C. S. Lewis' Early Concept of Education

by Dale Sullivan

C. S. Lewis thought of himself as a representative of "Old Western Culture" as opposed to modern culture. At his inaugural lecture as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English Literature in the University of Cambridge, he said:

    I have said that the vast change which separates you from Old Western has been gradual and is not even now complete. Wide as the chasm is, those who are native to different sides of it can still meet; are meeting in this room. . . . I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours. ("De Descriptione Temporum" 13)

Despite his denial that he is a modern man, Lewis' early view of education indicates that he was influenced by both the ancients and the moderns. Having taken a first at Oxford in the Greats, Lewis obviously understood the classical mindset, but having also taken a first in English Literature, he was influenced by the mindset of the modern university as well.

His understanding of classical education comes through most convincingly in The Abolition of Man, where he argues that training in moral virtue is a matter of training the aesthetic judgment for practical purposes. He defends this position in a delightful recitation, in rapid succession, of the views of such people as Coleridge, Traherne, St. Augustine, Aristotle, Plato, and Confucius (25-28). All of these people taught that it is possible to have just sentiments--that is, responses to nature and events that are appropriate to the object or situation--but that such responses are not natural. They have to be learned, and students learn them through training that emphasizes the creation of habitual responses. His discussion reaches a stylistic crescendo in the following statement:

    The head rules the belly through the chest--the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest--Magnanimity--Sentiment--these are the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit and by his appetite mere animal. (34)

If Lewis had written on education only in The Abolition of Man, we might be able to agree with him when he says he is not a modern man. But he also wrote about education in two essays that appeared in Rehabilitations. These essays are earlier than The Abolition of Man, and so he may have moved away from the position he espouses in them. Nevertheless, I intend to use them here because they show a Lewis who holds views similar to those that tend to prevail in modern English departments. In these essays--"The Idea of an English School" and "Our English Syllabus"--Lewis' main purpose is to argue in favor of a nonrestrictive study of literature in the university.

He argues against professors selecting the best works for the students to read ("Idea" 74), comparing such an approach to someone drawing up a menu for someone old enough to plan his own syllabus ("Syllabus" 93). It is important, however, to understand that Lewis argued this way because he believed that the place for "education," as opposed to "learning," is in the schools, not in the university. The converse is also true in his opinion: The place for learning is in the university, not the schools. The terms "learning" and "education" have special meaning for Lewis. "Learning" is not concerned with education but with "knowledge for its own sake" ("Syllabus" 86). "Education," on the other hand, humanizes the student by teaching discipline, awakening the logical faculty, and producing right sentiments "by steeping the pupil in the literature both sacred and profane on which the culture of the community is based" (81).

What we see in this division is, I think, the Lewis influenced by the classics in his definition of education and the Lewis influenced by the modern university in his definition of learning. Let me explain. There seems to be two modern views of the university, one the Benthamite conception based on utility, and the other the liberal free ideal expressed by John Henry Newman. The utilitarian concept of higher education gave birth to technical universities like MIT and also influenced the curricula of schools like Cornell and even Harvard (see Veysey chs. II, III, IV; Ohmann ch. IV). Lewis had no appreciation for such education, referring to it as mere training. The liberal free ideal, on the other hand, produced research institutes reflecting Newman's position that knowledge is an end in itself. As Walter Jost points out, Newman argued that the purpose of a liberal education is to pursue knowledge as an end in itself, and that if such a course is taken, the education will turn out to be useful, for "though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful" (171).

It is important to understand, however, that both of these conceptions of higher education are modern developments, and even the liberal free ideal should not be confused with the older artes liberalis tradition (Kimball 13, 115). The liberal free ideal emphasizes criticism, specialization, and knowledge based on research. The artes liberalis tradition, conversely, emphasizes continuity with the past, general studies, and practical wisdom. The new ideal traces its roots to the Enlightenment, and from there back to Plato, Socarates and the philosophers (Kimball 116). The old ideal traces its roots to Vico and from him back to Cicero, Isocrates, and the rhetoricians (Schaeffer ch 2; Kimball 18; Marrou 80; Jaeger 46). In the old ideal the crown of education was rhetoric, its telos the creation of the finished orator who could participate in the impromptu and often heated exhanges of public life. The telos of the liberal free ideal is the philosopher, one who contemplates in relative serenity the mysteries of the universe. Emphasizing the study of literature as an end in itself, the typical English department is an example of the liberal free ideal. Indeed English departments replaced rhetoric in American colleges as the liberal free ideal replaced the artes liberalis tradition. The foremost professional organization for professors of English literature, the Modern Language Association, bears in its name the declaration of independence from rhetoric and its association with classical languages.

Taking these distinctions between the ancients and the moderns into account, we see Lewis in these two early essays paying his allegiance to the artes liberalis tradition when he talks about education in the schools which precede the university. We see him embracing the liberal free ideal when he talks about learning for its own sake in the university. He evidently held allegiances to both the ancient and the modern at the time he wrote these essays.

Works Cited

Jaeger, Werner. Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, III. Trans. Gilbert Highet. New York: Oxford UP, 1944.

Jost, Walter. Rhetorical Thought in John Henry Newman. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1989.

Kimball, Bruce A. Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education. New York: Teachers College P, 1986.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. 1947. New York: MacMillan, 1965.

---. "De Descriptione Temporum." Selected Literary Essays by C. S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge UP, 1969. 1-14.

---. "The Idea of an `English School.'" Rehabilitations and Other Essays. London: Oxford UP, 1939. 59-77.

---. "Our English Syllabus." Rehabilitations and Other Essays. London: Oxford UP, 1939. 79-93.

Marrou, H. I. A History of Education in Antiquity. Trans. George Lamb.

Ohmann, Richard. English in America: A Radical View of the Profession. New York: Oxford UP, 1976.

Schaeffer, John D. Sensus Communis: Vico, Rhetoric, and the Limits of Relativism. Durham: Duke UP, 1990.

Veysey, Laurence R. The Emergence of the American University. Chicago: The U of Chicago P, 1965.