Education as Thinking about Dying

We’ve still got some one-on-one meetings left to go, but today was the last full meeting of my Fog of War class. I always struggle to know how to wrap things up, especially after a course as wide-ranging as this one and after a semester as pandemic-shaped as this fall. But it occurred to me that my subject might actually supply my solution.

I read for students parts of C.S. Lewis’ sermon on “Learning in War-Time,” preached in Oxford less than two months into the Second World War. No doubt thinking back to his days in the same university town during World War I, when he had prolonged his studies and delayed his military service as long as possible, Lewis insisted that it was entirely appropriate for the study of literature, philosophy, history, science, and other fields to continue in time of war, to continue “to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance[.]”

Lewis preached at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which our students visited in 2017 as part of our tour of Oxford

And I think what Lewis said in war-time is equally true in pandemic-time. Even under such extreme and extraordinary circumstances, a university like Oxford’s — or mine — remains “a society for the pursuit of learning.”

Indeed, continuing to pursue learning might remind us that war — like pandemic —

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 the 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.

That’s certainly the spirit of a class on war. Even though my students have spent their entire lives in “war-time,” none serve in the military or have been asked to make significant sacrifices for the sake of America’s distant wars. So one of the goals of my course was to “aggravate” their situation for a few hours a week, to the point that they could no longer ignore the reality of war as it insidiously shapes what we think of as “normal”: our culture, our politics, our economy, our religion… in short, how we live.

And, of course, how they die.

We’d considered that idea on Monday, when we met on Zoom with the semester’s last guest speaker: a longtime Army chaplain who had also served churches stateside. What do those jobs have in common?, I asked him. What’s similar about pastoring such dissimilar flocks? After a moment’s thought, he said that both found him frequently talking to people about death: soldiers facing combat, or dying of its wounds; and civilians dying of old age or disease. Or, in both cases, people grieving the death of someone they loved.

Of course, we’re all dying. But war, like pandemics, aggravates that completely ordinary situation and brings us up to its edge.

Easy enough to say… until I realized that I was telling my students such things at 9:30am on December 9, 2020 — five years almost to the minute after the last time I talked to my friend Stacey Hunter Hecht in this life.

Stacey had been fighting cancer for much of 2015. After a brief return to work at the start of the fall semester, she took another turn for the worse. So as we reached the last week of classes, I paid her a visit in the hospital. The image is indelibly burned into my mind. I had never seen her look so reduced as that morning, with her hair gone gray, her right hand limply holding the control for her pain meds, and her attempt at a reassuring smile hidden behind an oxygen mask.

For the first and only time in my life, I realized that I was looking at someone who would not live out the day. So after ten minutes, I fumbled my way through what I knew would be a final goodbye, drove home in tears, and waited for the call.

It came about three hours later. She was gone.

(Here’s what I proceeded to write that afternoon and evening. Coincidentally, it also quotes C.S. Lewis.)

Lewis, by the way, is buried at Holy Trinity Church, in the Oxford suburb of Headington – Creative Commons (Steve Daniels)

Again, we’re all dying. But that’s a condition of human existence we can generally ignore until we come to Lewis’ edge of a precipice. Usually it takes something as enormous as a war or pandemic or as intimate as a conversation with a stricken friend to confront us with the reality of our mortality.

Perhaps that’s one of the many things that a good education should do, too. The liberal arts are certainly meant to help students and teachers alike to live well. But maybe also to die well, to spend more time coming to fuller terms with the questions of existence that we will all face when we have to lean out over that precipice.

One of the goals of Inquiry Seminar, the larger gen ed program of which my Fog of War class is a part, is to help students recognize what it means that they’re receiving a liberal arts education. Not just any version of that kind of study, but “the liberal arts in the Christian tradition.” So at a university centered on the risen Christ, death cannot have the final word, even a classroom dedicated to the study of war and filled with people masked against an invisible killer.

Such study must always be done in the shadow of death, but also, said Lewis, “under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself”: the reality that human beings are made for eternity, not finitude; not for fighting wars or pandemics or anything else on this Earth that seeks to consume all our attention and effort, but for loving God.

And so, even in the midst of war- or pandemic-time — or in the midst of remembered grief — we can affirm with Lewis “that for some souls, and at some times, the life of learning, humbly offered to God, was, in its own small way, one of the appointed approaches to the Divine reality and the Divine beauty which we all hope to enjoy hereafter….”