C. S. Lewis on American public education
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C. S. Lewis on American public education

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Some might be acquainted with the argument about education that C. S. Lewis makes in his The Abolition of Man, especially his idea of “men without chests.” If you haven’t read it, please do, it’s well worth the time.

But many are probably not familiar with Lewis’ view of the specifically American educational system. To this end, I’ll share some representative sections from a pair of Lewis’ works below.

First, we have the Preface to Lewis’ “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” the short article appended to The Screwtape Letters in 1962:

“Screwtape Proposes a Toast” was written years after the original Screwtape Letters. It takes over from them the technique of what maybe called diabolical ventriloquism. Screwtape’s outlook is like a photographic negative; his whites are our blacks and whatever he welcomes we ought to dread. But in the original Letters this device was applied to the religious and moral life of an individual. In the “Toast” the main subject is education.

In my view there is a sense in which education ought to be democratic and another sense in which it ought not. It ought to be democratic in the sense of being available, without distinction of sex, colour, class, race, or religion, to all who can—and will—diligently accept it. But once the young people are inside the school there must be no attempt to establish a factitious egalitarianism between the idlers and dunces on the one hand and the clever and industrious on the other. A modern nation needs a very large class of genuinely educated people and it is the primary function of schools and universities to supply them. To lower standards or disguise inequalities is fatal.

If this sounds harsh, I would observe that the opposite policy is really devised to soothe the inferiority complex not of the idlers and dunces but of their parents. Do not be in the least afraid that those who live out their school-days—which should be brief—on the back bench of the lowest class will suffer any trauma when they see promotion and honours and official ap-proval going to the diligent minority. They are stronger than it. They can punch its head and kick its stern. All the distinctions they really care about—the popularity and the success in games—go not to it but to them. They enjoy their school-days very much. Our real problem is to see that they impede as little as possible the purposes for which school really exists.

So far so good. But I had to face a tactical difficulty. The “Toast” was published in an American magazine. The tendency in education which I was deploring has gone further in America than anywhere else. If I had been writing “straight” my article would have been an attack on the “public schools” of America. It would indeed have raised nothing that educated Americans do not fully admit. But it is one thing for them to say these things of their own country and another to hear them said by a foreigner! I therefore thought it neither good manners nor good tactics to make my point quite nakedly. Instead, I resorted to a further level of irony. Screwtape in fact describes American education; he affects to be holding English education up as the awful example. The most intelligent of my American readers would, I hoped, see the game I was playing and enjoy the joke. And if those who were a little duller really believed that “democratic” education (in the true sense) had gone even further in England, they could not help seeing that their actual system was at least uncomfortably like the one Screwtape describes—and draw the moral.

Magdalene College,

The second quotation is from Lewis’ The Four Loves, from the chapter on Affection:

The conservative tenacity of Affection works both ways. It can be a domestic counterpart to that nationally suicidal type of education which keeps back the promising child because the idlers and dunces might be “hurt” if it were undemocratically moved into a higher class than themselves.

Now there are at least a couple of important points to note here. The first is the critically important link that Lewis sees connecting quality education to national survival. He states that “to lower standards or disguise inequalities is fatal” and calls the implementation of such measures a “nationally suicidal type of education.” So education is important to the vitality and health of a nation.

But why is this the case? Here we come to the second important point. Education is necessarily bound up with pursuit of the Good. This is why Screwtape says in his toast that the focus should be on “the vast, overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination, of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual.” To see how this is accomplished, you must read the text of Screwtape’s toast. But the point here is that education is inherently ethically normative and values-driven.

It is the myth of a “value-free” education that sustains the separation of explicitly religious faith from learning. And the secular democratic spirit currently at work in the American system of public education will ultimately be, in Lewis’ words, “nationally suicidal.” And even worse, such diabolical dichotomy could be spiritually suicidal.

Jordan J. Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is director of research at the Center for Religion, Culture & Democracy, an initiative of the First Liberty Institute. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has authored multiple books, including a forthcoming introduction to the public theology of Abraham Kuyper. Working with Lexham Press, he served as a general editor for the 12 volume Abraham Kuyper Collected Works in Public Theology series, and his research can be found in publications including Journal of Markets & Morality, Journal of Religion, Scottish Journal of Theology, Reformation & Renaissance Review, Journal of the History of Economic Thought, Faith & Economics, and Calvin Theological Journal. He is also associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research at Calvin Theological Seminary and the Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity & Politics at Calvin University.