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Tom Kennedy's Blog

Learning in War Time

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Oh, mercy, mercy me 

The opening words of C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in War Time” remain striking still these seventy-one years later: 

A University is a society for the pursuit of learning. As students, you will be expected to make yourselves, or to start making yourselves, into 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? 

Lewis, of course, was speaking to Oxford University students as German tanks rumbled loudly into Poland. Why bother with learning under such conditions? What is the point of even an Oxford education when civilization is under threat? 

To be human, Lewis in effect answers, is to care about beauty and goodness, to make and enjoy culture.  Culture cannot be escaped. There will be a culture of death and destruction or, possibly, a culture of life and beauty and goodness in the midst of evil-doing and death-dealing. There will be some culture; that is inevitable. Lewis, thus, calls on his students to continue the good work of culture preservation, transmission, and creation even as the future of Europe is imperiled. No matter what happens, there must be monuments to beauty, truth, and goodness. 

I thought of Lewis’ address upon discovering the website spearheaded by another Brit, Sir Richard Branson, this summer: http://www.carbonwarroom.com 

On the homepage we read: 

Our global industrial and energy systems are built on carbon-based technologies and unsustainable resource demands that threaten to destroy our society and our planet. Massive loss of wealth, expanding poverty and suffering, disastrous climate change, water scarcity, and deforestation are the end results of this broken system.  

This business-as-usual system represents the greatest threat to the security and prosperity of humanity – a threat that transcends race, ethnicity, national borders, and ideology. 

This is our Great War. 

Systems do not change themselves – the same stale, business-as-usual thinking that has driven us to our current state of emergency will continue to endanger our safety, our livelihoods, and our planet. We need new thinking, new leadership, and innovation to create a post-carbon economy. Our goal is not to undo industry, but to remake it into a force for sustainable wealth generation.  

If there is hype here, there is not only hype. We have made a major mess of things, and we are ignoring the mess we’ve made, hoping it will just go away. But it won’t. We need new ideas. We need to change: we, as individuals; we, as institutions. 

How bad are things? How bad do things have to be to get our attention? Here’s the opening of Subhankar Banerjee’s “Could This Be a Crime?” on his new website http://www.climatestorytellers.org 

Imagine you live in New York City, and one fine morning you awake to the realization that 90 percent of all the buildings that were more than five stories tall have been destroyed. You will hardly have the words to talk about this devastation, but I’m sure you will walk around the rubble to make sense of it all.

Something similar has happened in and around Santa Fe, New Mexico, where I currently live. Between 2001 and 2005, aerial surveys were conducted over 6.4 million acres of the state. Some 816,000 affected acres were mapped and it was found that during this short period
Ips confusus, a tiny bark beetle, had killed 54.5 million of New Mexico’s state tree, the piñon. In many areas of northern New Mexico, including Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Española, and Taos, 90 percent of mature piñons are now dead.                 

Berry College’s President Stephen Briggs is one of 674 American college and university presidents who have signed the President’s Climate Commitment. http://www.presidentsclimatecommitment.org Among other things, signers promise that within two years of signing their institutions will develop an action plan for becoming “climate neutral,” a plan which will include: “Actions to make climate neutrality and sustainability a part of the curriculum and other educational experience for all students.” 

Exactly what that means for the Evans School and for Berry College has yet to be determined, though it is a conversation now overdue. We are appropriately concerned about politicizing the curriculum. Still, the threat to our planet and its peoples is our great war. No more than Lewis’ Oxford students need we choose to abandon the exploration, preservation, transmission, and creation of culture. But neither can we ignore the study of the appropriate care for our creation and of what it means for us to live responsibly and well where we are. That study belongs to no single discipline. And that study can’t wait. 



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