- S. Lewis vs. Modern Education (Part 1) by Joe Rigney, Professor, Bethlehem College & Seminary, for DESIRING GOD blog
Part of my goal in writing these posts is to commend the Narnian stories as a component of Christian discipleship. In doing so, I’m not merely contending that we can read them profitably as Christians, but that C. S. Lewis intended these stories to inculcate Christian values, habits, and truth.
We’ve already seen that he intended these stories to “steal past the watchful dragons” that hindered true affections for God and Christ and that he believed that fairy stories should be read by adults as well as children. But another way to approach the issue of discipleship is to reflect on Lewis’ critique of modern education in his brilliant little book The Abolition of Man.
Lewis regarded the trends in the educational establishment of his day as problematic on a number of levels. Choosing a standard English text-book as his starting point, Lewis offers a shrewd and perceptive critique of the subtle ways in which our educational assumptions and models can negatively impact a society. In this post, I’ll focus on three aspects of his critique.
Marginalizing Value Statements
First, Lewis highlights the subtle ways that modern education marginalizes value statements. The authors of The Green Book that he chose as his example argue that when we make a value statement about something in the world, we are not actually speaking about the thing, but instead making a statement about our own subjective feelings. In other words, when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and exclaim, “That is glorious!” we are not really commenting about the canyon; rather we are simply communicating that we have feelings associated in our minds with the word “glory.” Lewis writes,
The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and, secondly, that all such statements are unimportant (The Abolition of Man, 19).
Separating Fact and Value
Second, this marginalization of value statements results in a sharp separation in the mind of the student between objective “facts” and subjective “values.” The former are rational, testable, and important. The latter are “contrary to reason and contemptible” (25). Moreover, this separation of fact and value is not a creed that is taught explicitly, but an atmosphere and tone that is inhaled and absorbed. It becomes a part of a student’s mental framework of assumptions, and it does so without critical analysis or reflection.
Creating Men Without Chests
Third, a student who thus begins to assume this fact/value distinction will begin to display two traits that are harmful to himself and to society. First, he will begin to view ordinary human emotions disdainfully. He will look down his nose at a mother who is delighted by her children or an old man who tears up when the national anthem is played. Second, this disdain of ordinary emotions will be accompanied by a decreasing practice of classical virtues like courage, sacrifice, and honor. The reason is not hard to see. Familial affection (like that between a mother and child) is the source of self sacrifice on the part of the mother. The tears of the patriot are intimately connected to his willingness to fight for the flag. These two factors will have devastating effects on the student and on the society. The student will have cut himself off from the possibility of “having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than [he] have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane” (23). The society in which he lives, which has promoted and celebrated this type of modern education, will be in an ironically broken state:
And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful (36-37).
- S. Lewis vs. Modern Education (Part 2)
We’ve seen, in Part 1, that Lewis’s critique of modern education begins by highlighting the marginalization of value statements, the separation of fact and value, and the creation of men without chests. However, Lewis is not merely lamenting the loss of virtues like courage, fidelity, and sacrifice. For he knows that nature abhors a vacuum, and in the absence of these virtues, men will turn elsewhere to find meaning and purpose.
The Appeal to Instinct
Lewis rejects the notion that those who are debunking “traditional values” are themselves value-less. “A great many of those who "debunk" traditional or (as they would say) "sentimental" values have in the background values of their own which they believe to be immune from the debunking process” (43). Indeed, Lewis contends that these “skeptics” would be well-served to be a little more skeptical about their own system of values. For, having rejected the Tao (Lewis’s word for Natural Law, Traditional Morality, First Principles, essentially a combination of the “givenness” of reality and traditions handed down from generation to generation), these innovators simply end up elevating “Instinct” to an ultimate value.
The Rebellion of Branches Against the Tree
The difficulty with obeying “Instinct” is three-fold:
Instinct is just a word for phenomena that we can’t explain (“to say that migratory birds find their way by instinct is only to say that we do not know how migratory birds find their way” (46). In this sense, appeals to Instinct plant our feet firmly in mid-air.
“Telling us to obey instinct is like telling us to obey "people." People say different things; so do instincts. Our instincts are at war” (49).
If we dive further into this appeal to Instinct, we discover that these innovators are borrowing from the Tao (Traditional Morality) in order to attack Traditional Morality. As Lewis says, this “is a rebellion of the branches against the tree: if the rebels could succeed they would find that they had destroyed themselves” (56).
The Rejection of Value and the Attempt to Conquer Nature
Faced with such a self-contradiction, the innovators are forced to take one more step. Rather than attempting to separate fact and value and subsequently elevate Instinct as an ultimate value, they can simply reject the concept of “value” altogether. In the place of ultimate values, they substitute what has become a near-obsession in the modern world: Man’s Conquest of Nature through science and technology. Space limits my ability to unpack Lewis’s analysis of this phenomenon, so I will simply state his conclusions:
First, “Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men” (69). The reason is simply that the attempt to conquer Nature must culminate in the conquest of human nature. In other words, ultimately these innovators (which Lewis dubs “Conditioners”) have as their aim the refashioning of Mankind. But in order to remake Mankind, they must relinquish their stake in it, stepping outside the obligations that are derived from something above Man (namely, God) and the ties that bind men together in order to guide and condition the remaining men into whatever image they please.
Second, having stepped outside of the Tao that stands over and above all men, these Conditioners cease to be men at all (at least in the traditional sense of the word). “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man” (74). Indeed —
At the moment, then, of Man’s victory over Nature, we find the whole human race subjected to some individual men, and those individuals subjected to that in themselves which is purely ‘natural’ — to their irrational impulses. Nature, untrammeled by values, rules the Conditioners and, through them, all humanity. Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.
In summary, Lewis sees the progression as:
The Marginalization of Value Statements leads to
the Separation of Fact from Value which leads to
the Creation of Men Without Chests, which leads to
the elevation of “Instinct” as an ultimate value, which, because of its own self-contradictions leads to
Man’s Attempt to Conquer Nature through science and technology, which leads to
the Tyranny of the Conditioners over Mankind, which in the end is
the Abolition of Man.
Such is the trajectory of modern education, and it is a trajectory that Lewis is committed to reversing. His means: an older, and better, view of Man and education.
To See the World As It Really Is: C. S. Lewis on Education
Having examined the form of education that Lewis rejects, we turn now to a brief summation of his own view. The following tenets are not the whole of Lewis’s educational paradigm, but instead form some of the non-negotiables that Lewis felt were under particular attack in his day.
Genuine education embraces the Tao. For Lewis, the Tao appears to be a combination of the absoluteness of reality and the human way of life that conforms to this reality. In other words, reality simply is a certain way, and human beings are called to order their lives by the pattern of the Tao.
Lewis believed that some aspect of the Tao was present in all major ancient philosophies and religions (Christian, Platonic, Oriental, Stoic, etc). Christians in search of biblical support for such an idea might look to Romans 1, where what can be known about God (i.e. Absolute Reality) has been revealed to and perceived by all men because God has made it known.
The Doctrine of Objective Value
For Lewis, the common feature in all manifestations of the Tao is the doctrine of objective value:
Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt (The Abolition of Man, 27-28). . .
It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not (31).
In short, the “givenness” of the world, and in particular, the Ultimate Reality that stands behind it, means that when we are confronted with various aspects of reality, we are obligated to respond with certain rational and emotional reactions.
The Principle of Proportionate Regard
But it’s not enough to simply feel something in response to the objective reality of the world. You must also feel rightly and proportionately to the way the world is. "Can you be righteous," asks Traherne, "unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value?". . . St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought (28-29).
These three realities form the foundation of true education. They also shape the aim of education.
For those within [the Tao], the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are themselves appropriate. . .The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful (32).
Following Plato, Lewis believed that we ought to initiate the young into these right responses, even before they are able to rationally understand or explain what they are feeling. The goal of such inculcation of right responses is that, when a child raised in this way grows up and encounters Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, he will welcome them with open arms, because he has been prepared for, and indeed, resembles them already.
The Narnian Stories
So then, the function of the Narnian stories in Lewis’s approach to education becomes clear. The Narnian stories display through imaginative fiction and fairy tale the way that the world really is. Here is courage and bravery in its shining glory. Here is honesty and truth-telling in its simplicity and profundity. Here is treachery in all its ugliness. Here is the face of Evil. Here also is the face of Good.
A child raised on such stories will have developed the patterns and habits of thought and affection that will be well prepared to embrace the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (that is, to embrace Jesus Christ) when he finally encounters them (Him!) when he is grown. Like John the Baptist, Lewis and his cast of Narnians will have prepared the way.
I love to investigate the tables Barnes and Noble has set up for local schools’ summer reading. A few weeks ago, I was pleased to find The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on several of their displays. I started thinking, and I feel certain that seeing his book there would bring a great sense of joy into C. S. Lewis’s heart, not merely because people are still reading his stories, but, more profoundly, because of Lewis’s strong convictions about the role of imaginative literature in education.
Many times we consider imagination as something apart from reality, something we use to escape from the stark world around us; but for Lewis, and for people who see a spiritual world that illuminates the material, imagination can be a means of fostering belief in the spiritual aspect of reality. Dragons, unicorns, and elves do not really exist, but if children grow up believing in such magical beings, then it can become much easier for their adult selves to trust in the existence of a supernatural God. For Lewis and, he hoped, for many of his readers, imagination should play an integral role in the educational process.
Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man, is subtitled “Reflections on Education with Special References to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools.” (No wonder we usually hear it called just The Abolition of Man!) This short volume contains many of Lewis’s thoughts on the nature of imagination and the function he believes it should serve in the classroom. The main focus of The Abolition of Man is Lewis’s argument for the existence and importance of an objective, universal truth. He calls this truth the “Tao” and equates it with “Natural Law” (43). He also describes it as “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false” (18), and he believes that ignoring the Tao will result in a distorted understanding of all things, since the Tao defines and underlies reality itself. With that said, I don’t want to get too far off track in explaining Lewis’s fascinating concept of the Tao, since the discussion at hand deals with education and imagination. What, then, does the Tao have to do with education? And where does imagination fit into this picture?
Lewis posits that both the nourishment and the destruction of humanity’s relationship with the Tao can begin in the educational system. According to Lewis, an education truly serving its purpose must provide students with insight into the nature of the Tao. He declares: “The practical result of education [that rejects the Tao] must be the destruction of the society which accepts it” (27). If there is no objective reality to inform the pursuit of knowledge, then students will have no basis in which to ground their value judgments. For Lewis, the ability to judge right from wrong is something that must be addressed in education. We know Lewis, as a Christian, must have based his value judgments in the faith he professed, but in The Abolition of Man Lewis speaks as a philosopher, seeking to appeal to a wide audience of Christians and non-Christians alike. This philosopher-Lewis asserts that “if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason [the Tao] as having absolute validity” (49). In other words, if we are to deem any one thing as “good” or “bad,” then we must have an absolute reality on which to base these estimations of value. Lewis sees education as the means of instilling the right ideas of “good” and “bad” into the minds of human beings and as the way to teach people how to “like and dislike what [they] ought” (16).
According to Lewis, an education that properly helps students to “like and dislike what [they] ought” must recognize the importance of imagination. He says: “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibilities of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head” (14). Lewis thinks an overly rationalistic kind of instruction, in which the formation of “hearts” and “sentiments” is neglected, fails to fulfill the purpose of education. It fails to treat students as human beings: body and soul, mind and heart, material and spiritual. For Lewis, reality is comprised of both spiritual and material sides, and to disregard either side is to have a faulty perception of reality. An education that includes the consideration of imaginative literature helps students to recognize the spiritual side of reality. Imagination awakens us to the dragons and unicorns in our own lives and encourages us to look deeper into the supernatural part of our being.
I can’t help thinking it was for this reason – for the sake of encouraging this ultimate belief in the spiritual – that the academic, intellectual Lewis, who was reportedly not particularly fond of interacting with kids, spent so much of his time and energy writing stories for children. We see the relationship between imagination and spiritual reality come to life in the Narnia Chronicles. When the Pevensie children grow older, they are told by Aslan that they will not be returning to Narnia but will have to come to know him in their own world. In this sense, Narnia was a preparation for something that was to come, something that would take the children away from Narnia for a time, but ultimately bring them back home to it. The journeys to Narnia are an educational right of passage for the Pevensies that parallel their journeys from youth to maturity. When her sister and brothers initially disbelieve Lucy’s experience in the land of the wardrobe, the wise Professor Kirk (who has firsthand knowledge of Narnia’s existence) wonders, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools?” (54). The professor, like Lewis, knows that education should not prevent children from believing in the existence of something beyond the everyday, material world of earthly experience.
So what would Professor Kirk say about our schools today? What would Lewis think about how we are doing things in the contemporary classroom? As I said, I’m sure he would be pleased to see his Narnia books on summer reading lists along with other imaginative works such as The Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Hobbit. But surely he would also have some reservations about the way we are running classrooms today. I wonder how he would feel about the emphasis placed on standardized testing in our schools and in college application processes. I think he might worry about the literature departments starving for money at some universities, while sports, science, and technology-related programs are living like kings. I don’t mean to say that Lewis saw the study of literature as more important than science or mathematics – on the contrary, I think he appreciated the beauty of scientific and mathematical truths. What he did not want was for the scientific disciplines to be over-emphasized at the expense of the imaginative ones, since he saw imagination as essential for the development of each human person.
In reflecting on Lewis’s pertinence for our contemporary environment, especially considering the recent film adaptations of the Narnia Chronicles, I think it is important to expand our thoughts on education into the realm of our present “entertainment” industry. In today’s world, where standardized tests seem to mean more than standard writing skills and professional athletes make more money than professional educators, it is the entertainment industry that has taken over a big chunk of imaginative education. Popular culture is even studied in the classroom these days, as I have seen in my experience as a teaching assistant in charge of a required writing class for freshmen college students. Teachers are encouraged to use film, TV, advertising, and other aspects of pop culture as pedagogical tools in the classroom. Now, my first reaction to this trend was to wonder if we haven’t started inserting too much imagination into education. I mean, aren’t kids already watching way too much TV and playing way too many video games? Haven’t some kids gotten so confused about the difference between reality and fantasy that we’ve seen horrible results like school shootings and bombings? Where do we draw the line between an imagination that helps us to understand true reality and one that prompts us to create a false, harmful reality?
Lewis would, without a doubt, point us back to the Tao. He would tell us that it isn’t too much imagination that is destructive, but too little adherence to the objective truths that define reality. These truths must be incorporated into education, or chaos can result. “Without the aid of trained emotions,” says Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (24). For Lewis, the role of imagination in the educational world is that act of training the emotions.
Just as absolute laws, such as gravity, inform scientific studies, so does the Tao act as the basis for imaginative considerations. Imagination, formed in the way of Lewis’s Tao, and working in conjunction with reason, can help students to perceive the expanses as well as the boundaries of reality, so that they can progress in the knowledge of spiritual and material reality as a whole. So, no, we shouldn’t all encourage our children to skip math class and go see Prince Caspian – but I think Lewis would challenge us to always leave the wardrobe door wide open.
Marisa White is from Ormond Beach, Florida. Her academic interests lie mainly in the area of 20th Century British Christian literature, especially George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. She finished her M.A. at Florida State University in the Spring of 2008, with a thesis titled, “Sacramental Unity in the Writing of C.S. Lewis: Romanticism, Imagination, and Truth in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.”
5/1/2018 LEWISIANA: George Orwell on C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
George Orwell’s review of C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (1945)
THE SCIENTISTS TAKE
Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945. Reprinted in The Complete Works of
George Orwell, ed. Peter Davison, Vol. XVII (1998), No. 2720 (first half), pp. 250–
On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them. Still, it is
possible to think of a fairly large number of worthwhile
books in which ghosts,
angels, mermaids, and whatnot
play a part.
Mr. C. S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength” can be included in their number –
though, curiously enough, it would probably have been a better book if the magical
element had been left out. For in essence it is a crime story, and the miraculous
happenings, though they grow more frequent towards the end, are not integral to it.
In general outline, and to some extent in atmosphere, it rather resembles G. K.
Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday.”
Mr. Lewis probably owes something to Chesterton as a writer, and certainly shares
his horror of modern machine civilisation (the title of the book, by the way, is taken
from a poem about the Tower of Babel) and his reliance on the “eternal verities” of
the Christian Church, as against scientific materialism or nihilism.
His book describes the struggle of a little group of sane people against a nightmare
that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists – or, perhaps, they are
not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of
good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then
other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control.
All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people
are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists,
who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short,
is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself.
There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a
moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” –
has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all
too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power
5/1/2018 LEWISIANA: George Orwell on C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength
that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when
such dreams will be realisable.
His description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Coordinated
with its worldwide
ramifications, its private army, its secret torture chambers, and
its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious personage known as The Head,
is as exciting as any detective story.
It would be a very hardened reader who would not experience a thrill on learning
that The Head is actually – however, that would be giving the game away.
One could recommend this book unreservedly if Mr. Lewis had succeeded in
keeping it all on a single level. Unfortunately, the supernatural keeps breaking in,
and it does so in rather confusing, undisciplined ways. The scientists are
endeavouring, among other things, to get hold of the body of the ancient Celtic
magician Merlin, who has been buried – not dead, but in a trance – for the last
1,500 years, in hopes of learning from him the secrets of preChristian
They are frustrated by a character who is only doubtfully a human being, having
spent part of his time on another planet where he has been gifted with eternal
youth. Then there is a woman with second sight, one or two ghosts, and various
superhuman visitors from outer space, some of them with rather tiresome names
which derive from earlier books of Mr. Lewis’s. The book ends in a way that is so
preposterous that it does not even succeed in being horrible in spite of much
Much is made of the fact that the scientists are actually in touch with evil spirits,
although this fact is known only to the inmost circle. Mr. Lewis appears to believe
in the existence of such spirits, and of benevolent ones as well. He is entitled to his
beliefs, but they weaken his story, not only because they offend the average
reader’s sense of probability but because in effect they decide the issue in advance.
When one is told that God and the Devil are in conflict one always knows which
side is going to win. The whole drama of the struggle against evil lies in the fact
that one does not have supernatural aid. However, by the standard of the novels
appearing nowadays this is a book worth reading.