Fragmentation and Identity: Institutions in a Time of Lockdown

A few months ago I started writing a piece about institutions and liberalism, from the context of working in a historic boarding school. How does valuing institutions fit within my liberal philosophy, given their potential incompatibility with concern with the individual? Do I, in fact, value them, or just tolerate them as a necessary evil? It was taking a bit of time, not least because I have an instinct to reject institutions in and of themselves, yet also must acknowledge that I am myself thoroughly institutionalized, and was trying to work out what it is that might be different about the particular institutions of which I am a part, most particularly the Church of England and the school at which I teach. I thought I’d given myself a bit more time and come back to it over the Easter holidays…

Since then, of course, the world has changed unrecognizably. Like all other schools in the UK, except where staff are doing wonderful work to care for the children of key workers, our doors have closed. The boarding houses became their hollow ghostly holiday-selves prematurely. The classroom has moved from physical to virtual space, and for a week before we broke up for the holidays – itself a strange whimpering end to the term, where little seemed to alter from one day to the next – we saw our pupils only as distant camera images at best, as thumbnails with disembodied voices at worst. For all that the technology available to us is an immeasurable blessing, within a few days we went from full classrooms to empty, and the everyday personal contact with pupils and colleagues that we had taken for granted was transformed into pixelated distant encounters. Just as families mourn the absence of relatives with whom they do not live, and lovers and friends feel the tremendous loss in being unable to see and hold one another, so too, albeit in a different way, I write this from a point of grief for the community that has – however necessarily – been torn apart.

However, if anything, this strange and depressing scenario has sharpened my understanding of how institutions do remain valuable in my worldview, even as the two with which I have such close yet problematic relationships (the Church and this school) fragment and reimagine themselves in ways they could never have predicted. Fundamentally, I’ve realized, it comes down to the communities that they engender, and my conviction that strong institutions with clear values create valuable communities, bonded by shared concerns and beliefs. This is not to say that the communities created by institutions cannot be toxic, nor to argue that communities created by institutions are in and of themselves better than those created in other ways, but simply that good institutions can be excellent ways to create community.

So, what is happening to these institutions under lockdown? Given that, in these two instances, the identity of the institutions is bound up, at least in their day-to-day functioning, with bricks and mortar, one of the existential challenges has been posed quite simply by what matters once physical space is removed from the equation. At times, I have been guilty of downplaying the physical space aspect of the current situation. For example, while I don’t doubt that the response to the closure of church buildings even to clergy has brought out some shameful clericalism, poor pastoral awareness, and shoddy theology, it is too easy also to dismiss the value of sacred space defined by the walls of a church or the power of the tradition of many of our religious buildings. There is also the sense of belonging that buildings create: it is vital as a teacher at a boarding school to remember that boys have been wrenched prematurely from the place that is not only their learning environment but also their term-time home, and, in too many cases, they have not been able to return to their actual homes because of restrictions on travel. Even now, I wander through common rooms to see names signed up for trips that never happened, posters for concerts that were cancelled, the evidence of normality ruptured and a home broken.

But neither the Church nor the school are the buildings. Both are the people, bound together by a shared purpose (respectively the worship of God and the education of children), and defined by their beliefs as to how this should be done (their theology on the one hand, their educational philosophy on the other). And so, while the Corona virus lockdown challenges all of these, the strength of the institutions lies in their ability to stay true to all of these things while reimagining them for new circumstances. And rather than limiting us, these changed circumstances can actually challenge us to be more true to the real purpose of our institutions, and to continue both to serve their communities and to live out our part as members of those communities being true witnesses to our institutional values.

As a member of a Church community, and a Eucharistic one in particular, I have been grateful for my parish priest’s decision to continue Sunday Mass from his study, streamed over Facebook. Although the physical exclusion from church buildings and from the sacraments is deeply painful, to form part of a virtual congregation, knowing that the priest receives communion on behalf of all of us, is a profound comfort. However, more even than this, it is the shared fellowship over email, What’sApp, Zoom, Facebook, both within my own congregation and far beyond, that has reminded me that the Church is the people, whose Christ-like love for one another has been authentic and overwhelming. I spend so much of my time railing against the worst aspects of the Church that to be confronted with the response of a grieving community to the rupturing of the norms of that institution’s nature – and to find it fundamentally to be caring, loving, and striving for the Kingdom – has been a humbling experience. A reimagining of Church away from the building, away from travelling to a Sunday service, towards the maintaining of faithful worship from the individual though not in isolation, but rather in constant awareness of the prayer offered across the institution and the community, has been at once challenging and nourishing.

As a teacher at a school with a liberal teaching philosophy that centres on the development of every individual as a person, not only academically but across all aspects of their character, we have been challenged to think about how to retain that across the internet. This has included centralizing live teaching in our practice, maintaining pastoral support, working out how – even if the cricket season is looking unlikely for now – we might offer as much as possible of our co-curricular and community service programmes remotely. Each day, we are now encouraged to ask ourselves the question: how can we continue to know one another and grow together as people when we are physically apart? These things are core to this school, core to the purpose of this institution, and they are what bind us together as a community: we are all being challenged to creativity in maintaining them, while also becoming, I think, more reflective teachers in the process. The frustrations of this institution and the many characteristics that I find hard to tolerate have paled beside the essence of its values, played out in a time of crisis, which focus us first and foremost on simple care for our pupils.

It is, I suppose, unsurprising that I consider the teaching of Classics to be integral to the identity of this institution, not least because part of our educational philosophy is also to accept a wide range of academic abilities, and we make sure that Latin is not offered exclusively as an option for the most able. The benefits of a classical education, as I have written about in the past, should not be restricted to an academic elite. However, translating this to the more challenging environment of online teaching is pushing me as a teacher to think about how to use the best of the available technology to continue to make it a subject that everyone can access, without getting lost within a busy video call or struggling at home with a challenging exercise. As much of a challenge as this is, it is also a huge opportunity. Good teaching requires us constantly to challenge our pedagogy and the methods by which we achieve our educational aims, and the situation offers real impetus to do this. On one simple level, I have been tweeting daily from the department with a Classical activity to be done under lockdown, and the requirement to think broadly and creatively about what might interest our pupils across the widest possible range of areas has been a real opportunity to reconsider what we mean by Classics for all.

These are challenging times, and I am fully aware that my ability to approach the current challenges with optimism and a sense of opportunity rest in part on a privileged situation: I do not have children to home school or vulnerable family to care for; I still have a salary coming in; my mental health remains fairly resilient. However, that does not mean they are easy for me, either. I really have drawn comfort from institutions of which I have been all too dismissive in the past. They offer values and structure, community and purpose, and when this is all over, I hope I will take them less for granted.