Becoming Fully Human: Education as Transformation in the Writings of C. S. Lewis and Paulo Freire

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Recently, two cultural analysts have written books that talk about the future of humanity. Thomas Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for the New York Times, in his book The World is Flat, explains many of the consequences of globalization on our world. In a recent meeting of the National Governor’s Association, he discussed advances in technology so powerful that anyone with a computer in Beijing or Bangalore can plug in and compete with anyone else in the world, and what will happen if we grow complacent in our education of today’s young people. Joel Garreau, a Washington Post Editor and cultural analyst, in Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing our Minds, Our Bodies, and What it means to be Human gives an overview of the implication of four technologies that are growing exponentially. He calls these technologies GRIN: Genetics, Robotics, Information, and Nanotechnology. He explains that these technologies are bringing the ability to enhance memory with pills or bioengineer our children or have robots fight our battles; outcomes of which can be what he describes as Heaven, Hell, or Prevail. What both these recent books bring to light as they define these incredible paradigm shifts is the need for a view of humanity that is rooted in ethics and values. In addition they pose questions about what we are doing in education to give the next generation the resources and stronghold of values they need to make sure that the growth in power of technology and science does not overwhelm our humanity.

Two authors of the 20th Century, Paulo Freire (Brazilian educator and educational philosopher) and C.S. Lewis (Oxford professor and Christian apologist), offer thoughtful answers to the question of how education must prepare our students for the challenges of the 21st Century by transforming their values. Paolo Freire is best known for his book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which is required reading in most schools of education both across America and internationally. The more I read and reread Freire, the more I have begun to see how his vision of education and Lewis’ view of education inform one another, challenge each other, and make each other more relevant and meaningful. My goal is to share with you a vision of education validated by C. S. Lewis and Paulo Freire, and to encourage all of us in the academy to live out that vision.

I will begin with an introduction to Paolo Freire’s life and work. Although in 1921 Paulo Freire was born into a middle class Brazilian family, due to unfortunate events, his family later became very poor. Because he was so hungry, he did not do well in school. He felt that he did poorly in school because of his relentless hunger, as he knew that he was not slow or uninterested in academics. Even at a young age, he realized that his social condition did not allow him to have an education and that other students who had more resources did better in school because they did not have the debilitating situation of daily hunger. Freire’s experience with extreme poverty, hunger, and need caused him to vow at a young age to try to make a difference in his country of Brazil so that others would not lose an education due to hunger.

As an adult educator, Freire earned respect for his revolutionary pedagogy. At the age of twenty-five, he was appointed to be Director of Education for a Brazilian company. In this role, he began to see that education in Brazil favored the rich and the elite, and ignored the needs of the working class and the poor. In fact, the poor were regularly cheated of their land and labor because they could not read or write. Freire therefore conceived a curriculum that would have the teachers enter the community where the workers lived, and invite them to participate in “cultural circles.” In these circles, everyone would discuss issues and problems in their communities. The teacher, in dialogue with the workers, would help the workers to identify problems that the people wanted to solve. Thus, a vocabulary would be developed—one that was essential to solving the problems and building an understanding between the workers and the major businesses. The development of this vocabulary would require the teachers to learn from the students as well as the students to learn from the teachers. Once the problems were codified and the vocabulary established, the people in the community would be motivated to learn these words in order to solve their problems. Freire’s plan was very successful: in one instance, three hundred farm workers were taught to read and write in just forty-five days. Cultural circles were being established throughout Brazil.

However, the empowerment of these formerly passive workers was ultimately too threatening to those in power. Following a political coup in 1964, Freire was not only ousted from his job, but also imprisoned for seventy days. When he was finally released from jail, he went into exile. Working in Chile, he published a book about his theories, and was invited to be a visiting professor at Harvard in 1969. As a way to encapsulate his ideas about education, Freire wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, which was published in 1970. This book brought Freire international acclaim, and he worked for educational reform for the World Council of Churches, in Guinea-Bissau, and in other places.

Eventually, fifteen years after his imprisonment, Freire returned to Brazil, where he was appointed the Minister of Education for San Paulo. This position evolved into the Paulo Friere Institute, which champions educational reform around the world to this day. He died in 1997, but is seen as a wise champion of education for all. His work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, is often viewed as a neo-Marxist text, but its powerful convergences with Lewis’ view of education, especially as presented in The Abolition of Man, has been generally overlooked or ignored.

The early life of Lewis also has parallels with the life of Freire. For Lewis, the death of his mother when he was nine was a supreme emotional loss that may have influenced his adoption of an atheist stance during his years as a student. Some critics have argued that it was ultimately Lewis’ perception that God refused to heal his mother of cancer that spurred his adoption of atheism as much as his tutoring by William Kirkpatrick. At the age of eighteen, Lewis would write in a letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, “All religions, that is all mythologies, to give them their proper name, are merely man’s own invention” (qtd. in Green and Hooper 48). Indeed, Lewis’ later acceptance of God and Christianity was also reconciliation with the God who did not intervene in his mother’s illness. The reconciliation is more powerfully shown in The Magician’s Nephew, when Digory asks Aslan to help his dying mother:

But please, please– won’t you—can’t you give more something that will cure Mother?” Up till then he had been looking on the Lion’s great feet and the huge claws on them; now, in his despair, he looked up at its face. What he saw surprised him as much as anything in his whole life. For the tawny face was bent down near his own and (wonder of wonders) such great shining tears stood in the Lion’s eyes. They were such big, bright tear compared with Digory’s own that for a moment he felt as if the Lion must really be sorrier about his Mother than he was himself. (168)

Clearly, childhood trauma had a major impact on both Lewis and Freire, causing them to find a life work that answered the issues brought up by this intense suffering in childhood. This trauma was the start of their calling to influence their world for the better, and to examine how education needs to be a central component of our humanization.

Before showing a way for education to be humanizing, both Freire and Lewis expound on the dehumanizing tendencies of our culture. Freire experienced hunger and poverty as dehumanizing. Dehumanization occurs when those who are in the dominant class do not value the humanity of those they oppress. He says, “For the oppressors, ‘human beings’ refers only to themselves; other people are things” (Freire 57). Freire notes how we dehumanize the oppressed and can remain blind to their needs by our terms of reference, calling them “those people,” or “ the blind and envious masses,” or “savages,” or “natives,” or “Subversives” who are “violent, barbaric, wicked, or ferocious” (56). I see similar terms given to others today, including the terms “sub-groups” or “thugs.” When one human can see another as a non-living entity, both the oppressor and the oppressed are dehumanized—and humanity is on the road to abolition. Lewis agrees as he says in The Abolition of Man, “Once we killed bad men, now we liquidate unsocial elements” (74). Continuing his argument, Lewis warns his readers about the dehumanizing effects of science: “Man’s conquest of himself means simply the rule of the conditioners over the conditioned human material [whom Freire would call the oppressed] the world of post-humanity which, some knowingly and some unknowingly, nearly all men in all nations are at present laboring to produce” (75).

In the crux of his text, Lewis notes what happens when humans do not value the humanity of others, “They are not men at all. Stepping outside the Tao, they have stepped into the void. Nor are their subjects necessarily unhappy men. They are not men at all; they are artifacts. Man’s final conquest as proved to be the abolition of Man” (64).

Both Freire and Lewis realize that the power to control others not only strips the oppressed of humanity, it dehumanizes the oppressor as well. Freire says, “Dehumanization, which marks not only those whose humanity has been stolen, but also (though in a different way) those who have stolen it, is a distortion of the vocation of becoming more fully human” (44). Lewis calls this pattern of dehumanization a Magician’s Bargain: “Give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls” (72).

Both Lewis and Freire offer an antidote to the dehumanizing forces in our culture: the reform of education. In Lewis, this is indicated initially in the extended title of his book, The Abolition of Man: Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools. As for Freire, after he expounds upon the necromancy of oppression, he offers a powerful solution in the methodology of education. This methodology affirms the personhood and value of the student through authentic dialogue between the student and teacher, who both seek answers to problems based on the felt needs of the students.

According to Freire, humanization only comes through dialogue. He says, “Dialogue is the encounter between men, mediated by the world, in order to name the world” (88). Dialogue is explained using Martin Buber’s I–Thou Relationship. Freire explains:

In the dialogical theory of action, Subjects meet in cooperation in order to transform the world. The anti-dialogical, dominating I transforms the dominated, conquered thou into a mere it. The dialogical I, however, knows that it is precisely the thou (“not-I”) which has called forth his or her own existence. He also knows that the thou which calls forth his own existence in turn constitutes an I which has in his I its thou. The I and the thou thus become, in the dialectic of these relationships, two thous which become two I’s. (167)

Freire explains this complex ontology more simply, “I cannot exist without a non-I. In turn, the not-I depends on that existence” (82). Similarly, Lewis notes, “The regenerate science which I have in mind would not do even to minerals and vegetables what modern science threatens to do to man himself.…While studying the It it would not lose what Martin Buber calls the Thou-situation” (79). Affirming the human essence of the other in dialogical relationship is key to achieving full personhood, full humanity. Thus, education must affirm the I–Thou relationship to be humanizing.

For Freire, the Dialogical I–Thou relationship is embedded in an unquestioned ethic that mirrors the Tao codified by Lewis. Freire states, “Dialogue cannot exist, however, in the absence of a profound love for the world and for people. The naming of the world, which is an act of creation and recreation, is not possible if not infused with love.” He continues, “If I do not love the world—if I do not love life—if I do not love people—I cannot enter into dialogue” (89). This Freirian absolute correlates directly with Lewis’ first law of the Tao, The Law of General Beneficence.

Freire’s philosophy of education includes a second antidote for the abolition of man—dialogue between student and teacher that is infused with faith. Freire says, “Dialogue further requires an intense faith in humankind, faith in their power to make and remake, to create and re-create, faith in their vocation to be more fully human. Faith in people is an a Priori requirement for dialogue. The ‘dialogical man’ believes in others even before he meets them face to face” (91). It is vibrantly clear that Freire’s call to faith in the other person correlates to Lewis’ sixth law of the Tao, The Law of Good Faith and Veracity.

Finally, Freire defines dialogue as the only way to bring about social justice. This is because dialogue is powered by hope. Freire says, “Nor yet can dialogue exist without hope…. The dehumanization resulting from an unjust order is not a cause for despair but for hope, leading to the incessant pursuit of the humanity denied by injustice” (92). Freire’s vision for the betterment of humanity correlates directly with Lewis’ codification of the Tao for the Fifth Law of Justice, the Seventh Law of Mercy, and the Eighth Law of Magnanimity. In complete alignment with Lewis, Freire says:

….true solidarity with the oppressed means fighting at their side to transform the objective reality which has made them these “beings for another.” The teacher is in solidarity with the oppressed only when he stops regarding the oppressed as an abstract category and sees them a persons who have been unjustly dealt with, deprived of their voice, cheated in the sale of their labor—when he….risks an act of love. True solidarity is found only in the plenitude of this act of love, in is existentiality, it its praxis. (49-50)

In conclusion, it is clear that both C.S. Lewis and Paulo Freire understood how critical it is to have an education based on a clear code of morality, for only education founded on this code can transform an individual. Indeed, the consequence of abandoning this code is the dehumanization of humankind. Lewis offers to Freire, to Friedman and Garreau, to all of us, a clear statement of the essence of the Natural Law, the Tao, along with warnings of what will happen if our culture and if our education abandons the Tao. Freire offers to us a methodology of education that is a true extension of the Tao, authentic dialogue, which humanizes the learner. This dialogue is in contrast to a very common methodology, which Freire terms the banking concept of education, where students are containers, and where knowledge is deposited by the teacher into ignorant students who know nothing; this is, essentially, a dehumanizing methodology that turns students into “automatons.” He says, “Verbalistic lessons, reading requirements, the methods for evaluating ‘knowledge,’ the distance between the teacher and the taught, the criteria for promotion: everything in this ready-to-wear approach serves to obviate thinking” (76).

The challenge for us in the academy who are passionate about education, is to live out the values of the Tao ourselves, and to live out Micah 6:8: “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (NIV).

The second challenge is to model I–Thou dialogue with our students. We must value their input and become teacher students of our student teachers. Too often we adopt a banking view of education ourselves, forgetting that telling is not learning.

The third challenge is to resist, with wisdom, the tremendous pressures of accountability in education that values banking knowledge, tests, scores, and ranks over guiding our students to be thinking, reasoning, and valuing beings. We need to wisely resist the educational pressure to make science and technology preeminent over instilling character and core values. We need Lewis’ Tao and regenerate science. Then we will begin to have the necessary prerequisites, with the grace of God, to resist the potentially downward spiral of dehumanization that continues to challenge our walk and work today.

This paper was presented at the C. S. Lewis Foundation’s triennial Summer Institute, Oxbridge, in the summer of 2005.

Works Cited
Freire, Paulo. Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum, 1970.

Friedman, Thomas L. The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005.

Garreau, Joel. Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies, and What It Means to Be Human. New York: Doubleday, 2005.

Lewis, Clive S. The Abolition of Man. San Francisco: Harper, 1944.

_____. The Magician’s Nephew. London: Grafton, 1955.

Green, Roger L. & Hooper, Walter. C. S. Lewis: A Biography. San Diego: Harcourt,