Chorus or Cacophony? Educating During the Pandemic
By Travis Copeland
Classical education invites us to quiet our souls in the midst of so much change
In a time of replicated buildings and cookie-cutter homes, cathedrals inspire a particular awe. A special wonder inhabits the harmony of choirs singing into the high ceilings, long corridors, and monumental stone columns. My first encounter with this inward quiet was in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C.—A place of grandeur and beauty—which has held historic events in the nation’s history. As a high school student visiting the cathedral on our D.C. field trip, we arrived at the parking deck below the cathedral ready to embark for a beautiful tour of its magnificence, but our bus was filled instead with noise, laughter, and chaos. We slowly made our way up and inside. The cathedral hushed our cacophony. It shrouded us with its reverence. The choir’s melodies and the majesty of the place drew us to silence. It drew us to rest. It drew us away from ourselves, connecting us to the past. The moment was a surreal and moving experience. The encounter with that place and its melodies, even for many of my peers who were initially disinterested, was captivating.
I have found that educating in a pandemic can feel a great deal like that high school bus. This pandemic has created a cacophony of surrounding noise: technological difficulties, remote learning, extra cleaning, masks and social distancing. Schools can feel both busy and isolated, normal and novel. Educators in every sector are encountering a myriad of voices seeking for their attention, in which each one has an opinion on teaching praxis, methodology, and responsibility. Government officials, media, parents and guardians, experts, and even administrations offer and assert their opinions about the nature of education and how we should move forward in such seemingly unprecedented times. As an educator myself, it can feel like a busy bus, full of clashing sounds that challenge the regular rhythm and harmony of learning.
Even being together in a physical classroom, with students in masks and socially distanced from each other, can feel lonely. Students can feel alone with the content—ideas abstracted from stories and people. Smiles of students and teachers can be hidden behind the masks of confusion and worry. What then should an educator do in such times? The increasing noise and tiresome days can feel too much. Many teachers have been asked to take on more than ever requested, and students are working against the wind, as schedules, formats, and content changes with each new executive order. What can be done to quiet the classroom and invite voices to speak, so as to ultimately offer a chorus of learning?
Classical education invites us to quiet our souls in the midst of so much change. It shows not just the way forward in education, but the way forward for the life of the mind during this pandemic. In a time when social distance and isolation are part of everyday life, classical education welcomes a chorus of men and women from the ages past to speak into our students’ lives. It does not just cut through, but rises above the noise. It offers a vision of life, from those who have gone before us and endured pandemics and plagues, war, and the tumult of the ages. Those great men and women, on whose shoulders we sit, labored among their difficulties, and they not only lived to tell the tale but pursued intellectual curiosity with zeal and fervor. C.S Lewis explains their (and our) pursuit with clarity. He writes:
“Most of all, perhaps we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
The classical school room, in a pandemic, is the place to invite the voices, to let students visit other ages, meet other people, and realize their age is one of many. They, as all people in these times, can make it through, and they do not have to do so alone.
Let the students feel the chorus. Invite the ages to speak. Invite Socrates, that he might make his assertion, directed at Miletus in Plato’s Euthyphro: “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Let students hear purpose in fraught educational times. Living morally, examining actions and habits in mundane day-to-day life offers light to the mire. Invite James Madison to speak in Federalist 51, like Socrates, to justice. Let students see that it should be their pursuit in these difficult days, for [justice] is “the end of Government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued.” Socrates, Madison, and the great community of voices in the West can lift our heads and help us look beyond the chaos in pursuit of virtue, wisdom, truth, and beauty.
With my junior high students, I have sought to lift their heads by drawing them into another story other than their own. E.B. White’s simple prose in Charlotte’s Web paints a beautiful picture of a quiet farm; his writing lifts the heart and engages many of my students, even those who have never had a familiarity with the pastoral. I have sought to create a classroom that is (and should be) a place to become wonderfully self-reflective and self-forgetful. It is the voices of the past that will pursue us to these ends. Like a cathedral, with a melody of voices singing in harmony, let your classroom lift your students’ eyes up. Let those voices of clarity drown out those of the cacophony. Give them a rhythm, a timelessness, and a peace that reminds them they are not alone in their intellectual journey. Invite the ages to speak. Let them teach and train all of us in virtue and story. Let them give life to the educated and the educator that we all might, as Lewis encourages, “live in many times.”