Back to School

My school will open its doors to students this week for the first time in four months, and I am delighted. The students’ feelings about returning are possibly more ambivalent, but I think that, on the whole, they are also happy. Now is a good time to reflect on what the closure of schools has taught us—or of what it has reminded us, for some of these insights are so old they’re new.

For thousands of years, people with insight have known that we are a species that is meant to live and function in groups. Aristotle’s statement usually translated as “Man is a political animal” actually has the connotation that human beings form groups for governing themselves. He went so far as to say that someone who lives outside human society “must be a beast or a god, for he is no man.” Our language itself seems to support this notion: The word “egregious,” meaning literally outside the group, describes something conspicuously bad or flagrant.

“Egregious” also has an archaic meaning of “remarkable for good quality,” showing that not just extraverts have shaped the language. During the first two or three centuries of the Christian era, the Desert Fathers and Mothers, like St Anthony and St Melania, had a strong vocation to solitude. It turns out that they have something to tell us about the problems of isolation. The eremitic life, that is, the life of a hermit or anchoress, has its hazards. Dullness, torpor, depression, feckless lassitude: all these afflictions come to someone practicing self-isolation. Does that list sound familiar? The Desert Fathers and Mothers ascribed these afflictions to the agency of a devil called the Noonday Demon. To maintain their goodness against his onslaught required all the wisdom, discernment and strength they could muster, and was beyond the powers of many.

The best artistic representation of spiritual troubles during isolation is, I think, Hieronymus Bosch’s painting The Temptations of St Anthony. The saint self-isolated in his thirties and lived another sixty or seventy years. At one time he reports having been besieged by devils, and Bosch gives us the scene around his cell as a surreal pandemonium.

If isolation is difficult for a discerning devotee who knew what he was in for and chose the solitary life anyway, how much more difficult must it be for a young person with little prior reflection or assistance? It is true, of course, that today’s students are not as isolated as yesterday’s hermits; but Skype and Zoom, though useful in a limited way, are not reality, which we should know in the deep places of our being. Cyber-hermits have trouble with this reality, and some of them are caught up in dark places—not their bedrooms, darkened except for the blue flicker of their screens, but mentally or spiritually dark places.

A positive reason for students to return to a real school is the opportunity presented to them when they immerse themselves in a community. It is an opportunity to see and learn about human associations and to find in those associations things worth knowing about. I mean not just subjects but norms, ways of thinking and the other complexities of human nature that we call a culture. Schools can reflect a wider culture and have some elements of a culture of their own. The wider culture may expect us to read, write, count, think and speak effectively; a particular school’s culture may be alive to particular interests. My own school’s culture includes an interest in and respect for music, for example. Smaller groups within the school may have specialized interests. The magazine of which I am the teacher-in-charge allows its staff to write and publish articles, poems, and art under the direction of editors and layout staff. If the magazines are published and sold without much detailed direction from me, it is because the student culture makes this kind of work possible.

I don’t mean to say that a school is full of students smiling and working happily together like the Cossacks of the Kuban on their collective farm. Some students’ favorite class is recess, and their favorite classroom is the tuck shop. Some students hear a different drummer, and a good school or university culture will let them step to the music they hear. Schools with good cultures accept variety in their teachers and students while at the same time leading them towards some broadly conceived common goal. They work live and in real time with real groups of real people, as in real life.

The reason many teachers have not liked online education during the corona virus pandemic is that at some level they recognize how less satisfactory than reality it is. On some level most students have come to the same conclusion, and for the same reason. I am afraid their—our—opposition will not be credited even though we were the ones who had the experience. We are already hearing the drumbeat in favour. 

One executive of a Silicon Valley company invites us to consider the waste of “all those buildings” dedicated to education alone. (He says this from the executive offices of his building dedicated to commerce alone before leaving for a resort full of buildings dedicated to leisure alone, or to a concert at a building dedicated to the arts alone.) A lot of students are grateful for “those buildings.” Most students of the Leshata Secondary School in a shantytown near Johannesburg, who lived in shacks when I went there, passed the national school-leaving test. One reason was that the school remained open as a place to study in the evening, which they would have had trouble doing in their shacks. Less dire examples can be found of the benefit a school building can bring to a poor neighborhood. For the better off, the need for such places also remains. Where will they learn laboratory sciences except at a school with labs? If they watch Mr Wizard or Professor Wonderful do an experiment on TV, they gain some knowledge, but what about the skill they gain doing an experiment themselves? What about the understanding they derive from their own endeavors, including the translation of their own work into their own writing?

Another tech CEO thoughtfully points out that the pandemic has taught us how vulnerable we are in real schools compared to online: “Humans are bio-hazards,” she says, but “machines are not.” There is an answer to this breathtaking idea. You can find it in Hong Kong, whose human citizens, taking the right hygienic precautions together, are not biohazards.

The enthusiasts of ‘creative disruption’ have their reason to get rid of “those buildings.” It is that educational routines everywhere and without exception are stale and need ruining, like the village in Vietnam that was saved by being destroyed. Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge begins with the drunken mayor betting his wife in a game of chance. He loses her. The creative disruptionists think like the Mayor, though they are not even drunk, and approve of using people in bets—in this case, other people’s children.

Finally, we have the problem of lousy schools. I’ve written about the high school whose salutatorian received an SAT score in the 500s, and the high school whose salutatorian could not compute fractions on his summer job. Whatever problems lie behind such results will not be solved by lots of pretty lights, bouncing balls and unsociable distancing. 

To someone with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. The tech people need to leave their hammers at the forum door.

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