England declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, just two days after the Nazis invaded Poland. It became a live question, with the Michaelmas term about to begin, whether universities in England should continue to carry out their essential task of learning. For at universities (and any educational institution) students learn (presumably!), and they do so owing to the achieved and ongoing learning of teachers. C. S. Lewis, for one, was convinced that university learning ought to continue. Therefore, on Sunday, October 22, 1939, at St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford, speaking from a deeply held conviction, Lewis delivered a sermon, known today as “Learning in War-Time.” His words that day are lauded by many as one of the most succinct defenses of the sort of learning—that is, the pursuit of truth for its own sake—that ought to characterize all universities, especially Christian ones, at their core.
Lewis had served in the Great War. As a nineteen-year-old, he was thrown into the dreadful conditions of trench warfare at the Somme. He was wounded before his twentieth birthday, and during his convalescence he became depressed and homesick. Despite such traumatic wartime experiences lingering in his memory, Lewis nonetheless asserts in his sermon:
The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal.
Lewis’s reminder of our all-too-human condition recontextualizes the question of learning in wartime. He establishes, in other words, a wider context: the context of human life in general. The question, then, is not so much whether one should be dedicated to learning in wartime, but whether one should be so dedicated anytime.
To answer this, each person must assess his or her own circumstances. If, for example, you’ve been sent to Oxford by your parents, and your country has not called you up for military service, and Oxford has not closed, then you should dedicate yourself to learning in the present moment. The reason why is simple: learning is good. Recognizing this, moreover, brings to light the deepest possible reason to pursue learning that one could have: learning is good and should be pursued precisely because we are created to learn, the evidence of which is our natural desire for it. As Lewis puts it:
I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God’s sake. An appetite for these things exists in the human mind, and God makes no appetite in vain. We can therefore pursue knowledge as such, and beauty as such, in the sure confidence that by so doing we are either advancing to the vision of God ourselves or indirectly helping others to do so.
Here Lewis baptizes what Aristotle asserts at the very beginning of his magnum opus, the Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.” Thus, during wartime or anytime, Lewis affirms, learning should be pursued, provided one doesn’t have other needs or duties that ought to take precedence.
Now, I have not been a fan of comparisons made in recent days between our dealing with COVID-19 and our being at war. There are similarities, of course, but there are greater dissimilarities that, for me at least, cause such comparisons to fall flat. Still, while transferring my philosophy courses to an online format, I recalled Lewis’s “Learning in War-Time,” knowing that there was wisdom therein pertinent to the present moment. Under normal circumstances, we are prone to lose sight of the ultimate reasons we do what we do as educators, and why we ask—even demand—that students learn. Lewis reminds us of those enduring grounds for learning that transcend the favorable or unfavorable circumstances in which education may take place, and both students and teachers do well to keep these essential reasons in mind. If nothing else, then, as we undertake to continue to learn and to pass on learning in what seem to be highly unfavorable circumstances, I encourage the reading or rereading Lewis’s sermon, finding in his words a renewed commitment to teach and to learn.
There is, however, an important difference between the situation that Lewis addressed and our situation today: students and teachers at English universities in 1939 were allowed to engage in learning in their usual settings, whereas students and teachers in the present moment are obliged to engage in learning in settings that, for many, are quite unusual. For the most part, we will be teaching and learning remotely, mediated to one degree or another by technology, within the confines of our homes. It behooves us, then, not only to be mindful of the enduring reasons to learn and to pass on learning, which “Learning in War-Time” does well enough, but also to alert ourselves to opportunities that, despite obvious limitations, the current circumstances offer. There are many such opportunities, I believe, but here I’ll focus on just two, one relevant to teachers, another relevant to students. I do so with the hope that, come the beginning of next school year, we will look back at learning in COVID-19–time as a blessing in disguise.
First, for the teacher: Many teachers will be deploying technologically-enabled means of remote learning for the first time. No doubt its deficiencies will be evident right away. Every teacher knows what the energy of a classroom environment feels like. Bodily presence matters. All the social distancing we’ve been preserving lately teaches us this by a sort of via negativa. Yet we teachers must be open to discovering the fruit that this widespread experiment in remote learning via technology may bear. Isn’t necessity the mother of invention?
In the coming months, a lot of very intelligent teachers will be obliged to deploy new modes of learning. Will they not discover potentialities in these modes of remote learning that have thus far gone overlooked, underdeveloped, or unnoticed? Those same very intelligent teachers already utilize distinctive pedagogical strategies successfully in their classrooms. What fruit may come when they translate those same strategies into a virtual environment?
Teachers, then, should feel emboldened to participate in this experiment not only by following “best practices” but also and precisely with a creative and innovative mindset. My own experience of online learning has hinted at features of student participation in discussions and of student “presence” to lectures not readily evident in a traditional classroom. When I was learning online, however, I didn’t think so much from the perspective of a teacher, since my primary concern was to master the content before me. At this moment, however, perhaps we teachers can commit to keeping our eyes wide open to the untapped capacities of remote learning. If we do so, we may find that this widespread pedagogical experiment will enhance technologically-enabled modes of learning and even introduce into traditional classrooms certain dimensions of learning that will manifest themselves in the next few months.
I should add—parenthetically and perhaps unnecessarily—that teachers who are new to teaching remotely should embrace it with little worry that it will replace teaching in a traditional classroom. Such worries, I think, are unfounded. The bodily presence of teacher and students to each other in a well-designed classroom offers too many advantages to ignore.
This doesn’t even take into account other benefits that arise from coming together physically in a single location, such as probing conversations with students during office hours or accidental encounters with students outside the classroom that lead to in-depth discussions. The mutual bodily presence of teacher and students inspires heart to speak to heart in a manner not reproducible at a distance. So it’s hard to imagine that the traditional settings that make this possible—school buildings, campuses, laboratories, studios, and classrooms filled with desks—will be replaced by virtual classrooms and chat rooms.
Second, for students: Many students will be learning through technologically-enabled means of remote learning for the first time. They, too, will experience its deficiencies. Yet they, too, are called to take advantage of this opportunity. This new mode of learning ought to elicit from them the formation of virtues and skills that are more difficult to acquire in their usual learning settings. Were I to categorize these virtues and skills under a single name, it would be “monastic.”
In the present moment, students must learn to become more monk-like. For the remainder of the school year, within their “cloisters,” students will be learning in a more independent, solitary manner than they’re used to. They should consider themselves to be more like monks who, living in cloistered community, stand alone before God in their hearts and ultimately “report” to Him. To be sure, students will still belong to larger learning communities—an elementary school, high school, or college—but it will fall more squarely on their shoulders to seek truth and to gain knowledge from the conviction that it is worthwhile to do so. To undertake this successfully will require perseverance in a rule of life. It will require, in other words, a more self-scripted, orderly lifestyle whereby the student makes efficient and deliberate use of his or her time. And, I should add, carving out regular periods of prayer within that routine will be crucial.
The traditional setting of a classroom as well as the physical togetherness experienced in a school building or on a campus push students to perform better than they would on their own—think “peer pressure” and the competitive energies that arise naturally in these settings. Remote learning diminishes such motive forces. It brings students face-to-face with the strength or weakness of their own desire to learn.
Thus, even though they are still being guided by teachers, students nonetheless have to be more self-reliant in their learning. In the coming months, then, they should seize this opportunity to develop two key monastic virtues: discretion and perseverance. They should aim to develop habits of living and learning that close them off to distraction and enable them to be thoughtful and contemplative about how they spend precious time. A rule of life, as a I already indicated, will promote this, and they must have the courage to stick to it! If they succeed in doing so, they will surely find that when they return to a normal learning context next school year, they will have matured into more capable, more confident, and more independent learners.
During the opening months of World War II, C. S. Lewis recognized that our mortality as human beings was on full display. Everyone dies eventually, of course, and yet, as Lewis puts it, “War makes death real to us.” Death’s closeness should goad us to be more serious about how we use the finite time we are given, making sure we can justify our use of it to ourselves and before God. The same can be said, of course, during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Our fragility and mortality as human beings seem closer than usual, and we are being called to consider seriously the use we make of this cloistered time we have been given.
Teachers and students in particular are being called to consider seriously the learning to which they mutually contribute. As I ponder what learning in COVID-19-time holds for us, my hope is that we teachers embrace wholeheartedly the challenge of teaching remotely, having at our disposal all the creative energy that permeates our teaching in usual settings. We may be surprised at what we discover, especially the novel ways of tapping into the desire to learn implanted in our students’ hearts by their Creator. My hope, too, is that students, compelled to be more monastic and independent, will discover more profoundly the desire to learn that they have received from God, thereby putting themselves in touch with the deepest reason for pursuing an education in the first place. They, too, may be surprised to discover novel ways of tapping into that desire as a resource for a lifetime of learning.
To be sure, the coming months won’t be easy. Yet I won’t be surprised if, come next school year, we look back at learning in COVID-19-time as a blessed moment in our lives. For as Lewis told the congregation at St. Mary the Virgin Church as war was beginning to engulf Europe, “The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable.” Let’s allow the COVID-19 pandemic to reveal us to be teachers and students who want knowledge, and want it badly.
Photo credit: C.S. Lewis / National Portrait Gallery