Raphael painting school of Athens
The social and cultural implications of isolation and distancing

When we have the luxury to look back at this period of extreme “social distancing” and isolation, there will be ample reflection on the lessons it offers—from public health to economic stimulus to lessons about social interaction and on-line learning.

For now, I’m giving voice to what I suspect many are feeling: a dual sense that virtual communication works well in many contexts and that we also sacrifice a lot when we are physically separate.

Connecting with relatives on FaceTime or experiencing a Zoom happy hour can lead to some great conversations (indeed, there was a time when deep relationships were actually carried on by letters). A teleconference business meeting can be more efficient than an in-person one. And when it comes to teaching and learning, we’ve known for a long time that on-line learning can be successful, at least for some subjects and some students.

But when this extends to our whole existence, the loss becomes acute. I miss the deep social pleasures of meeting people on a walk through the neighborhood or sharing a meal with friends, the pleasures of a pick-up basketball game, and the deeply engrained cultural tradition of touching people when we meet or part (and that may be gone for good). Beyond those everyday pleasures are the rites of passage we mark precisely by gathering: weddings, funerals, graduations, etc. The Joni Mitchell sentiment captures our realization: “You don’t know what you got til it’s gone.” So it is with learning the irreplaceability of social nearness.

We cannot all be Wordsworth swooning in the presence of the powers of his own imagination:

And I was taught to feel, perhaps too much,
The self-sufficing power of Solitude . . .
life, and change, and beauty, solitude
More active even than “best society.”

When the lights went out on Broadway—and every other theater in America—I couldn’t help but marvel at the remarkable staying power of that ancient in-person art form in the face of our era of mass-produced art and entertainment. What draws people away from their screens to the immediacy of a play? Perhaps it is the unpredictability of live performance—anything can happen. Perhaps it is the communion of a social group around an experience 2500 years old. Whether it is the live concert or the stage play, those forms have stayed alive in the face of “scalable” mass media.

There’s a parallel in the classroom, a learning construct that goes back to the ancient era from which drama emerges. Socrates taught in the marketplace in Athens. His student, Plato, created an academy originally located in an olive grove. Raphael’s magnificent painting that brings together the greatest Athenian philosophers in a symposium setting based on Plato’s Academy (with Plato and Aristotle at the center) envisions knowledge burgeoning in a physical environment in which people dedicated to ideas engage face to face. The image of teamwork in contemporary bench science is not fundamentally different.

Living in our current moment of a society on “pause” shows us both the benefits of virtual engagement and its limitations. For the students at Sage, those limitations were palpable: no spring sports season, two canceled plays, no ordinary senior art exhibit or student research symposium, no personal good-byes to friends, and a postponed commencement awaiting the green light for “mass gatherings.”

It’s worth remembering that plague closed theaters in Shakespeare’s time (in any week when London plague deaths exceeded 30–at least that was the standard in the 1606 plague). They re-opened and Shakespeare’s work continues to be performed 400 years later (indeed, one of the Broadway plays currently shuttered is West Side Story, the musical based on Romeo and Juliet). It was the last play my wife saw before the shutdown (on February 26th)!

Sage students reminded us of the unflagging importance of personal contact and rite of passage gatherings when we suggested a virtual commencement ceremony instead of a postponed one! That was an important reminder. I suspect that the ultimate result of our time in isolation will not be simply an excited embrace of virtual communication but a shrewder balancing of our powerful technologies and our human desire for proximity—and a greater appreciation for those very things that make us human.

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