‘Are my students really there?’ is the perennial, philosophical quandary for teachers. They may be sitting right in front of me, but what are they thinking? Are their senses truly gathering, interpreting and appreciating the concepts I’m endeavouring to convey? Does the earnest nodding of a student’s head satisfactorily address my inability to read minds? In the classrooms of my youth, daydreaming was a partner-in-crime, a surreptitious means of disengagement. For this generation, we have the added complication of students gaming furtively on devices.
Even when students verbalise their understandings or commit them to writing, do these sounds and symbols do justice to the profundity of their thinking? Are some thoughts simply inexpressible, too deep for words?
In these strange COVID-19 times, on-line learning has suddenly become the new norm. While effective to a significant degree, it remains a poor substitute for real presence. We miss the physical immediacy and visual cues that aid our interpretation of words; our senses are dulled. Nevertheless, it is remarkable that we can transport sound and vision from isolation to isolation, creating a feeling of community, albeit artificial.
Our senses are fundamental to the human experience and the formation and nurturing of relationships. They create our reality. The Bible has much to say about relationships, and it makes regular allusions to our sensations in that context. Hearing, seeing and tasting are themes flowing throughout Scripture. In experiencing God, the Psalmist reminds us that we can “taste and see that the Lord is good.” We are extolled to “Hear the words of the Lord.” Jesus declares in the Nazarean synagogue that he is the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecies; the catalyst for a new and radical ordering in which the blind will receive their sight. Many of his miracles relate to the recovery of the senses. Utilising the Platonic thinking of his age, St Paul likens our present relationship with God to looking into a dim mirror – a poor reflection of the deeper reality that will be experienced one day when we come face to face with our Creator. Ironically, the flawed hero Samson only gains true spiritual insight once he is blinded by his enemies. In a similar vein, the man born blind in John’s Gospel is far more perceptive than any of Jesus’ detractors. God reveals himself in Jesus, the Light of the World, so he can be observed and better understood. The resurrected Jesus encourages his shocked disciples to touch his wounds and body, to confirm he is not an apparition.
I am looking forward to returning to the physical classroom. I am tiring of looking into a ‘dim mirror’. It will be nice to really see and hear my students and colleagues again.
Rev’d Malcolm Woolrich, Wadhurst Chaplain