In his phenomenal work The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis writes regarding education what have become some of his most well-known and oft-quoted words: “For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” More than seventy years after its publication, these words are as true as ever.
I have no doubt that most educators would agree with Lewis’ statement, regardless of the type of school in which they teach. If so many are in agreement, however, why does modern education seem to move further and further away from the goal? Perhaps some of the problem is identifying the means by which modern educators can irrigate deserts.
I have spent a good bit of time the past few years considering this question. What excites students about learning? What do I love so much about learning, and how can I pass this on to students? I think what I’ve found is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, and any multi-faceted answer will likely take extreme effort, creativity, and patience, making it difficult to stay the course until seeing results. One factor I have considered related to irrigating educational deserts is curiosity (read earlier post on Curiosity). Another factor is appreciation. Since education is mandated, it becomes for many merely a necessary chore rather than something that is seen as a gift. In earlier days, when education was not as readily available to all, most students likely had a greater appreciation for the opportunity they were receiving to learn. Today, such is not the case, and appreciation has often been replaced by feelings of entitlement.
Recently, I have been rereading Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and I was struck by the great example that Harry is of a positive view of education (well, in the example to follow at least). As the novel begins, Harry is reading his schoolbooks in the middle of the night, during summer vacation, taking care not to wake his aunt, uncle, and cousin, lest they find out that he has stolen his schoolbooks out of hiding so he could learn on summer vacation. Certainly Harry is not always the ideal student, but he frequently exhibits curiosity, appreciation, and joy with respect to this education. What can we do as classical Christian educators to help our students develop the type of love, joy, excitement, curiosity, and appreciation at learning that would lead them to schoolwork in the early morning hours of a summer day? Among many potential answers, it certainly must start with them believing that the education they are receiving will lead to a better life.
I plan to write more on this topic in the future, but for now I’m curious about your thoughts. How do you attempt to irrigate deserts? How do we instill appreciation and curiosity in students? How do we convince them of a Christian vision of the good life in the face of all of culture’s false alternatives?
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C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperOne, 2011), 13-14.