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

Monday, July 7, 2014

Sayers and C. S. Lewis on Education, continued

In the previous three posts (1, 2, 3), we've identified several goals of a classical liberal arts education. We've noted that students should acquire organized knowledge of language as well as an understanding of a wealth of interdisciplinary subject matter.  We've also seen that there are certain essential skills that a student should master: A student should learn to listen, speak, read, write, and think well. Additionally, we've seen, with help from C. S. Lewis, that students ought to develop good habits of feeling and valuing—what he terms "sentiments."

We've touched briefly on a variety of approaches for developing knowledge and intellectual habits, but how are we as parents and educators to assist students in developing habits of sentiment?

Perhaps Sayers did not discuss values, attitudes, or sentiment because she knew what Lewis knew from Aristotle, namely, "that only those who have been well brought up can usefully study ethics." If the parents or initial caregivers do not establish a wholesome atmosphere and convey ethical attitudes and habits to a child from the cradle, no amount of scholastic study will make that child moral.

On the other hand, in undertaking the writing of Abolition of Man, Lewis demonstrates hope that by changing how we educate we might encourage (or at least avoid discouraging) proper sentiment.

Lewis doesn't say how exactly we might go about an education that engenders right sentiment, but he does give some hints.

First, Lewis observes that, barring an omnipotent state, personal autonomy allows individuals the freedom to discover and determine for themselves who they will be, what they will value, and how they will live. In the face of absurd theoretical schemes of education, Lewis thanks, "the beneficent obstinacy of real mothers, real nurses, and (above all) real children for preserving the human race in such sanity as it still possesses." When we acknowledge and respect the autonomy and free-will of children, we create an appropriate environment for the development of noble sentiment.

Second, Lewis commends a system of child-rearing and educating wherein the teachers' aims and motives are themselves directed by the first principles, what Lewis calls, for shorthand, "the Tao." To rightly approach sentiment formation in the young, teachers must see the student not as a project or an experiment to control but rather as a fellow initiate "into the mystery of humanity which over-arches him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly."

Old birds fly before teaching young birds to fly. Likewise the first step to engendering virtuous sentiment in one's student is to develop it in oneself. We teach the mystery by living the mystery, by modeling more than by instructing in any pedantic way.

In other places (notably, "On Stories" and, in the same collection, "On Three Ways of Writing for Children"), Lewis extends the idea of modeling and initiation when he describes the power of story to engender proper sentiment. Stories provide models for the reader to imitate, but they also give us experiences that we could not otherwise have. Through the noetic-psychological power of image and metaphor, stories (and other literature) awaken the moral imagination. Moreover, in a phrase used by Eleonore Stump, narrative gives us "second person experiences." Such personal encounters convey knowledge that cannot be reduced to propositional knowledge.
Stories stir imagination. Stories impart irreducible knowledge. Stories ignite love of beauty, of goodness, of truth. Stories inspire desire and action. Students can encounter stories through hearing oral tellings or in reading on their own, as well as by watching stories enacted on stage or screen.

While great books are used, as Sayers says, as material for praticing and honing language and thinking skills, Lewis reminds us that stories are also, throughout the trivium and beyond, valuable as experiences in themselves. Through the word, we come to know—deeply and experientially, as we can know no other way—humanity, ourselves, history, culture, even the Divinity. The Divinity, knowing how we know, thus sent us the Word and secured his revelation in poetry and narrative.

So we see another reason why, as Adler notes, the material we give to students should be worthy. The texts, like the live teachers, must respect the autonomy of the student, must model rather than preach, must initiate rather than manage. The texts ought to be beautifully and skillfully written, offer experiences worth having, and be ultimately redemptive (or, failing that, at least culturally or historically significant). In the selection of material, there is much more at stake than merely language and communication skills. The texts students read, like the influential people in their lives, will inform their sentiments, will color their attitudes toward themselves and the world.

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