27 March 2020
Learning in a Time of Isolation
By: Todd Breyfogle

On a Sunday evening in October 1939, C. S. Lewis took the pulpit in Oxford and gave a sermon, “Learning in War-Time.” The much-anticipated war had broken out, and the university term had just begun. Lewis proposed to take on two questions: What is the use of beginning a task which we have so little chance of finishing? How can we spend time on what seem to be trivial occupations given the urgency of the times?

Lewis’ exhortation is a defense of Christian learning but also learning in general, and his advice strikes me as particularly applicable to our own moment of heightened urgency. If I may paraphrase the thrust of Lewis’ argument, the war, he says, is a magnification of things we should properly be thinking about all along. It reminds us, for example —of death of the fact that our time is limited and that we are called upon to use our talents well. It reminds us that in times of “normalcy”— through laziness or selfishness or lack of attention —there are many urgencies which we neglect, duties we do not meet, and occasions to which we do not rise. Does it take a crisis to be reminded of the more vulnerable. If the moral life is one which calls us to a higher excellence of self-development and care for others, should we need an emergency to recognize the urgency of our task. The world always calls us to a moral education, and such an education is never trivial. In times of urgency, we need to continue our journey of learning.

In calling his audience to view the moment with a broader existential and social perspective, Lewis proposes three practical responses. First, resist the distraction of excitement —that paralyzing sense of urgency that destroys our focus on the tasks we have been given. Second, do not succumb to frustration as we begin to recognize that we cannot bring our planned projects to conclusion with the same ease. Third, face fear head on. We cannot aim at a stoic indifference about the reality of suffering, Lewis says, but we can guard against imagining that the suffering is greater than it is.

In this refocusing of perspective, Lewis reminds us that even in times of crisis we will continue to learn. Whether we like it or not, we will read, we will hear, we will see. For a culture to have the muscle to meet the demands of war, it must ensure that what we read, hear, and see do not weaken us, but build us up, making us more worthy of meeting the moment. In arguing for learning in wartime, Lewis is not proposing a retreat, but a refocusing of perspective that strengthens and renews us for action.

With the exception of the Narnia books, C. S. Lewis is perhaps best known for his book, Mere Christianity. This book is, in reality, a lightly edited compilation of a series of radio addresses delivered between 1941 and 1944 at the request of the BBC. In many ways, the subject matter of these radio broadcasts echo the themes of our seminars: human nature, the moral life, love of neighbor, meaning in human action, the shortness of life. In a sense, these broadcasts are realizations —applied beyond the college walls— of Lewis call in 1939 to continue learning in wartime. As many of us are increasingly restricted within the walls of our own homes, our challenge is, ironically, to learn how to learn in isolation.

Whether we are on the front lines of providing care or sheltering in place, or that awkward combination of the two, we do well to be reminded that we must continue to learn —and to learn what allows us to meet the moment with intelligence, compassion, and grace.

This article is a short meditation I shared earlier this week with many alumni of the Aspen Executive Leadership Seminars. I’m happy to share it more generally here.

Todd Breyfogle, Ph.D., is Managing Director of Executive Leadership Seminars at the Aspen Institute.

(Photo Credit: Todd Breyfogle)

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