Learning in Plague-Time

In recent weeks, as the pandemic has unfolded and our academic community has been dispersed, C.S. Lewis’ classic essay “Learning in Wartime” has come to mind many times. One of the key insights that he offers is that no matter what the circumstance, we men will create and delight in culture. We must have culture and learning as much as we must have food, water, and air. Unlike insects, “Men are different. They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds, discuss the last new poem while advancing to the walls of Quebec, and comb their hair at Thermopylae. This is not panache; it is our nature.”

Thus, in the midst of great uncertainty and separation, our work of liberal education—reading and discussing the great books in pursuit of Wisdom—has not been a mere fulfillment of a contract between an institution and its students. Rather it has become an affirmation of our deepest nature as human beings.

Through this process of sustaining our collegiate community and high purpose across great distances, several dimensions of our nature and our need for culture have become clearer.

Our embodied nature is an essential part of truly human learning.
Though classical reasons for this could be multiplied, the incarnate nature of liberal learning has become clear as much through absence as presence in this time. This absence highlights the ambient sounds that once accompanied conversations together in a classroom. These were the sounds that created a background ecology of embodiment: laughter, groans, chuckles, sighs, and almost-silent shifts in chairs accompanied by the turning of pages all contribute—when things are as they should be—to an audible and tangible community through which questions, ideas, and insights travel. The absolute silence in the digital environment—when microphones are muted and one person speaks—highlights the absence of physical presence that learning requires. A highly textured and unpredictable dialogue between student and teacher becomes a mechanical and mediated alternation of monologues.

Our faces say more than we know.
Closely related to this absence of ambient evidence of embodiment is the new realization of just how important faces can be. On the screens of the teachers, the faces of the students are framed in an isolated way, cut off from the rest of their bodies. When seeing the students in this way multiple questions arise: Are they okay? Is their family supporting them in their studies and efforts to continue the life of the student? What new burdens have they taken up? Are they worried about returning next year? Have their parents been laid off from their jobs? Is a loved one or friend sick? Their enframed faces condense all of this and more. Each smile means so much and becomes both a source of hope and an invitation to prayer. No doubt, once this long separation has passed, we will look at one another’s faces more closely and read them with at least as much care as we read our texts.

The classroom is an almost-sacred place.
Now that everyone is working and learning from home, often multiple family members at the same time, our students seem to have been pushed into basements, closets, storage rooms, or any other space where they can find a quiet place. These spaces compound the sense of alienation with different backgrounds of household objects and lighting. In our collegiate life, we understand the classroom to be a place that has been set apart, set aside for the highest human purposes. In the classroom, our faces are framed by shelves of books, paintings of our classical authors, or windows lit by sun and filled with trees. Now in their basements and utility rooms, each student seems, from the teacher’s perspective, to have taken up life in a little cave.

But seeing our students in their caves, in turn, reminds us of our purpose as teachers and students. All of our students, being good readers of Plato’s Republic, know that we are called to leave the cave. The arduous ascent to the vision of the Good is not for the faint of heart. But we are not on this journey alone. Grace and friendship are the means and divine hope inspires us to keep climbing, even if, for the moment, we are separated. Seeing the students in this way reminds us that each of us are called to this ascent. This is the higher purpose of teaching and liberal learning. We were created to live in the light together, in communion, not in caves.

True liberal learning is animated by cultus and a love oriented to communion.
At the end of each day, we gather for a rosary together. The decision to do this was almost automatic. It is simple and predictable. It has the comfort of familiarity, something that so many have lost in these days.

But this simple time of prayer reminds us of Mary’s fiat and her name, “Seat of Wisdom.” We too are called to offer our fiat in this time and in ways we may have never imagined. And we remember too that we are called to be bearers of Wisdom to our world. This calling inspires us to take up our texts, read them closely, formulate questions, and bring them with us to our classes so that we might become wise together, not just for ourselves, but for the world.

And in this time of the rosary, we are reminded of the communion of saints and the greater metaphysical communion of which we are all a part. How? Quite often during these times of prayer, students and faculty include their younger brothers, sisters, and children. An older trustee of the college or alumna may join in. And we remember that we are bound to so many others in our ascent toward wisdom. We exist and draw strength from so many who are hidden and yet these sustain us intellectually and spiritually.

Thus, while we long for a return to more normal conditions, we have been learning so much during this time. When we come together around the seminar table again, books in hand, laughing, sighing, and groaning together, we will be wiser, more mindful, and eminently more grateful.

The college looks forward to welcoming its students, faculty, staff, and friends back to campus this fall for a semester of in-person classes with sighs, laughter, and all.

George Harne serves as a member of the faculty and as president of Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts in Warner, New Hampshire. Learn more about the college’s academic program.

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