C. S. Lewis on the Modernization of Higher Education

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The body of C.S. Lewis’ work, from his essays to his fiction, plumbs key problems caused in higher education by Modernists.  In both The Screwtape Letters and The Abolition of Man, he delineates the devolution of human souls deprived of meaning and dependent only on material fact.   In the third book of his science fiction trilogy, That Hideous Strength, he creates vivid scenes of battle between two warring factions, the Progressives versus the obstructionists, at the fictional Bracton College.  His essays and fiction consistently present his belief that the Modernist agenda is founded on a bankrupt philosophy for which its ultimate end is little more than a struggle for power.

One element of the bankruptcy of Modernism, according to Lewis in Surprised by Joy, is chronological snobbery.  According to chronological snobbery, any idea that is not accepted in the current intellectual climate is out of date, and any out-of-date idea is discredited by what came after it, and cannot be true.  He also discusses this tendency in academics in terms of the Historical Point of View in The Screwtape Letters.  It can manifest itself in daily life as the horror of the Same Old Thing, also described in Screwtape.  In the Historical Point of View, any idea that goes against the modern current is the Same Old Thing, out of Fashion, and judged to be wrong on that account alone, rather than on its own merits of truth, righteousness, or prudence.

As a scholar of classical and medieval thought, Lewis critiqued the relentless Modernist bias in education.  His own education in the early twentieth century in England was classical.  At that time, students chose between two discrete tracks: classical or scientific.  His difficulty in passing Oxford’s mathematics requirement (Swift, 1989) might lead one to assume that he rejected the quantitative scientific methods that he could not himself exploit, but the same biography describes his marvelous acuity in logic, learned from his favorite tutor.  The left-brain skills of the scientific track include careful, sequential logic, which Lewis possessed in spades.  He also excelled in the right-brain holistic thinking needed for philosophical and other work in the humanities.

Chad Walsh describes Lewis’ balanced gifts in The Visionary Christian (1981).  According to Walsh, “Lewis number 1” is the careful logician, who hones in on fallacies and shows them for what they are, including in his own thought (p. xiv).  “Lewis number 2” (p. xv) builds imaginary worlds in his Narnia series, and an entire solar system spinning around Arbol in his science fiction.  In Perelandra, he describes the Great Dance in ways that forever deepen our own visions of time and eternity.  His balanced thinking has contributed over the course of his career to both tracks, but, faced with the binary choice between classical or scientific education, his long-held love of myth pulled him inexorably to the humanities for his university training.

Lewis, using his marvelously balanced brain, helps us to understand why the split into two educational tracks is artificial and imposes many unintended negative consequences on learners and on societies being educated in a bifurcated manner.  These negative results begin with the tearing in two of a Creation made whole.  Lewis prophecies the ultimate conclusion of Modernism in That Hideous Strength. A meeting of the fellows of Bracton College is assembled to respond to an offer by N.I.C.E., the Progressive institute, to buy unused college land.  At this key turning point, junior fellow Mark Studdock is so impressed with the stunning political stratagems of the Progressive faction that he scarcely notices how badly Jewel, an elderly don, is treated.  Lewis notes that the collegial ethos required fellows to listen respectfully to senior dons, but Jewel’s frail voice is ignored, interrupted, then abruptly cut off.  The ensuing decision to sell college land at a high profit leads to the loss of their priceless Merlin’s Well, with further dire consequences for Bracton College and human society.

Lewis does more than prophesy against Modernism.  He offers an alternative.  In The Abolition of Man, Lewis surfaces his response to Modernist chronological snobbery in a body of ideals which he terms the Tao, or the Way, named after the ancient Chinese philosophical and religious system.  Here, like the good Platonist that he is, he describes how truth does not vary over time, nor across civilizations.  He pulls together parallel proverbs from Judeo-Christian, Confucian, Hindi, and Classical sources into an appendix at the end of The Abolition of Man. These include the Golden Rule and other rules of righteous living.

(When presented with Lewis’ Tao, a Christian cannot help asking: Is Lewis’ Tao a synchretic or universalist approach?  I think not, on two bases.  First, the body of Lewis’ thought sets forth biblical Christian thought as the greater Truth behind all other, smaller truths.  For example, Lewis sees the Classical injunction to not mistreat others as you would not wish to be mistreated as a negative and inferior form of the Christian rule to love others as you love yourself.  Second, also in The Abolition of Man, he gives a summary statement regarding the Tao that there may have been only one human civilization to begin with-the Tao.  For Lewis, that one civilization is, in essence, that of biblical revelation.)