Learning in the Time of the Pandemic
What a C.S. Lewis lecture shows us about carrying on our academic work.
Posted Mar 25, 2020
On October 22, 1939—a month after Germany invaded Poland and began the Second World War—famed novelist and scholar of English literature C. S. Lewis delivered a talk at Oxford entitled “Learning in War-Time.” The main aim of the talk was to defend the importance of scholarly pursuits (including by students) during times of global crises. But Lewis also offered advice about how to continue learning during troubling and stressful times. With the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the sudden transition this has imposed on students and teachers alike, Lewis’s message (which we’ve adapted slightly for the present moment) is especially relevant in our context.
Lewis begins by addressing students:
A university is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into what the Middle Ages called clerks: into philosophers, scientists, scholars, critics, or historians. And at first sight, this seems to be an odd thing to do during a [pandemic]… why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and [millions around the world] are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?
Right now, many of us in academia (students and teachers alike) have been told to work from home in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. For the vast majority of us, the best we can do is simply to stay put and try to do our work. This task is complicated enough as many students are displaced from their campuses, and many professors must now watch their children, homeschool them, and teach their college courses online.
But, in addition to all that, it probably feels odd to sit down and carry out our own research, whether it’s studying a Shakespearean sonnet or writing a paper about free will. This feels out of place and perhaps unfitting—are we not simply fiddling while Rome burns?
I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective. The [pandemic] 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… If [we] had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until [we] were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare [the pandemic] with “normal life.” Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the 19th century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies. Plausible reasons have never been lacking for putting off all merely cultural activities until some imminent danger has been averted or some crying injustice put right. But humanity long ago chose to neglect those plausible reasons. They wanted knowledge and beauty now, and would not wait for the suitable moment that never comes. Periclean Athens leaves us not only the Parthenon but, significantly, the Funeral Oration. The insects have chosen a different line: they have sought first the material welfare and security of the hive, and presumably they have their reward. [Human beings] 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.
Here Lewis says that calamity creates no absolutely new situation. This is not to say that nothing is different, or that we should proceed with our work in exactly the same way as before. (Of course, things are different: Please stay home!) Lewis’s point is that if our work was important and worthwhile before the time of crisis, it remains so during the crisis.
We are not always aware of the fragility of the human situation. It may now be at the forefront of our minds during a time of crisis, but our fragility was always there. Yet it is our nature, Lewis says, to pursue truth, knowledge, and beauty, even in the face of uncertainty and danger. Not only is it our nature to pursue these things, but, as Lewis goes on to argue, these pursuits are valuable for us.
In fact, Lewis goes on to say that our studies are a duty:
The learned life then is, for some, a duty. At the moment it looks as if it were your duty. I am well aware that there may seem to be an almost comic discrepancy between the high issues we have been considering and the immediate task you may be set down to, such as Anglo-Saxon sound laws or chemical formulae. But there is a similar shock awaiting us in every vocation—a young priest finds himself involved in choir treats and a young subaltern in accounting for pots of jam. It is well that it should be so. It weeds out the vain, windy people and keeps in those who are both humble and tough. On that kind of difficulty, we need waste no sympathy. But the peculiar difficulty imposed on you by the [pandemic]… is another matter, and of it I would again repeat what I have been saying in one form or another ever since I started—do not let your nerves and emotions lead you into thinking your predicament more abnormal than it really is.
Again, if our present context is not different in kind, but only in degree, from what we sometimes call “normal life,” then even the seemingly trivial pursuits of our academic lives should be seen as valuable. This applies to the student participating in discussion board threads as well as to the teacher learning to use video-conferencing technology.
Lewis concludes with advice about how to continue one’s scholarly pursuits in spite of the challenges.
The first enemy is excitement—the tendency to think and feel about the [pandemic] when we had intended to think about our work. The best defense is a recognition that in this, as in everything else, the [pandemic] has not really raised up a new enemy but only aggravated an old one. There are always plenty of rivals to our work. We are always falling in love or quarreling, looking for jobs or fearing to lose them, getting ill and recovering, following public affairs. If we let ourselves, we shall always be waiting for some distraction or other to end before we can really get down to our work. The only people who achieve much are those who want knowledge so badly that they seek it while the conditions are still unfavorable. Favorable conditions never come. There are, of course, moments when the pressure of the excitement is so great that only superhuman self-control could resist it. They come both in [pandemic] and peace. We must do the best we can.
Lewis’s point is that learning is valuable, and it is no less important during times of crisis. Our present context will not let us ignore the human condition, but, like it or not, we were already in that condition. A global crisis does introduce new challenges, especially what Lewis calls “excitement”—the temptation to think only about the crisis and not about our work. For some of us, this is exacerbated by the news cycle and Twitter. But, of course, we can always find some distraction from our studies, and recognizing that distraction in our context as an old enemy in a new disguise can help us overcome it.
Lewis would encourage us to do the things we found valuable before our present crisis: read good fiction, study for an exam, write a research paper, finally finish that book. A pandemic may cause much damage, but don’t let it keep you from your learning.
Lewis, C.S. (2001). The Weight of Glory. New York: NY. HarperOne.