less the way they quickly become talking points around the water coolers (or now, at the ends of Zoom meetings) around the world; even among scientists. Based on this circumstantial evidence I suspect the appeal of such lists lies in what appears to be a fundamental human social need to compare themselves to other humans and other humans to one another. So, having noted these caveats, what does Nature's 2020 Top Science Cities Index tell us?

According to Nature’s Cartherine Armitage, its science cities were evaluated on the basis of the combined output of all institutions that publish peer-reviewed scientific articles in 82 high-quality science journals selected by a panel of 58 leading researchers as the journals to which they were most likely to submit their best work and validated by a survey of more than 6,00 researchers worldwide. Unsurprisingly, no specialist paleontological journals are included in this list though a number of general geological journals in which paleontological research articles appear regularly are (e.g., Geology, PNAS, PRS-B, Science, Science Advances, Nature). The list is dominated by Nature titles (22%). Among the field specific journals there is a sub-equal split between physical and biological titles (52%:48%), but almost half the latter are medical journals. And the list includes only seven (9%) of titles that could be considered “general science”. Nevertheless, the number of articles that appeared in these journals during 2019 varied widely from a high of 3088 for Chemical Communications to a low of 92 for Genes & Development. On this basis the skew is definitely in favor of the physical sciences. Still, for large metropolitan areas with a mixture of universities, research institutes and medical facilities it seems a reasonable source of comparative data, not too small to be grossly unrepresentative and not too large to introduce too many classificational complexities.

The top 10 list for 2020 (compiled for the year 2019) is both surprising and consistent.

  1. Beijing, China
  2. New York Metropolitan Area, USA
  3. Boston Metropolitan Area, USA
  4. San Francisco-San Jose, USA
  5. Shanghai, China
  6. Baltimore-Washington D.C., USA
  7. Tokyo Metropolitan Area, Japan
  8. Nanjing, China
  9. Paris Metropolitan Area, France
  10. Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, USA

Compared to the 2019 Index (compiled for the year 2018), the top four cities remained unchanged, Shanghai rose two levels, Baltimore-Washington,Tokyo, Paris Los Angles, and Chicago all dropped one level, and Nanjing rose four levels. Based on these data it’s difficult to avoid the impression that Chinese cities are on the rise in terms of their scientific research output and so their influence as global hubs of scientific activity. Other somewhat surprising changes over the past year include Wuhan (+6 levels), Guangzhou (+10 levels), Hefei (+7 levels), Tianjin (+24 levels), London (stayed the same at 14), Cambridge (-2 levels) and Oxford (-2 levels). Of course, these data don’t take either the population or areal sizes of the different cities into consideration. Nonetheless, performance is performance and it’s worth noting that some of the top US “cities” are actually amalgams of multiple metropolitan areas (e.g., Baltimore-Washington D.C.).

Moving on to the rankings for the earth & environmental sciences, there are more surprises.

  1. Beijing, China
  2. Baltimore-Washington D.C., USA
  3. New York Metropolitan Area, USA
  4. Nanjing, China
  5. San Francisco-San Jose, USA
  6. Los Angeles Metropolitan Area, USA
  7. Boulder, USA
  8. Boston Metropolitan Area, USA
  9. Wuhan, China
  10. Zürich, Switzerland

No city-level data for the previous year appear to be available from the Nature Index. However the presence of three Chinese cities in the top ten, alongside such traditional powerhouses as Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and Boston, seems unexpected. Prior to the release of this table I doubt many would have listed Beijing, Nanjing or Wuhan as noteworthy global centers of earth-science research.

When I was a graduate student, back when we still lived in caves, the University of Texas at Austin was a rising star in the US academic rankings and the put-down on the older, more “established” campuses was that UT was the “best university money can buy”. I’m sure something along the same lines will now be said about the rise of China’s universities. However, money is, and never will be, the whole story. Today, Texas has a GDP of $1.887 trillion, second in the US only to California and larger than the entire economies of South Korea and Canada. Yet, in 2019 Austin was listed as the 40th most productive science city whereas, in the raking just released, it’s dropped to 62, below the rankings of Daejeon (58), Montreal (44) and Toronto (31).

So, congratulations where congratulations are due. Well done Shanghai, Nanjing, Wuhan, Guangzhou, Hefei, Tianjin and all the other cities whose rankings were raised in 2019. Very good Beijing, London and all the other cities who maintained their rankings. As for those whose rankings fell, if the fall was just one or two levels it might not matter much in the long run. There's lots of variation in the system, the ranking criteria are a bit idiosyncratic and anyone - or any city - can just have a bad year. Outside this envelope, however, you might want to dig deeper into the data and try to understand the reasons for the fall a bit better. Far outside this envelope though, and assuming you care one way or the other, I'd say further investigation is a must … and must work harder.

Norm MacLeod
(23 September 2020)

Teachers' Day

One of the joys in working in a “foreign” country is learning about the traditions and outlooks of the people there; the stories behind and alongside the stories the home media decides to tell, which are often the only stories the home audiences are told. I was reminded of this simple fact recently when my partner, Jacquie, and I were the surprise subjects of a Teacher’s Day online celebration, organized by the Paleo, Group staff and students at Nanjing University (NJU) in China, where I now teach.

Since the lockdown last Spring I have been teaching online from the UK; first, a Statistics and Data Analysis in the Earth Sciences course during the Spring semester and then a long, three module “short” course in Writing a Scientific Article in English, with Jacquie in the Summer. As I’m sure many of you realize, online teaching has its own positives and negatives for both teachers and students. But one thing both groups can agree on, it’s a lot of work, made even more difficult in my – and the students’ – case by the eight-hour time difference between Nanjing and London.

The writing course finished at the end of August and was quickly followed by Teachers’ Day in China which fell on 10 September this year. As it turns out, most countries have a Teacher’s Day to recognize the efforts and contributions of its educators. But owing to the fact that many counties celebrate this day on different dates, the international impact of the celebration is diminished. Thus, you can be forgiven for not recalling when Teacher’s Day is in either the US (the Tuesday of Teacher Appreciation Week which falls on the first full week in May) or the UK (5 October, the date of World Teachers’ Day). Suffice it to say, in the west Teachers’ Day seems to have the same status as innumerable other obscure group-recognition days (e.g., Squirrel Appreciation Day, 21 Jan; National Weatherperson’s Day, 5 Feb; Middle Child’s Day, 12 Aug.) in which nothing much happens or is noted. Not so in China.

It will come as no surprise to many that China imbues education in general, and teaching in particular, with a reverence only westerners older than myself might recall, dimly, from their own youth; a time when teachers were accorded a level of status in their local communities akin tho those of medical doctors, lawyers, clergy and bank managers. Sadly, this is very much the exception, rather than the rule, today at least in the west. But the teaching profession is highly regarded in China and has been throughout its long an eventful history.

Anyway, to get back to my story, Chinese Teachers’ Day came and went this year and Jacquie and barely noticed it. Last year I received bouquets of flowers from the Nanjing University Earth Science Department and a few students, but I had only just arrived in Nanjing to begin teaching my first courses there and didn’t have any students yet. But this year, thanks to the COVID virus, it was back to the western standard of “no big deal”.

Then Jacquie received an unusual e-mail request from my NJU colleague Prof. Junxuan Fan that she attend the first part of regular — now online — graduate student research seminar which had been scheduled for last Friday (18 Sept.). Jacquie’s not a paleontologist so this stuck us as somewhat odd. We assumed it was going to be a wash-up discussion of the Scientific Writing course, but it seemed bizarre to us to include that discussion at the beginning of a series of graduate student research-project updates. However, over the past year we’ve learned to “go with the flow” in matters such as these with our Chinese friends and colleagues.

Once we’d logged into the Zoom meeting we were surprised to see that the whole of the NJU Paleo. group was in attendance. On close inspection (while we were waiting for a few stragglers to join) I was even more surprised to see the students we’d had on the final, and most intensive, module of the Scientific Writing course in attendance as I knew, from their manuscripts, they were not paleontologists. Indeed some were not even NJU students. But it came as a complete surprise when my secretary, Shuyi (Ariana) Xu announced that the first part of the program would be Jacquie’s and my Teachers’ Day Celebration!

The students quickly organized under the direction of Ariana and Huiqing Xu (not related) to introduce themselves and thank us personally for our teaching of the Scientific Writing course, which all had attended in some form. Then the students joined together to recite stanzas of the Kevin Huff poem, Teachers (see below), and Robert Frost’s well-known Two Roads Diverged in a Yellow Wood; all in English. Needless to say, Jacquie and I were both moved and touched by the outpouring of emotion and kind regard; justified, for the most part, solely as a result of our work on a single course (albeit unusual) course. Such a contrast with the importance teaching is accorded in the US and UK.

The lesson? We should all take care to remind our own teachers of how much influence they’ve had on own lives and to both thank and honor them for their efforts. The wider society might not accord teachers much respect these days, but that doesn’t mean we have to succumb to its philosophies and standards. Also, we should spare a thought or two of thanks for our students. Their road is difficult, as was our own when we were students. Many have sacrificed much to be students and work toward a goal whose successful attainment is all too uncertain, at best. After all, without students willing to listen to, and learn from, what we have to say, we couldn’t be teachers.

I’ve long regarded academic communities as islands within the larger towns/cities, regions, states and countries in which they are located and, like any island, they usually play host to an amazing variety of more-or-less endemic species. The larger culture may regard these endemics as objects curiosity or surprise; on occasion distain. But they are all part of the intellectual ecosystem that’s sustained us for critical parts of our personal voyages of discovery. For some lucky few, we’ve been fortunate enough to spend the whole of our lives there. Recognizing and giving simple thanks to those who have helped us along our way doesn’t seem like a lot, but when we take the time to do it, it’s importance is immeasurable, as is the responsibility we bear for assisting, encouraging and teaching those younger and/or less experienced than ourselves.

Norm MacLeod
(21 September 2020)

by Kevin William Huff

Teachers paint their minds;
And guide their thoughts;
Share their achievements;
And advise their faults.

Inspire a love;
Of knowledge and truth;
As you light the path;
Which leads our youth.

For our future brightens;
With each lesson you teach;
Each smile you lengthen;
Each goal you help reach.

For the dawn of each poet;
Each philosopher and king;
Begins with a teacher;
And the wisdom they bring.