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.