C. S. Lewis and Classical Education - Cardinal Newman Society

C. S. Lewis and Classical Education

Although largely eclipsed in the twentieth century by the rise of progressivism and essentialism, classical education was never without its defenders. There have ever been men and women who have loved, preserved, and defended the old and well-trod ways. Of these, one of the most prominent and influential has been C. S. Lewis (1898-1963),who presented to a straying world a coherent and classical vision of education without which civilization in the West cannot be expected to long endure.

Education as the Molding of Men

Lewis encapsulated the primary and especial purpose of true education in his essay “Our English Syllabus,” which he first presented to Oxford University’s English Society and later had published in a collection of his essays in 1939.[1] In the essay, he propagated education’s end, rather than as the filling of students’ heads with information or their muscles with habits, as the inculcation of virtue. Lewis held to the position of both Aristotle (384-322 B.C.) and John Milton (1608-1674) that education’s purpose is “to produce the good man and the good citizen.”[2] He emphasized that what was meant by “good” was more than the ethical sense of the word: “The ‘good man’ here means the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man, and almost the happy man.”[3] There is something inherently wrong or inordinate in every child that education is to set right. The student must be humanized or made human—not in the sense of the student becoming more of a “human” in fundamental being or ontology with a greater share in the dignity of humanity but in the sense of becoming holistically good and virtuous and thereby living nearer to the true and ultimate potential of his humanity, that potential for which he was created by God. The student is “an unregenerate little bundle of appetites which is to be kneaded and molded into human shape by one who knows better.”[4] Classical education assumes the doctrine of original sin. Man is not a creature naturally good whose appetites and impulses must be set free (progressivism), nor is he born a blank slate upon which can be written experience and knowledge that will do him either good or harm (essentialism). Man is born fallen and broken, naturally at odds with the goodness, truth, and beauty which he is to seek after and emulate.

The Right Ordering of the Affections

Lewis developed these concepts in his more widely known work The Abolition of Man, which he had originally presented as three addresses which he gave at the University of Durham for the fifteenth series of the Riddell Memorial Lectures in 1943.[5] In the book, Lewis pursued the concept of the rightful end of education as virtue itself, which is, according to the definition of Augustine of Hippo (354-430), the ordo amoris—literally the “order of affection.”[6] According to Lewis, the ordo amoris is “the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it.”[7] When a student’s affections are rightly ordered, he will respond justly to all that he encounters—instantly despising all that is corrupt and evil while recognizing and loving the good, the true, and the beautiful for what they are. Lewis believed that the world is filled with not merely objective entities and acts to be analyzed but things which deserve certain human responses to them. “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt.”[8]

Lewis had earlier spoken of this in “Our English Syllabus”:

With such an end in view [of producing the good man] education in most civilized communities has taken much the same path; it has taught civil behaviour by direct and indirect discipline, has awakened the logical faculty by mathematics or dialectic, and has endeavoured to produce right sentiments—which are to the passions what right habits are to the body—by steeping the pupil in the literature both sacred and profane on which the culture of the community is based.[9]

The task of education and the work of the teacher is to develop just affections or sentiments in the students, and in this duty, literature and story (both historical and fictional) act as essential means. The start of this education must precede the natural coming of the student’s ability to reason.[10] Such is not to say that just sentiments are formed antithetical to reason and must precede her to impede her influence.[11] Rather, the right ordering of the affections is in natural harmony and conformity with reason and prepares the student that he may recognize and receive reason upon her coming.[12]

[1]. C. S. Lewis, “Our English Syllabus,” in Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 79.

[2]. Ibid., 81.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Ibid., 83-84.

[5]. Walter Hooper, C. S. Lewis: A Complete Guide to His Life and Works (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996), 330; C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (London: Oxford University Press, 1943), 1.

[6]. C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools (1943; repr., New York: Macmillan, 1971), 26.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. Ibid., 25.

[9]. Lewis, “Our English Syllabus,” 81.

[10]. Lewis, Abolition of Man (1971), 26, 28.

[11]. Ibid., 29.

[12]. Ibid., 26, 27.

DANIEL K. HUBIN resides in the Nashville, Tenn., area where he studies education, history, and literature at Welch College. He earned the Eagle Scout Award in 2014 and currently teaches U.S. government and civics to homeschool students.

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