C.S. Lewis Was Right About Education

Postmodern academia no longer searches for truth. Except in the physical sciences, objectivity is too often replaced with moral relativism, “critical theory,” and the “lived experience” of individual scholars. But none of this is new. It is an outgrowth of the cultural problems C.S. Lewis observed 75 years ago in one of his shortest and densest works: Abolition of Man.

Contemporary Perspectives on C.S. Lewis’ ‘The Abolition of Man’: History, Philosophy, Education, and Science, published by Bloomsbury, revisits this work to honor its 75th anniversary. Its point is to help digest Lewis’ heady work and remark on its enduring cultural relevance.

Contemporary Perspectives is divided into nine chapters, each written by a different C.S. Lewis enthusiast in a related field. These chapters cover philosophy, natural law, education, teaching English, political inclination, theology, science, techno-futurism, and how That Hideous Strength relates to Abolition of Man. The result is inconsistent but ultimately worth the read. Of particular significance are Lewis’ ideas about education.

In Abolition of Man, Lewis takes the pseudonymous The Green Book to task for dangerous ideas which he believes will have a catastrophic cultural impact, and which will create “men without chests.” The Green Book is a primary school textbook that teaches subjectivism. Lewis’ chief concern is that children will be taught to use their heads, but not have the character to make good choices as a result of the teaching its authors put forth. In this, Lewis was on point. In fact, Lewis’ cautions are even more needed today, as his warnings 75 years ago went largely unheeded. Now we find ourselves in the situation Lewis foresaw—men afraid of making moral judgments; people who will say “this is wrong/right for me, but who am I to say it is so for someone else?” When objective truth is rejected, all foundation for virtue disappears.

Nowhere is this problem more obvious than in higher education. Allen Bloom decried universities 30 years ago for behaving as “guilt-free zone[s] existing ‘beyond good and evil.’” Since then, universities have continued in the same direction. As David Clemens explained here, “It isn’t uncommon to hear professors claim, for example, that there is no objective truth because each person creates his own reality.” It is this attitude that allowed UNC-Chapel Hill to offer fake classes to student-athletes and then describe the outcome as “fair” when there was no punishment.

Mark Pike of the University of Leeds explains Lewis’ insight into this type of problem in the education chapter of Contemporary Perspectives. He does an excellent job of fleshing out Lewis’ ideas presented in Abolition of Man and making them easy to understand. He breaks down Lewis’ concerns, explains the difference between classical and modern values, and the way in which moral relativism devalues education.

This chapter also helps clarify what Lewis meant by “Tao” or “natural law.” Pike explains that although Lewis is well known as a Christian apologist, he does not argue for theism in Abolition of Man. Instead, he uses sources from different ancient and religious sources to make a case for humans being born with certain knowledge of right and wrong—of this natural law, this objective value being part of what makes us human and distinct from the animals. It is this concern—that modern education is ripping out this heart of man by teaching subjective truth—that Lewis, standing firmly in the tradition of Aristotle, finds so alarming, and which Pike highlights in this section on education.

Another aspect Pike tackles is the difference between inappropriate behavior and wrong character, an important distinction for Lewis and something that modern education often ignores. As professor Richard Cocks wrote last year for the Martin Center, “Students enter my classroom believing nothing is truly good or evil and that moral beliefs are the result of what society says.” Educating towards “tolerance” for immoral behavior is another concern for Lewis, and rightly so—a different professor notes, “well-meaning liberal teachers think they are…promoting ‘tolerance,’ but they are actually unintentionally producing moral nihilism in their students, leaving them with the moral compass of a psychopath.”

Overall, Contemporary Perspectives provides a modern, relevant look at a 75-year-old academic work—but only an overview. Almost every chapter feels like an introduction to something that needs to be fleshed out, but this book does not allow for that. Sadly, some chapters, such as the one on philosophy, read as a rehash of Lewis’ ideas without additional illumination. Other chapters, including the one on science, neatly apply Lewis’ timeless observations to modern problems.

For Lewis devotees, the book complements Lewis’ ideas in Abolition of Man. Some chapters feel like repeats, but others genuinely add a different dimension to Lewis’ arguments. At its best, the book showcases Lewis’ almost prophetic voice on the issue of subjective vs. objective truth, drawing from his different works to help flesh out important points.

In order to understand Contemporary Perspectives, reading Abolition of Man first is essential. Being familiar with Lewis’ other works before picking up the book would be an asset, but isn’t strictly necessary. The Ransom Trilogy by Lewis, particularly That Hideous Strength, would be the most relevant of Lewis’ other works to have read.

The biggest downfall of this collection is the inconsistency in layout and flow of the chapters. And, as in any compilation, the reader is often left wanting more. For those wanting a soft read on Lewis, this is not the book for you.

For those wanting academic essays on Lewis, this is a fitting tribute to the 75th anniversary of a great work. The book recognizes Lewis’ impressive foresight and reminds us of the continuing need to hear Lewis’ message. It would certainly be a worthwhile investment for contemporary academics and educators to read these Contemporary Perspectives on C.S. Lewis’ ‘Abolition of Man’. It is a valuable reminder that even after 75 years, Lewis’ observations on education are as relevant as ever.

  • InklingBooks

    Lewis was in good company in his day. A Catholic philosopher, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was an early intellectual critic of Nazism, making it on their arrest or murder list as early as the early 1920s. He fled Germany when Hitler took power and Austria after the German annexation.

    He wrote an unusual autobiography just for his wife to explain his experiences during that era. It’s unusual in that it presents a personal look at those he knew who either opposed Nazism with him or thought that an “arrangement” could be worked out. Because he never intended it to be published, he’s quite frank about the flaws of the compromisers. If you want to understand such people, his insights are quite helpful. It’s been published as:

    My Battle Against Hitler: Faith, Truth and Defiance in the Shadow of the Third Reich

    I bring him up because one of his primary points of contention with intellectual Nazism was its subjectivism. In the back of that book are some articles he wrote about that. Nazism was clearly in the “my country right or wrong camp” that G. K. Chesterton equated with “my mother, drunk or sober.” That Von Hildebrand opposed, although at times I found myself frustrated at his high level criticism. It’s very German professorial, filled with abstractions and assertions, unlike Chesterton’s “my mother” analogy. That said, there were those who needed just what he was saying. They needed a counter to the rabid German nationalism that had dominated German universities since at least th 1860s.

    In today’s context, you saw that in Hillary’s floundering attempts to get women to vote for her for no more reason than that she was a woman. That’s “my sex, right or wrong, my sex.” Fortunately, there was far too much wrong with Hillary for her to win.

    • Michael

      That does sound like a good book, InklingBooks! I’d like to check it out—thanks for the recommendation. Hopefully my local library will have it.

      It does seem a bit unfair to not point out the conversative demographic’s part in the “my mother, drunk or sober” argument, with their dedication to “anyone but Hillary, sexual offender or not, but anyone but Hillary”. That doesn’t excuse the liberal branch for using the same argument, but it does obscure some of the reality of the 2016 election and thus lend itself to painting an unbalanced unflattering portrait of a party/candidate you disliked.

  • Michael

    I enjoyed the review, Amanda! You may be interested in Derek Bok’s comments in the 1986-87 President’s Review (Harvard), where he discusses much of the same ideas as Lewis in the Abolition of Man.

  • redweather

    One defense of academia can be grounded in the history of ideas. At one time slavery was viewed as appropriate. Indentured servitude, a slightly more benign version of the same thing, was also sanctioned. A related notion had to do with women: they were considered little more than the chattel of their fathers and husbands. What happened? Well, at least in some parts of the world, views changed, i.e., new truths emerged. Slavery is no longer tolerated; women have rights equal to men.

    Decrying the relativism of postmodern academia has been quite popular for some time now. I’ve even engaged in it myself a time or two. But if we are looking for an ultimate truth, I’m afraid we will have to admit that moral judgments have always been subjective and relative. It seems to me Michel de Montaigne, writing way back in 1580, covered this in his essay “Of Cannibals.” Nothing new under the sun and all that.

  • Pyrthroes

    “Being exists is essence as Potential: Not in Being but Becoming lies the Way.

    “Education is what’s left when knowledge fails.

    “Truth is not what you discover, but what discovers you.”

  • DrOfnothing

    “Now we find ourselves in the situation Lewis foresaw—men afraid of making moral judgments [sic]; people who will say ‘this is wrong/right for me, but who am I to say it is so for someone else?” When objective truth is rejected, all foundation for virtue disappears.”

    I think you are conflating two very distinct cultural phenomenon here, postmodernism and moral relativism. The former is a strong part of a minority of topics taught in US HE (largely confined to English literature, Identity Studies, and Cultural Studies), but the latter is only tangentially relevant to higher education. “Values” certainly remain part of the Liberal Arts curriculum, they simply aren’t the 19th c. Christian values that C.S. Lewis advocated. Rather, they revolve around principles more appropriate for the cosmopolitan, post-industrial 21st century–compassion, tolerance, empathy, to name a few.

    The decline of “objective truth” has a much longer trajectory, dating back to the seminal thinkers from the 2nd half of the 19th c.–Einstein, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud chief among them. Postmodernism is simply the latest version of this widespread questioning of accepted authority in politics, arts, literature, etc that began in the reaction to Victorianism (i.e. Modernism). The most recent trends, for which “postmodernism” is a loose and not really helpful term, arose largely out of the destabilisation of language and the critical view of knowledge and authority fostered by pre- and post-war Continental cultural theory (Althusser, Derrida, Gramsci).

    Furthermore, to say that “except in the physical sciences, objectivity is too often replaced with moral relativism,” is akin to saying “no grocery stores, except Home Depot, stocks power drills any more.” No academic discipline, indeed, no intellectual activity, takes the teaching of morals as its central premise. Even the philosophical study of ethics deliberately refrains from making moral judgements, it simply evaluates difference systems of determining right and wrong. And, it’s worth noting, scientists do not seek “objective truth,” but rather test hypotheses against evidence in an attempt to seek more accurate explanations. Objective truth is, and always has been, a philosophical/metaphysical concept rather than one sought in the real world, in much the same way that a perfect circle is a mathematical idea rather than an architectural element. It can be sought, and we can develop new ways to come closer, but we never really reach it. We just come up with better explanations (and, occasionally, worse ones).

    Physics, btw, has made several key contributions to the undermining of objective truth (see the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle).