Responsible Lutheran Liberal Education After the COVID-19 Catastrophe: A Short Reflection

[1] How should ELCA colleges and universities committed to responsible learning form students for a post-COVID-19 world?  Pandemics, says Laura Spinney, illuminate and exacerbate social needs.[1]  Citizens respond in panic.  They quickly forget when plague ends and return to complacency.  Still, pandemics change societies.  They can be an inflection point and even a portal from one world to the next, as Arundhati Roy proposes.[2]  Rejecting complacency, ELCA schools should focus upon responsible citizenship in response to crises of polarization and distrust that threaten U.S. democracy.

[2] We must be rid of complacency because human power has vastly increased since the widely forgotten Spanish Flu pandemic.  Modern virology followed the death of perhaps 100 million people.  Billions have benefited since 1918 and will again soon.  Some past complacency, then, correlates with powerlessness—scientific, technological, economic.  In this respect, moral accountability for pandemic has increased dramatically.  Pandemic control in Asia exhibits what purposeful industrial societies can do, spurred by lived memory and showing the U.S. to be shockingly unprepared and incapable of effective response.  Overrepresentation in infection and death—the nation, citizens over 65, Black, Indigenous and people of color, the poor—point to glaring failures that require educational response.

[3] A turn to citizenship in response to the pandemic would build upon and contribute to the emergence over the last twenty years of social responsibility norms in American liberal education theory.  This theory exemplifies 20th century responsibility ethics.  As Roger Willer observes, this ideal type emerged from a “drastically altered social context of unprecedented human power, pluralism, complexity, and the pervasive questioning of authority.”[3]  It sees moral life as dialogical and fitting response to the other and to context.  Among lead thinkers, Hans Jonas’ attention to the traits of technological power and their implications for moral accountability illuminate the salience of social responsibility norms in new American liberal education theory.[4]

[4] Jonas notices technology depends upon knowledge-based, collective agency where humans control the world through complex and coordinated efforts that invest responsibility in the group.  This agency brings consequences that extend in time beyond original actors—something traditional ethics do not take into account.  For Jonas, traditional ethics govern inter-personal relations—local and present.  Moral consideration does not extend to the collective, non-human, planetary, or future.  Moral reasoning does not depend upon sound use of science and other higher knowledge.  For traditional ethics, common sense is sufficient to discern the right and the good.  In a technological age, moral agency requires the insights of diverse and expert others.

[5] Jonas argues that new collective power has reached levels of consequence that call for new norms.  Sustainability, for example, as sufficiency for future generations reflects new accountability.  Technology brings interdependence requiring critical cultivation of collective action and thus new forms of community and formation.  The imperative of responsibility calls upon higher education to be cognizant of its social role and attendant to the new dimensions of collective activity.  Jonas’ insights into the requirements of technological life provide norms for judging educational theory that seeks to be responsible.[5]

[6] Since 2002, American higher education led by the American Association of College and Universities (AAC&U) has taken a critical turn to learning for personal and social responsibility designed to guide all institutional types and higher learning for all.[6]  This commitment to diversity and inclusion is an awakening to equity denied and a reclaiming of civic learning to renew democracy.  Holding that liberal education is the form of education appropriate to democracy, AAC&U seeks to reform the 20th century technical university of specialized knowledge through scientific research and value-free inquiry to serve autonomous individuals, the market economy, and the technological society.  This agenda has marginalized 18th and 19th century attention to developing democratic citizenship.[7]

[7] For over a decade, AAC&U has led efforts within American higher education to focus on civic learning and democratic engagement.[8]  These efforts have called for new learning that goes beyond factual knowledge to capacities for effective communication, critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration with others, and intercultural competence.  This vision aligns education for citizenship with the essential purpose of liberal education—to prepare students for “a world of unscripted problems.”

[8] AAC&U theory encourages major revision of American higher education to serve the common good through learning for collective action.  It presents a paradigm shift with principles and outcomes that address the accountability and complexity of citizenship today.  It builds capacity to solve problems of collective power that require pluralistic and collaborative learning commensurate with the plasticity, complexity, and dynamism of planetary life.

[9] What about Lutheran higher education?  AAC&U theory invites the schools of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (NECU) to join this movement, and they have taken a first step through a new common calling statement, “Rooted and Open.”  NECU schools now see themselves as public institutions with a normative agenda—specifically, excellence in free inquiry and preparation for work as well as hospitality to diversity.  These institutions affirm learning for vocation as service to personal and community needs.  In these ways, students are prepared and encouraged to serve a common good.  Calling students “to serve the neighbor so that all may flourish,” NECU schools commend an ethics of beneficence and promise collegiate learning that forms agents who do justice.  In short, “Lutheran colleges and universities educate for lives of meaning, purpose, and responsible service.”[9]

[10] Does this vision agree with AAC&U?  The strong communitarian commitments of NECU schools counter the individualism that runs deep in American higher education.  These institutions promise forms of learning and capacity building that support civic learning and democratic engagement.  However, this formation focuses upon the good people can do as individuals through many and changing social roles over the course of life.  Consistent with Lutheran tradition, “Rooted and Open” lifts up the social benefit that people render to society through work.  Affirmation of the call to serve the flourishing of all through the collective action of public democratic institutions could be stronger.  In this respect, NECU schools serve but do not yet champion the call of AAC&U to citizenship.

[11] What has gone wrong with the American response to COVID-19 and how might citizenship education help?  Investigative reports tell a story of unknowns, challenges, mistakes, and indifference by actors and institutions that allowed the virus to exact an unfathomable toll of disruption, loss, suffering, and death.[10]  Strong community cohesion, structure, and capacity could have lessened the toll, which the new civic learning seeks.

[12] Such new civic education could strengthen the support of American citizens for public norms.  In the absence of pharmaceutical interventions, Americans have been asked to adopt established nonpharmaceutical interventions that impose burdens on individuals for the sake of all.  These interventions put the needs of the collective ahead of certain interests.  These burdens range from costly service for some to minimal inconvenience for all.

[13] Prioritizing the collective happens routinely in societies committed to public health.  Unfortunately, nonpharmaceutical practices to control spread have failed to gain public acceptance in the U.S. in comparison to peer nation states.  Among these interventions, opposition to masking has been particularly destructive.[11]  Many Americans are failing to exercise a basic and shared obligation, what Daniel Callahan described forty years ago as America’s minimalist ethic—do as you please so long as you do not harm others.[12]  The maxim popularized across the world, “My mask protects you; your mask protects me” captures the risk of harm that many Americans deny or reject.  Some 25% of Americans continue to oppose a federal mask mandate and remain unmasked, while the U.S. continues to lead the world in cases and deaths.[13]

[14] The failed American response has many dimensions and sources.  It requires comprehensive accounting to put our catastrophe into perspectives—and to form a vision for change.  Unfortunately, analysts note COIVID-19 has appeared during deep declines in societal health.  In the words of Robert Putnam, we find ourselves as Americans “living in an extremely polarized, extremely unequal, extremely fragmented, and extremely self-centered nation, a fact of which we are all painfully aware.”[14]

[15] For Putnam, Americans have not seen since the late 19th century similar levels of economic inequality, endangerment of democracy from polarization, social isolation, and, most fundamentally, cultural narcissism that undermines unity of purpose to change.  Similarly, Suzanne Mettier and Robert Lieberman argue Americans are living through an unprecedented confluence of four recurring threats to democracy now deeply entrenched—political polarization, conflict over who belongs in the political community, high and growing economic inequality, and excessive executive power.[15]

[16] Among these deficits, polarization has deeply affected societal and political control.  For Anthony Fauci, COVID-19 has been the most politicized public health crisis in modern history.  Public health messaging has been undermined, making efforts to raise awareness even worse than the HIV and AIDS crisis, when leaders failed to pay attention in the early years.  Fauci observes, “It wasn’t anything like the divisiveness that we’re seeing right now, which really makes implementation of public health measures and public health messaging very difficult.”[16]

[17] Public policy implementation has also suffered from social and political mistrust, which have increased dramatically in recent years to crisis levels compared to previous periods and other industrial countries today.  Widespread contempt and hatred have filled these voids.  People are withdrawing from critical public bonds of interdependence and shared moral expectation that enable democratic citizenship.  For Kevin Vallier, social and political mistrust and polarization—what he terms “partisan divergence”—are mutually reinforcing.  Partisan divergence drives who we trust and the company we keep.[17]  For 70 percent of Americans, the vote a person casts for a presidential candidate determines whether they can be trusted.  Importantly, Vallier notes trust levels tend to harden during early adulthood and shape social and political identity throughout life.  Currently, an astounding 60% of Americans 18-29 say most people cannot be trusted.  29 percent of Americans over 65 agree.[18]

[18] Destructive public trends undermining U.S. responses to COVID-19 will persist beyond the pandemic but can change over time.  Responsible higher education can help.  Collegiate educators pivoting to democratic renewal should 1) attend to the moral, social, and political outlooks students will bring to learning in a post-COVID-19 world and 2) focus upon capacity building for collective action, beginning with amelioration of crises of polarization and distrust that threaten democratic culture and institutions.  Consistent with the responsible social vision of NECU schools, ELCA educators should now join cause with AAC&U commitments to civic learning and democratic engagement for citizenship.



[1] John Paul Scott, “Health Care After COVID-19: Vaccine Passports, Social Disruption, and a Forgetting of This Era,” The Forum, December 23, 2020,

[2] Arundhati Roy, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” Financial Times, April 3, 2020,

[3] Roger Willer, “Emerging Tapestry: An Evangelical Lutheran Social Ethic,” Dialog 56, no. 3 (Fall 2017) 303.

[4] Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for the Technological

Age, trans. Hans Jonas with David Herr (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1984) 1-24.

[5] For further explanation, see Per Anderson, “Assuming Responsibility for the Commons: Lutheran Higher Education in a World of Unscripted Problems,” in Reformation and Resilience: Lutheran Higher Education for Planetary Citizenship, eds. Ernest Simmons and Erin Hemme Froslie (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2017), 86-107.

[6] Greater Expectations National Panel, Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a

Nation Goes to College (Washington: American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2002); The National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, College

Learning for the New Global Century (Washington: American Association of Colleges and

Universities, 2007); The National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and

America’s Promise, The LEAP Vision for Learning: Outcomes, Practices, Impact, and

Employers’ Views (Washington: American Association of Colleges and Universities, 2011); AAC&U Board of Directors, “Strategic Plan 2013-17: Big Questions, Urgent

Challenges: Liberal Education and Americans’ Global Future,” accessed March 2, 2021,, and American Association of College and

Universities, “The LEAP Challenge: Education for a World of Unscripted Problems,” accessed

March 2, 2021,

[7] Robert N. Bellah, Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton, The Good Society (New York: Vintage, 1991), 145-78.

[8] The National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, A Crucible Moment:

College Learning and Democracy’s Future (Washington: Association of American Colleges and

Universities, 2012).

[9] Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities, “Rooted and Open: The Common Calling of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities, accessed March 2, 2021,  For further information about the origins, interests, and contents of the document, see “Full Issue, Number 49, Spring 2019,” Intersections 2019, no. 49, article 1,

[10] Nicholas Christakis, Apollo’s Arrow: The Profound and Enduring Impact of Coronavirus on the Way of Life We Live (New York: Little, Brown Spark, 2020); Ed Yong, “Anatomy of an American Failure: How the Virus Won,” The Atlantic, September 2020, 32-47; Lawrence Wright, “The Plague Year: The Mistakes and Struggle Behind America’s Coronavirus Tragedy,” The New Yorker, December 28, 2020,

[11] Christakis, Apollo’s Arrow, 102-09.

[12] Daniel Callahan, “Minimalist Ethics,” Hastings Center Report 11, no. 5 (October 1981), 19-25.

[13] Li Zhou, “A Majority of Americans Would Back a Biden Mask Mandate,” Vox, December 24, 2020,

[14] Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2020), 16.

[15] Suzanne Mettler and Robert C. Lieberman, “The Fragile Republic: American Democracy Has Never Faced So Many Threats at Once,” Foreign Affairs 99, no. 5 (September/October 2020), 182-95.

[16] Rong-Gong Lin II and Luke Money, “Fauci’s 2021 COVID California Forecast: School Reopenings, Vaccines and Some Normalcy by Fall,” Los Angeles Times, December 31, 2020,

[17] Kevin Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021), 9-10.

[18] Vallier, Trust in a Polarized Age, 1-2.



Per Anderson

Per Anderson is professor emeritus of religion at Concordia College. He has participated often in institution building and thought formation for the ELCA and Lutheran World Federation, including co-chairing the ELCA social statement task force on genetics. He currently serves on the board of directors for Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota and is working on a book on Lutheran collegiate education entitled “Learning for the Life of the World.”