C. S. Lewis on the Modernization of Higher Education

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In sharp contrast with Lewis’ Platonism lies the Modernists’ materialism, whereby science pursues only material elements as reality or fact.  Modern science insists on objective inquiry, and at the same time denies the availability of objective truth in any value judgments.  At the core of Lewis’ Tao lies his doctrine of objective value-the assumption that values are truer than material things.  Lewis insists that certain attitudes or ideas are true and others are false.  He sees the goal of education as training the young to mature in the Way by engendering right attitudes and sentiments.  In The Abolition of Man, Lewis critiques Modernist education, that, in its quest to debunk sentimentalism, ends in creating men with heads but without chests-all intellect and no heart.  He goes further to state that the research agenda of the scientific method needs to be begun again-completely restarted-this time, set squarely on the foundation of the Tao by marrying fact with value from the outset.

Reformed Christian philosophers, from whom I received my training in philosophy of education, bring light to bear on the origins and impact of the fact-value split.  The successes of the scientific revolution that accompanied the Enlightenment led gradually to a drift away from the medieval worldview (Greene, 1998).  Scientists believed more and more in their power to control nature, and rejected religious thought as superstition from the Middle Ages.  They became materialists, believing in the results of their experiments rather than spiritual realities.  In this way, facts were divorced from their religious meaning and considered free of value judgments.  Education turned to the goals of commanding objective facts and achieving material success, eliminating the goal of learning how to judge the moral value of the knowledge and skills learned.

A cogent example of the effects of the fact-value split is a recent report on National Public Radio on dairy farming.  An American farmer was interviewed who had decided to stop separating his cows from their calves on the day of their birth.  He began to allow the mothers and calves to graze together until the calves were weaned.  He noted several salubrious effects: The mothers’ eyes were always on their calves; the mothers gave milk for twice as many years as previously; and the calves were healthier, with more bone mass, glossier coats, and brighter eyes, before they went up for sale.  To me, the most interesting aspect of the interview was the farmer’s amazement at the results.  He had thus far only known agribusiness techniques.  He had no idea how cows could thrive, rather than simply produce.  He had split the material fact that cows produce milk from its meaning: whether cow’s milk is meant for calves or humans.

The splitting away of value from matter has myriad implications for higher education.  After their Enlightenment divorce, the two sides look roughly like the following.  The hard sciences and many of the social sciences (Lewis includes economics prominently) are pursued primarily with the goal of economic development for both individuals and societies.  Their research agenda is positivist (or postpositivist), relying strongly on quantitative methods.  The materialist side believes that, to the extent that higher education can be made more productive through industrialization, it should.  One  example is the current promotion of academic entrepreneurialism, pushing individual researchers who win grant monies to forge joint projects with commercial industry.

The humanities, in contrast, tend to work more toward the goal of human development.  Their research agenda is more often constructivist and qualitative.  Their preferred form of organization is a learning community, such as a humanities honors residence hall.

Lewis was faced with a two-track career choice in academia.  Today, the system is tending to become one-track.  Even in higher education research, which is a multidisciplinary field, mentors advise their doctoral students to go into the dominant quantitative research track, because the bulk of prestigious research dollars go to studies that produce “real results,” rather than abstract, conceptual theories.

Just as dairy farms became agribusinesses, colleges and universities are becoming industrialized.  Gumport (2002) juxtaposes the thinking behind industrialization, which she calls industry logic, with social institution logic.  Industry logic is a description of the ways that those who run most for-profit businesses think.  A recent trend of hybridization is blurring the line of demarcation: For-profit folk are becoming distinctly socially responsible, and not-for-profit folk are becoming more entrepreneurial.  I personally favor hybridization to the extent that it serves the mission of an organization.  Still, the majority of people and organizations tend to self-describe as proponents of either of two logics.

My experience of industry logic in higher education resonates with Gumport’s analysis.  I would sum it up differently than she does, in that the main driver of an industry is profit-maximization.  Hence, industries internalize revenue-producing activities and externalize costs, focusing on short-term returns.  The results for higher education are, for example, increased hiring of adjunct instructors to reduce the cost of teaching,