‘Learning in War-time’

I begin where I must, with a disclaimer: ‘Learning in War-time’ is a title coined by the great Irish writer C. S. Lewis and not by me. But I can’t get away from it today, and I feel a need to put pen to paper.

This lunchtime, thanks to the wonders of digital technology, I had the privilege of joining a virtual seminar connecting academic colleagues here in Northern Ireland with a group of academic colleagues and their students in Ukraine. The purpose? To find out first hand what learning is like in wartime. I have to confess, at one point I had to switch my camera off so that it would not be obvious to others in the group that I was in tears.

One of the first things I noticed is that our Ukrainian colleagues speak the same kind of language as academics all around the world do on such occasions. To be clear, they demonstrated an impressive command of English, and some of my Irish colleagues ventured valiantly into Ukrainian. But what I mean is that they used the same kind of academic speak as we do: ‘presentations’; PowerPoints; ‘peer-reviewed papers’. That kind of thing. In many respects they are just like us.

Yet what stood out for me in the boldest of letters was this: their immense pride in their students; their passion for communication and literature; their compelling defence of freedom and human dignity. What became clear within a very short time was a determined belief, shared by each one of them, that, ultimately, goodness would prevail.

One senior literary scholar in the call talked about the ‘suspension of disbelief’. And little wonder: they showed us a photograph of an academic colleague delivering an online class via his mobile phone, dressed from top to toe in military combat gear. Another image showed a colleague in the dim light of an angle poise desk lamp at a make-shift table in an air raid shelter, engrossed in preparing a lecture. The Ukrainian students spoke to us about how they sought to overcome their anxiety amidst the noise of the sirens. One of them expressed gratitude for the rain that was helping the crops to grow in the land they hold so dear. This gave her hope. Another had just fulfilled the dream of passing her driving test. Another had found joy in the simple act of skateboarding. Each one spoke of cherishing life, and they encouraged us to do the same. Quite frankly, I cried, because it was heartbreaking, and very humbling.

My understanding of the two World Wars of the twentieth century is very limited, but the echoes in today’s conversations seemed strong. The kind of help the Ukrainian colleagues and students were finding in small acts of empathy and kindness, and also in prayer, reminded me of the spiritual resistance of the Plateau Vivarais-Ligon in France. Poetry held out hope too, from Byron to the street poems apparently going viral on social media networks.

My mind turned to the great war poets of the twentieth century, including Lewis. When war broke out in September 1939, people in the great city of Oxford were grappling with very similar issues to the ones we were talking about this lunchtime. What is the point of going to class when all the while a war is raging? What is the purpose of reading and writing and teaching when people we love are dying, and when we might even lose our own lives?

Lewis’s answers to such questions ring as true today as they did at the onset of WW2. I imagine him delivering these words to the gathered congregation in an Oxford church:

the war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under that shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. If men had postponed the search for knowledge and beauty until they were secure, the search would never have begun. We are mistaken when we compare war with'normal life'. Life has never been normal.

The war in Ukraine has captured the public imagination in a remarkable way. As is the case with all wars, in all parts of the globe, the situation is terrible. It is bloody and frightening and bleak. Our colleagues today made that very clear. Listening to them refer to the fractured brotherhood between Ukraine and its neighbour Russia reminded me of all of the previous wars and conflicts of history, right back to the fratricide of Abel and Cain. Surely the war in Ukraine is a contemporary manifestation of a very ancient evil: man’s inhumanity against man, and man’s enmity with God.

In the face of war, and in the face of our broken human condition, there is a choice. We can give up and give in to fear. Or, as Lewis explained, we can remember that life is precious, that our days are numbered, and that each moment counts. We can refuse to believe that evil will have the last word, and we can pursue all that is Good. This was the message we heard from our colleagues and their students today in Ukraine. They will not give in, and they will not give up hope. Spiritually speaking, they are determined to resist.

This was a lunchtime meeting with a difference. It was inspiring and humbling and challenging all at once. It reminded me of the words of the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk, pointing to life in a day of darkness: ‘the just shall live by faith’.

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