De terra veritas

This was first published in the May 3, 2020 edition of The Living Church.

You shall teach [my laws] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. —Deut. 6:7

When we plotted the issue calendar for the year last fall, we didn’t expect the spring education number to fall in a time of universal pandemic. This was supposed to be the issue for touting seminary graduations and laying the stage for Vacation Bible School and next fall’s Sunday School curricula.

But, as you can trace in the engaging reflections shared by a number of teachers and students in this issue, the last month has introduced us to another world entirely. Teachers press on from one side of the Zoom portal, and students make their own adjustments in new working arrangements and routines. The community of learning is disrupted, the social cues are harder to read, and who knows what’s really playing on the other window open on that laptop?

Much is lost, to be sure. One of my wife’s best friends wrote her psychology dissertation on the long-term impact of a two-week school closure in North Carolina after Hurricane Fran hit the region hard in 1996. The negative repercussions were dramatic and enduring. Though they didn’t have the advantages of digital learning back then, she’s deeply concerned about the potential impact of repeated “social distancing.” If we don’t have the kids back in school by the fall, she says, we’ll be seeing the effects for the next sixty years.

All of this may present seemingly impossible challenges for teachers never trained to work in this way. My brother sends me frustrated text messages, as he tries to figure out how to teach Phys. Ed. over Zoom to middle schoolers who are confined to their inner-city apartments. I worry about the ways that these changes will deepen the inequalities already so apparent in our educational system, and the risks that distancing poses for young people who look to school as an escape from violence and hunger, as Justin Holcomb raises in this issue’s Ethics column.

But there’s another side, as well. For my own family, it’s been a happy time. Our boys joined a cooperative classical homeschool last September. We parents pitch in to provide two full days of instruction each week, while the rest of the work is monitored from home. My wife teaches elementary school Latin and I help with Chapel. The recent transition to five days at home has been fairly smooth for us. While my patient wife keeps most of it moving along, I’ve enjoyed pitching in more than usual. “Hic, haec, hoc, huius, huius, huius” echoes from one side of the den-cum-office-cum-classroom. There’s lots of sentence diagramming in old-fashioned grammar workbooks. I haven’t considered transitive verbs and indirect objects this deeply in decades.

Some days, there has been more Wild Kratts than we would like, but there’s also more time to talk about the characters in the novels they are reading. We knew all about Sherlock Holmes, but it took a pandemic for us to discover The White Company, Conan Doyle’s sparkling evocation of the fourteenth century in all its color and high drama. Our ten-year old son is trying to learn woodcarving, while his third grade brother is delighted that he now can bake a cake without any help. The boys ramble in the woods behind our house in the afternoons, as we take the delighted hound for his third walk of the day. There’s almost a roof on the treehouse and now, at last, they can distinguish the plants well enough to be trusted with weeding the front flowerbeds.

There’s more time for family prayers, and making our own new fire on Easter Eve, and washing  feet in the room where we serve one another day after day. We tell the stories of the saints and sing together more than ever. The faith is meant to be taught and lived at home. “Teach them to your children,” God bade the Israelites. The law of God is not just a curriculum for holy days, but “when you sit in your house, and walk by the way, when you lie down and when you rise.”

Before I was married, I read with enthusiasm a Wendell Berry essay on “home economics.” One evidence that the world is broken, the Kentucky sage opined, is that the home these days has become only a refuge from the world of work. When we must leave our family behind to take up the tasks by which we earn our bread, something valuable is lost. The difficult moral choices of adults are hidden from the young, and our families miss out on common adventures, which have the potential to bind us together in more lasting and tangible ways.

For so many in our COVID-19 beset nation, the loss Berry describes has been forcibly remedied, at least in part. Home is the workplace, and the schoolroom as well. Many of us may miss this when it is gone. To be sure, few are trudging out at daybreak, in proper Berryian style, to break the soil with mule teams. But my older son did a bit of fact-checking for me in the clerical directory for this issue’s obituaries. If he keeps at those transitive verbs, he’ll be ready to edit copy before you know it. And the boys measure up well in the other family trade.  They don’t need books to make the plainsong responses at Evensong.

Education continues, in spite of it all. For that, may God be praised.

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