C.S. Lewis had a privileged education: his parents were well educated and provided him with a home environment of books and discussions; his schools were private, as were his tutors, and his university was elite. There he studied philosophy, the classics, philology and mythology. He learned to read Greek and Latin at a young age and was literate in German, Italian, French and Old Norse, to say nothing of his abilities in Old and Middle English. He did not consider himself a good language learner, as far as speaking the modern languages was concerned.
In his book C.S. Lewis: An apologist for education (2015, Classical Academic Press, Camp Hill, PA), Louis Markos summarizes the education of Lewis, Lewis’s thoughts on education, and what educators can learn from him.
Lewis became famous through his broadcast talks during WWII, his commanding presence at the Oxford Socratic Club and his interaction with the “Inklings”, fellow literary intellectuals that met regularly at an Oxford pub.
Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man (1944, HarperCollins) is aptly subtitled “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”. Markos states that “Lewis argues, it is through our chest that we are most distinctly human, for our head points us upward toward the angels while our belly draws us downward toward the beasts” (34). And it is men who are irresponsible for teaching virtue that are “men without chests”. These were the authors of what Lewis called The Green Book. “Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so” (25).
Lewis distinguished between the “old” kind of education and the “new” because “the old was kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda” (23). They, and here Lewis is referring to what he calls the ‘Conditioners’, “are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, [the universal moral code] they have stepped into the void….They are not men at all: they are arefacts. Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man” (64).
In an essay called “On the transmission of Christianity” (Chapter 13 in God in the dock: Essays on theology and ethics, edited by Walter Hooper, Eerdmans, 1970), Lewis warns us that “The young people today are un-Christian because their teachers have been either unwilling or unable to transmit Christianity to them” (115). And further, “No generation can bequeath to it successor what i has not got” (116) and that cynicism and disillusion are part of the mind of modern man. But the cure is not in altering curricula in schools because the teachers will only teach what they have learned and their learning has not been centered on virtues. Further, it would do no good “to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers [because] we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening thereby the pupils’ hearts” (118).
Although Lewis was a renowned university professor (at Cambridge), he was also willing to teach children about grammar and writing. We see this best in the book edited by Lyle W. Dorsett and Marjorie Lam Mead called “C.S. Lewis letters to children (Macmillan, 1985). For example, in a letter to “Joan” in 1956 he gives his thoughts on “Good English”, including five particular instructions on writing (pp.63-64) and in a letter to “Martin” he explains what a pentameter is in poetry (p. 84).
In another book (C.S. Lewis on stories and other essays on literature, edited by Walter Hooper and published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1966, 1982), Lewis has an essay called “On three ways of writing for children”. He reminds us that “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can only like when you are waltzing is a bad waltz” (33). Lewis believed that good thoughts came from good stories and he was “with the human race against the modern reformer” who wished to revise the fantasies (39). Education was present in the fairy stories as well. The storyteller is of course an educator and “indeed everything in the story should arise from the whole cast of the author’s mind” (42). This is why it is so crucial that the educator have a mind that includes notions of virtue and the Tao.
Markos also reminds us that educators that want to promote virtue and wisdom in their schools will “often look to Lewis as a mentor and forerunner” (40).
Joel D. Heck (2005, Irrigating deserts: C.S. Lewis on education, Concordia Academic Press) not only chronicles the life of Lewis as a student and teacher, but also gives us Lewis’s views on education. In keeping with the title of his book, he says that “the task of education is to irrigate deserts; however, the purpose of education is to produce the good citizen….Lewis believed that the purpose of the university is to advocate learning rather than education, knowledge…rather than skills…” (28).
We have already indicated how the Tao was central in Lewis’s thinking on education. But also significant in his writings on education are matters of egalitarianism (democratic, with all students equal and no one made to feel inferior), athletic competition (his least favorite subject), discipline (he supported corporal punishment), the inner ring (which he opposed), and amateur philosophers (who seemed to rule the curricula) who had no time for the classics.
Lewis believed that we should read the old books, not trusting the modern ones to deal honestly with history. And if books are helpful, we should read them more than once!
Modern educators are pragmatic: they want their students to do well enough to get good jobs and make good money. They are less interested in students learning about virtue and vice, believing that bringing God into the classroom leaves less room for science and, especially, the philosophical tenants of evolution, which pervade the public schools. They, for the most part, will unfortunately not be reading Lewis’s thoughts on education. It is to their peril.