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The Covid Scholar
Reflections on the academic year
“When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read become luminous with manifold allusion.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1837
Do you remember getting ready to head back to school when you were a child?
That feeling of excitement (or for some, dread) that came with back-to-school shopping in office supply stores, picking out new clothes, and counting the hours until you'd be back in school with your friends again.
Or of getting out of bed on a late summer morning, as you prepare for that first day of school, with the air fresh and cool, still reminiscent of the days you’d rouse yourself early without an alarm, scarf down a bowl of cereal, and rush out the door and hop on your bike to meet up with friends.
On that first day, you might stand at the bus stop as the sun peaked over the treetops, still feeling a little tired and rubbing your eyes, holding your metal lunchbox (remember that beauty you picked out that came with a matching thermos?), and talking with other kids from your neighborhood.
Schools are back in session in some areas, or destined to begin in just a couple of weeks. And preparation for it is anything but typical.
At our house, we’ve reviewed our kids’ schools’ readiness plans and have been focused less on the traditional practicalities of heading back into academics—oh sure, we’ve done course selection and reviewed their schedules with them—but our focus has been on public health, safety, and whether and how an online option will work.
We’ve been a little dismayed at how our sons’ high school is handling its approach to the academic year. It’s clear that they’ve put a great deal of effort into safety measures in school, but the online program looks like they threw it together in the last week. Effectively, the kids who choose online learning will be treated like second-class citizens—an afterthought to the rest of the plan.
As we’re discussing the options with our freshman and junior, they’re not interested in virtual learning anyway. Our junior, the more gregarious of the two, wants to be with his friends again. Social interaction has always been important to him, and since he's gone to this school for two years, he wants to continue his experience. Our younger son is quieter and obliging, but we know how important a first high school experience is, and we’re struggling with the idea of robbing him of that.
Our first-grader, on the other hand, will be homeschooled and she couldn’t be more excited. She asked to go out to buy school supplies in early July, has her study area all set up, and is already doing some work on her own. You can’t beat the resilience of youth.
The American Scholar
I was rereading Ralph Waldo Emerson’s speech to the Harvard chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa Society, titled “The American Scholar,” given to them in 1837. He begins by referencing “the recommencement of our literary year” — i.e., the school year.
If we’re lifelong learners—students beyond the walls of the academy—the “literary year” is one that begins on January 1 and ends on December 31. It is with us always. It is life.
“Education never ends, Watson. It is a series of lessons with the greatest for the last.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1911
But like the Emerson quote at the top of the page, we can find inspiration everywhere. In every book we read, in every walk we take.
This isn’t about removing ourselves from our current state of thinking, but putting our problems and stresses in the back of our minds temporarily, to alleviate some of the burden.
It’s then that insights and analogies pop up, when we refocus from the challenges at hand to dive into things more intellectual or entertaining.
Emerson said that we take on different auras as we age. In the last five years or so, I’ve felt this metamorphosis happening in myself; my writing indicates it. According to Emerson:
“Historically, there is thought to be a difference in the ideas which predominate over successive epochs, and there are data for marking the genius of the Classic, of the Romantic, and now of the Reflective or Philosophical age… I believe each individual passes through all three. The boy is a Greek; the youth, romantic; the adult, reflective.”
As we prepare to head back to school, with a memory of all of its challenges in 2020, and an unknown outcome in 2021, that reflective aspect of the mind is giving us pause, trying to make strike the balance between the physical health and mental health of our children, and the need for a sound academic experience. And there are no simple answers.
“The actions and events of our childhood and youth are now matters of calmest observation. They lie like fair pictures in the air.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1837
If only things were calm and fair, as they were—or now seemed to be—when we were children.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.