This morning I was able to do something special that was completely normal until six months ago: I performed a piece of music, with other people, in public. The COVID-19 event has robbed society of much that was beautiful and good (including, but not limited to the arts), to say nothing of the incomes and opportunities that those of us in the arts have lost due to ongoing restrictions. Thankfully, by far the largest share of my income comes from teaching, and so while I have lost a not-insignificant amount of expected income from performing, the loss is inconvenient rather than devastating. I have many friends and colleagues that have not fared as well during the past few months.
As case numbers fall, better treatments for COVID-19 are devised, and society slowly begins to reopen, I find myself repeatedly asking the question, “How do we get back to normal?”
On some level, and in both good and bad ways, the answer to that question must be “we don’t.” Sadly, some arts organizations that were already operating on razor-thin margins will be unable to recover from months of lost revenue, to say nothing of restaurants, hotels, and other businesses similarly impacted. At the same time, innovation is often spurred by crisis, and there will be new organizations and businesses that use the contingencies of the present moment to devise new and profitable business models. Those of us that work primarily as educators find ourselves in a situation that is similar, at least in some ways. The pivot to online education back in March forced all of us to develop effective methods of teaching online. Sometimes this was using technologies that already existed, while at other times new technologies and methods were developed or refined to meet the needs of the moment. The best of these tools will undoubtedly remain part of our instructional “toolkits” long after the present crisis has ended, becoming part of the future iteration of “normal.” I hope to write more about this in a future post.
The benefits of online tools for teaching and content delivery notwithstanding, I am convinced of three things:
1. This cannot be the “new normal.”
2. People do not want this to be the “new normal.”
3. We will have to fight to get back to normal.
The first two of these statements can be covered at the same time. The present situation of various stages of lockdown, separation, and alienation is unsustainable. We human beings were made in the image of our Creator, a God who eternally exists in three divine Persons enjoying perfect fellowship. As his image-bearers, we, too, were made for fellowship, not separation. Think of the social dysfunctions that are tied to continued isolation; it is no coincidence that one of the most common descriptions heard of individuals accused or convicted of horrific crimes is “he was a loner.” We human beings were made to be together, and if the last six months have taught us anything it is that virtual school, virtual church, virtual concerts, virtual sporting events, and virtual socialization are but pale imitations of the real things. They are certainly blessings to have in times of necessity, but there is an unquantifiable yearning for human contact that these virtual media simply do not satisfy. This cannot be the “new normal,” and people do not want it to be so.
Even so, I believe we will have to fight to get back to normal, or to find a workable “new normal.” One reason for this is simple economic necessity. If businesses, arts organizations, charities, churches, and even schools and universities are to continue as going concerns, they need customers, patrons, volunteers, and congregants. And yet, as much as we long deep down for human contact, the inertia is toward continued isolation. Ordering on Amazon is easier than shopping locally. Taking classes online in one’s pajamas is easier than getting up and going, likewise “attending” church (if one continues that at all). If we are going to come out of this period of isolation and reassert our humanity, we are going to have to decide to do so.
Now, please understand that I am not advocating for any defiance of various mandates given by the civil authorities. I favor masking indoors, social distancing, and isolating in the event of exposure to or contracting the virus. But I do advocate taking the most “normal” that we can have during these restrictions. For example, this semester my university gave us two options: teach entirely online or teach with some in-person instruction supplemented by virtual work of some kind. For performing faculty on wind instruments, this includes restrictions such as 30-minute lessons or rehearsals, with 30-minute breaks in between, using masks, bell covers, and some means of collecting and disposing of condensation. While it would be tempting to balk at such restrictions (and, granted, they are more workable for my instruments than for some others) and teach online, I have elected to give the maximum amount of in-person instruction allowed. Why? For one thing, I think the prescribed safety measures are more than sufficient. Indeed, COVID-19 cases on our campus are declining and no outbreaks have been traced to classroom buildings. Secondly, if the present restrictions can serve as a halfway point between fully virtual instruction and a full schedule of in-person teaching, using the maximum amount of in-person time allowed will whet everyone’s appetites for a more fulsome educational and artistic experience, and perhaps help its return to come sooner and be less jarring when it does.
But most importantly, from my perspective as an educator, I think our students long to be in the same rooms with their teachers and classmates, interacting with them both formally and informally, teaching and learning, and simply “being human” together. It is hard to explain why this is—at least, without the theological angle I took earlier—yet everyone knows it is so. We human beings long for togetherness, and it is worth fighting for.
Even with a mask and a bell cover.