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  According to chronological snobbery, any idea that is not accepted in the current intellectual climate is out of date, and any out-of-date idea is discredited by what came after it, and cannot be true.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.)

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, and promotion of faculty researchers who garner outside grant monies. Students are consumers in the higher education industry.  Research agendas tend toward that which can be most readily commercialized for profit.  The desired outcome of higher education as an industry is a bigger bang for the buck of taxpayer money, through productivity and efficiency, all toward economic development and personal success.  Lewis’ Progressives follow industry logic to its ultimate ends of money and power, and to its ultimate conclusion of a brutal hand-to-hand struggle to dominate.

Higher education began as a social institution rooted in the medieval church.  The main driving impetus of a social institution is to benefit society in the long term for coming generations. Long-term social benefits are at essence externalities that are hard to encapsulate for profit, such as informed citizens, wellness, cross-cultural awareness.  Students are treated as members of a learning community.  Learning is valued for its own sake.  Non-profit managers tend to honor their donors by using resources with good stewardship, often at personal sacrifice, inspiring participation through their ethos.  Original research is pursued for the sake of inquiry.  Desired outcomes are the fruition and wholeness of persons and of society.  As a scholar of medieval literature, Lewis could bask in the traditions that formed higher education.

Any scholar of higher education, that is, one who specializes in the history, purpose, governance, and organization of higher education, knows that today the current is flowing strongly in the direction of industrialization (Altbach, 2001: Duderstadt, 2000; Jongbloed, 2007).  In Europe and North America, governments’ standing commitments to social security, health, and defense demand an increasing share of public funds.  Higher education is seen as a discretionary current public expense, despite its key role in shaping the future (Johnstone, 1989).  Tighter public funding has brought about the accountability movement, whereby higher education institutions are expected to account for their use of taxpayer money in terms of an expected return on investment (Jongbloed, 2007).  Tighter funding, in tandem with rising technology and administrative costs, has led to rising tuition, including the introduction of tuition in countries with long histories of full subsidization.  Because student loans have become the solution to the tuition problem, to rationalize their rising debt, students themselves have become more consumerist.

Massification, or the mass expansion of educational opportunity, brought more students into the higher education sector.  In a globalized economy, the ultimate effect of such a mass market is the commodification of higher education-that is, an accounting course will serve the same ends whether it is earned in Brussels or Palermo.  The Bologna Process in Europe is a voluntary effort by higher education leaders and ministries of education to harmonize their national systems, such that credits and degrees can transfer across borders (Stocktaking, 2007; Witte, 2006).  The current phase of discussion envisions a Europe in which each degree is defined in terms of the skills expected by a graduate (www.insidehighered, 2008). [See works cited for full hyperlink] Skills are easier to encapsulate for the sciences and professions than for the humanities and other interdisciplinary studies.  I doubt that Lewis would welcome the application of outcomes-based assessment, because such a checklist approach readily resorts to quantitative methods under a materialist perspective.  I disagree in part with Lewis here, in that I believe that it is possible to perform effective assessment in the humanities and even in the spiritual formation of students (my research area).  With Lewis, I do remain concerned, however, that it is all too expedient to quantify by omitting outcomes that are as complex as they are important.

I see two reasons to hope along with Lewis that we may avoid the ultimate materialist conclusion for higher education.  First, it can be avoided by steering toward a not-for-profit structure and ethos.  The current trend of hybridization, also called social entrepreneurship, is moving for-profits toward a not-for-profit orientation.  As an example of a not-for-profit organization, I offer as a specific case my own institution.  Calvin College was founded in 1876 by the Christian Reformed Church to train pastors, and later teachers.  Today the college serves as a comprehensive liberal arts college.  Funding came originally from denominational sources.  A religious community valued education highly enough to sacrifice of their substance.

Religious education has unique attributes in the current higher education environment, which may promote its survival.  Its denominational funding base drives the religious nature of its mission.  The mission of religious education is to tie meaning with material facts in ways that value and judgment can be explored, taught, and researched.  Its research agenda is pursued based on common religious beliefs that form a shared philosophy (or Tao).  The ethos of both individuals and the learning community is couched in the Tao.  In these ways, religiously-integrated higher education is seated on the right side of the picture, opposing stark materialism, yet embracing all of material Creation.

Second, the ultimate materialist conclusion may be averted by the evolution of the economy itself.  We forget that we are the economy, whole persons that we are.  Futurist Daniel Pink’s bestselling book A Whole New Mind outlines what he sees as the evolution of the global economy toward a higher place for right-brain work.  He traces this evolution to three forces: abundance, Asia, and automation.

Western consumers, living in abundance, will differentiate products not on the bases of price or utility, which are flattening globally, but on the basis of meaning.  In an economy of abundance, where we can easily purchase the quality we want, the product that tells a compelling story will sell.  People like Lewis, who understand myth, narrative, and imagination will enhance the products of the next economy.  Pink’s Asia theme is about outsourcing.  Any work that can be outsourced will be outsourced.  Only high-touch, relational work will stay in the West.  His automation theme is similar-any work than can be done by computers will be automated.  Only work that requires a right brain will remain.

Right-brain thinking is holistic, intuitive and nonlinear.  Left-brain thinking is logical, sequential, and computer-like.  Both halves of the brain are meant to work together.  Lewis had both in fluid connection.  The attractiveness of his thinking processes has delighted his hearers and readers for decades, perhaps because he is working from both sides of the human cognitive experience.  It is wonderful to imagine an economy that will value and fund such thinking.  I have in mind students I have encountered whose beautiful gifts seemed so out of place in this world, and are perhaps meant only for the next.  In a right-brain economy, these creative thinkers would snatch the plum jobs months before graduation.

On the other hand, it is frightening to imagine a profit-maximizing economy that would simply exploit such gifts.  The divorced parties, industry and social institutions, can only remarry through a reconciliation of both their missions.  Industrialization, if it comes to dominate higher education, would teach and model its worldview.  The ideology that acquires a foothold in higher education will form the thinking of future generations. In the physical and spiritual battle waged against the Progressives at Bracton College, Lewis saw all of this at stake.

The fact-value split of the Enlightenment set materialism and idealism in opposition.  The two camps have fought out their war of ideology ever since.  It seems a silly quarrel when we realize that, in reality, facts can never exist without meaning.  The importance of doing scientific work itself relies on human reasoning being more meaningful than the mere physical transfer of electric impulses in the brain.  Lewis points to this core fallacy of scientism in The Abolition of Man and in his science fiction trilogy.  When he realized the complete philosophical bankruptcy of scientism, he abandoned it to accept Christianity.  Christian thought, especially as expressed by Lewis, explores a universe rich in meaning.

For these reasons, I believe that Christian thought is essential for the healing of the divorce between material and its value.  The two are married and always have been, whether or not men paused to read the banns.  It might require a right-brain turn in the economy to induce higher education to return to the wedding feast.  Institutions of higher education can return to the feast by educating whole persons, using both sides of their brains, on the whole of created reality.

Works Cited

Altbach, P. G. (2001). The American academic model in comparative perspective. In P. G. Altbach, P. J. Gumport, & D. B. Johnstone ; (Eds.), In defense of American higher education (pp. 11-37). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Duderstadt, J. J. (2000). A university for the 21st century. Ann Arbor, MI: The University of Michigan Press.

Gumport, P.J. (2002). Universities and Knowledge: Restructuring the City of Intellect. In Brint, S. (Ed.), The Future of the City of Intellect (pp. 47-81). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Greene, A.E. (1998).  Reclaiming the Future of Christian Education. Colorado Springs: Association of Christian Schools International.

Jaschik, S. (2008).  Wake-up call for American higher ed. Retrieved on May 21, 2008 from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/05/21/bologna.

Johnstone, D. B. (1989). The costs of higher education: An essay on the comparative financing of universities. Buffalo, NY: SUNY Buffalo Comparative Education Center.

Jongbloed, B. (2007). On governance, accountability, and the evaluative state. In Enders, J. & van Vught, F. (Eds.), Towards a cartography of higher education policy change. CHEPS: Enschede, Netherlands.

Lewis, C.S. (1944).  Perelandra. New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C.S. (1946).  That Hideous Strength. New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C.S. (1947).  The Abolition of Man.  New York: Macmillan.

Lewis, C.S. (1976).  The Screwtape Letters. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Pink, D.H. (2005).  A Whole New Mind. New York: Penguin.

Stocktaking in the Bologna Process (2007). Annual report by the Bologna Process, accessed online 11/15/2007.

Swift, C. (1989).  C.S. Lewis. Minneapolis: Bethany.

Walsh, C. (1981).  The Visionary Christian. New York: Macmillan.

Witte, J. (2006). Changes of degree and degrees of change: Comparing adaptations of european higher education systems in the context of the bologna process. CHEPS: University of Twente, Netherlands.