The Abolition of Education: A Warning from C.S. Lewis

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By Steve Turley, Tall Oaks Classical School and Eastern University

TurleyTalks.com

abolition of man 2There is no doubt that the 1940s constituted a most historically formidable decade: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, WWII, the advent of the Atomic bomb, the transformation of the U.S. into a global super power, the establishment of NATO, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Yet among these notable events one rarely if ever comes across the inclusion of a small book, published in 1944, critiquing the state of British education. The book was entitled The Abolition of Man, and its author was one of the great literary minds of the twentieth-century, the renowned Oxford and Cambridge scholar, C.S. Lewis. In what is perhaps the single most significant analysis of the modern age published in the twentieth-century, Lewis in less than 100 pages outlines what Prof. Peter Kreeft calls a terrifying prophecy of mortality, not just the mortality of modern western civilization, but the mortality of human nature itself.

Lewis was concerned that the modern age represented a totalizing civilizational project that cut the human person off from what he called the Tao, the doctrine of transcendent values, and thereby redefined the human person in starkly modern terms. According to Lewis, classical men, as he would call those who lived before the mid-nineteenth century, were preoccupied with the fundamental question: “How do we conform our souls to the divine meaning and purpose embedded in the world around us?” The answer was through prayer, virtue, and wisdom. However, for modern men, the question is inverted; modern men ask: “How do we conform the meaningless world around us to our own desires and ambitions?” The answer involves tapping into those institutions that operate by the mechanisms of power and manipulation: science, technology, and the secular state.

Lewis believed that as modern education was an extension of this secularizing project, it was in fact conditioning students into a radically new conception of what it meant to be human. Historically speaking, education was fundamentally about virtue formation, and virtue involved loving what’s truly lovely and desiring what’s truly desirable, which led to human flourishing. Virtue is what Augustine referred to as ordered loves, which involves learning to rightly align our affections with God’s economy of goods. For example, it’s good to love a baby and it’s good to love a ham sandwich; but if both the baby and ham sandwich were at the same time falling and I rushed to save the ham sandwich, something is wrong with my loves. The order of my affections and desires has been dislodged from God’s economy of goods. This is what Augustine meant by rightly ordering our loves, and here he’s drawing from a similar tradition as Aristotle, who defines education as teaching the student to like and dislike what he ought.

What concerns Lewis so much is that if modern education were to effectually redefine transcendental values – the True, the Good, and the Beautiful – out of existence, and if all that we find in the world around us were reducible to biology, chemistry, and physics, then modern education is no longer able to cultivate virtue in our students. And this is precisely because virtue is all about ordering our loves in accordance with God’s economy of goods. But if there were no economy of goods objective to the knower, then there’s no longer any transcendent basis for ordering our loves. And so, modern education inexorably perpetuates a mechanistic vision of the world comprised of scientifically inspired control over nature devoid of virtue and wisdom.

And so, Lewis believed that modern education was inherently an anti-human education; it robbed us of the transcendent values that formed and shaped our loves and, as such, shaped our humanity. It was only by recovering the doctrine of objective values that we could overcome this de-humanizing social trajectory. And it is precisely just such a recovery that the renewal of classical education represents.

1608739734It’s a brilliant argument on the part of Lewis, and he gets even deeper than what I presented; but in its original form, the book is rather difficult reading. To help as many as possible understand, act on, and communicate his argument, I wrote a small book entitled Classical vs. Modern Education: A Vision from C.S. Lewis, available on Amazon Kindle and (soon) paperback. It’s a primer that walks you through the argument in a step-by-step fashion which makes it much easier to grasp. I certainly hope it blesses you, and I’d appreciate any feedback you have on it.

 

Steve Turley is an internationally recognized scholar, speaker, and blogger at TurleyTalks.com. He is the author of Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Dr. Turley is a teacher of Theology and Rhetoric at Tall Oaks Classical School in Bear, Delaware, and professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University in St. Davids, PA.

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