Reflections on the various dimensions of feminine vocation from liturgical homemaking and child rearing to education and the spiritual life.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Sayers and C. S. Lewis on Education

(This is the third in a series. Click here for the initial post and here for the second.)
In the brightness of C. S. Lewis's Narnia, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and other popular writings, it may be easy to forget that Lewis was, by profession, a scholar in medieval and renaissance literature. Beginning as a fellow and tutor at the appropriately-medieval Oxford, Lewis was eventually elected to the position of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge, as they say, "that new school." In any event, Lewis was quite sharp at his vocation, and he wrote the book on the Medieval model, (more than one, in fact) including a chapter on "The Seven Liberal Arts" in The Discarded Image.

But a couple decades before he wrote The Discarded Image, Lewis produced a small but potent book on education. In 1943, four years before his friend and colleague, Dorothy Sayers, gave her "Lost Tools" address, Lewis published The Abolition of Man originally subtitled, Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools. Rather than elucidate the medieval trivium or outline any specific plan of education, in Abolition of Man Lewis turns a laser-like spotlight on precisely the question that Adler left us with at the end of "Liberal Education—Theory and Practice": "how to overcome the weakness of the flesh on the part of both teachers and students."  

Both Adler and Lewis point to the reality that all the discursive reasoning powers in the world are not sufficient to protect one against the "animal organism" of appetite. Adler hints at it. Lewis cuts to the chase: If we embrace an "extreme rationalism" that fails to accept moral truths as the first principles of practical reason, what Lewis refers to as "the Tao," then the only path open to us (apart from suicide) is "wholly irrational behaviour," namely, obedience to impulse. 

Lewis recognized that more had gone awry in modern education than a simple straying from the liberal arts. Modern educational revisionists, such as the pervasively influential John Dewey, had challenged the very philosophical and anthropological foundations of education. Pragmatists, as they have been called, had rejected the traditional understanding of what it means to be human and to flourish. Some of the revisions they brought about were helpful. For example, Dewey did much to correct the view of the student as a passive absorber of didactic information. However, many pragmatists drew on empiricist and utilitarian schools of thought and rejected metaphysical realities including the existence of universal ethical truth and universal aesthetic value.

In opposition to empirical pragmatism, Lewis argues that an education that debunks traditional values, attitudes, and ethical sentiment in favor of such a misguided "rationalism" leaves students unequipped for human flourishing. Students raised on such a deficient educational model are likely to become "Men without Chests": "It is not excess of thought," writes Lewis, "but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary; it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so." 

In contrast, a fully human education requires attention to the entirety of the tripartite soul. Lewis explains it succinctly: "The head rules the belly through the chest." By head he means reason. By belly he means appetite. By chest he means "the seat . . . of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments." A well-ordered soul has habituated rationally-guided feeling-turned-sentiment. Such a well-ordered individual more easily avoids falling into base impulse or appetite and more reflexively chooses what is best and right. For example, if one feels strongly and persistently that one ought to give alms to the poor, it is more likely that one will be driven by that habit of thought and feeling to actually hand some cash to the beggar on the corner.

Perhaps we could speak of these "stable sentiments" as revealing or stemming from our basic attitudes toward the world. In contrast to those peripheral beliefs to which we give a mere token mental assent, sentiments direct our actions in practice. Because of the way a person views and feels about the world, she either is moved to give alms or is not.

In another way of looking at it, we could say that our sentiments align with what we habitually and affectively value. The Tao (the platitudes or first principles of practical reason), says Lewis, "is the sole source of all value judgements." If we truly value beautiful music, for example, we will be more likely both to pursue occasions to hear it and also to feel pleasure when we do.

These habits of acting and feeling, the value we ascribe, these come from sentiment or attitude.

In "Lost Tools," Sayers does not make any explicit reference to the necessity of imparting to students the values, attitudes, or proper sentiments that are constituent in the moral-rational-intellectual treasury of our human heritage. This is most likely because Sayers herself was standing firmly within the Tao and rightly assumed its existence as that within which we live and move and have our being.

Defending the ethic and aesthetic foundations of human life and thought was beyond the scope of Sayers short 1947 address. With prophetic vision, however, Lewis dedicated an entire book to the problems that result when curriculum designers neglect or reject axiological underpinnings.

Looking at Sayers' essay as in conversation with thinkers like Adler and Lewis allows us to gain a fuller picture of what education involves. With hints from Adler and freight-train-like insight from Lewis, we see that we must expand our educational goals. In addition to knowledge sets, communication skills, and intellectual habits, we need to aim for formation of sentiment—values, attitudes, habits of feeling and acting and appraising.

But how?

See the next post in the series here.

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