Is Learning in Corona-time Like Learning in Wartime?

C.S. Lewis' famous sermon may still be appropriate

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

The 9/11 attacks occurred when I was still a brand-spanking-new law professor, and they provoked quite a crisis of conscience. What was I doing ruminating about the finer points of administrative law or property-based environmental protection when so much more was at stake? What was I doing to help keep people safe and secure?

A colleague recommended I read "Learning in Wartime," a sermon delivered by C.S. Lewis in the fall of 1939. It was an excellent suggestion. Although I do not share Lewis' faith, I found it to be simultaneously comforting and inspiring—just what I needed at that moment.

The current situation prompted me to revisit the Lewis sermon, and I thought I would recommend it to our readers. Like Lewis' thought generally, the sermon is steeped in his faith, but I believe it has something to offer for theists and non-theists alike—or at least I hope so.

Here is how it begins:

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, in to 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 great war. What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? Or, even if we ourselves should happen not to be interrupted by death or military service, why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?

And here is a brief portion of Lewis' answer.

. . . I think it important to try to see the present calamity in a true perspective, 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. Even those periods which we think most tranquil, like the nineteenth century, turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, 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 come. 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 presumable they have their reward. Men are different.They propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffold, 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.

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  1. Thank you very much for Learning in Wartime.

    I’m 71, long retired, and only recently refreshed and learned microbiology, immunology, serology, PCR technology, more statistics of epidemiology.

    It’s either that or turn on the boob tube.

  2. I think it important to remember that this was written by a man who, as a student, had left Oxford some 22 years earlier to go fight in WW-I. As I understand it, entire classes at the various Oxford Colleges enlisted en masse in that war.

    So this was being said by a combat veteran (he served on the Somme), someone who had been wounded by friendly fire which had also killed two of his friends. In a war which had killed a good chunk of his generation.

    That said, I like to remind people that Opiate Overdoses kill 64,000 Americans each year, while the Wuhan Virus has killed less than 300 so far. Not yet time to suspend the Writ of Habeas Corpus –or to freak out.

    1. In 2019, there were 228 million cases of malaria and 405,000 deaths from malaria globally. This happens ever year.

      1. Yes, and the CDC estimates 23,000 American flu deaths this season. Last week there were 347 *confirmed* flu deaths in the US — one less than the total 348 Wuhan Virus deaths in the US.

        Perspective, people, perspective….

        1. Yes, I get that. But I’m also saying it would be more just if the US instead gave Africa the $2 trillion dollars to cope with it’s problems which are worse than ours.

          1. 1: We don’t *have* the $2 trillion.

            2: The rationale for the $2 trillion is a desperate (and I believe futile) attempt to keep the world’s largest economy from imploding.

            3: Africa has to take care of its own problems. I’ve had Africans tell me that and they are right. It starts with their governments which are incredibly incompetent and corrupt and we don’t help that with handouts (which inevitably get stolen).

            Look at Puerto Rico and all the warehouses full of hurricane relief supplies that people “found” after the earthquake. That’s the same deal — we sent it down 500 miles, by boat (which wasn’t cheap) — and they can’t drive it 50 miles (or less) to the people who desperately needed it. Nor would they let us do it — PR refuses to recognize US truck driver licenses, so a lot of 40′ boxes simply sat on the wharves. Probably still are…

            1. That’s a terrible distortion of what happened in Puerto Rico. They didn’t “find” them in warehouses; the government knew where they were but couldn’t get enough drivers to distribute all of them due to the drivers having their own shit to deal with, destruction of the local infrastructure, and a fuel shortage. It’s also not that they “refuse to recognize” US CDLs; they have their own process, just as we do (we don’t recognize the PR CDL), and they actually relaxed the requirements for US CDL holders to drive in PR after the disaster.

    2. while the Wuhan Virus has killed less than 300 so far

      Its called COVID-19. And it’s a big difference between someone who chooses to take opiate’s in their own home and dies there and someone who is infected unknowingly with a virus and infects 100’s of others and they all show up at the hospital at the same time.

      1. It’s actually called SARS-CoV-2, it is similar to SARS, and I’m not convinced that the Wuhan Institute of Virology is completely innocent here. In any case, the ChiComs government definitely isn’t, so perhaps you’d prefer I call it the ChiCom Virus?

        Outside of the Biogen Conference — and that’s a medical outfit so someone really ought to try to figure out what the hell happened there (with something like 70 infections) — the infection rate is something like 1:2, not hundreds.

        But I’m guessing you are OK with the suspension of the Writ of Habeas Corpus (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/21/doj-coronavirus-emergency-powers-140023) — I’m not!

        We are a free people, something that isn’t common in this world, and I’m reminded of Justice Brandeis’ famous remark that “[e]xperience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” (Olmstead v. United States, 1928).

        1. You have to excuse regexp, he’s very busy pushing ChiCom propaganda

          1. A lot of people are pushing ChiCom propaganda — including their ambassador (who should know better) and that’s really making me wonder about a BioWeapons accident.

            They are accusing the US Army of having done that — we apparently sent military sports teams over there to compete in some Olympics-type thing — and what you accuse someone else of having done is often what you, yourself, have often actually done.

    3. “or to freak out.”

      Too late!

  3. Very nice selection.

  4. “comb their hair at Thermopylae”

    …because they wouldn’t be caught dead with a bad hairstyle.

    1. And then they put their helmets with the panache on over that.

    2. Back then, I imagine that combing ones hair tended to get the bugs out of it. Just saying….

  5. In a world where people automatically choose colleges and graduate schools based on What will get them the most money and fame,or the best weapons to wield in wars of race, genes er, and class, the simple assumption that people in a university are there to become scholars, seeking knowledge and beauty for its own sake, seems astonishingly archaic, refreshingly quaint, a whispered memory of something long thought forgotten.

  6. Outstanding selection.

    Throughout this episode of unofficial quarantine, it has occurred to me that all that I see unfolding is all that I have seen before and will see again. As a better mind than mine suggested, “Be not afraid.”

  7. Excellent text, thanks — promptly pilfered to Twitter. Cheers.

    Mr. D.

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