Archive for the ‘ Education ’ Category

Lewis: Replacing Natural Law

Abolition of ManFor the third Saturday in a row, I want to share some poignant excerpts from C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a small book with rather large insights. Taken from lectures he gave, and published in 1943, it remains astoundingly relevant today as we watch our civilization teeter on the edge of utter rebellion against God-given natural law.

Lewis takes aim at the change in education during his time, and its attempt to replace undeniable truths with man-made ones. As he comes to the end of his argument, he points specifically to those who believe they can control nature and mold and shape mankind into whatever they choose:

Man’s conquest of Nature, if the dreams of some scientific planners are realized, means the rule of a few hundreds of men over billions upon billions of men. There neither is nor can be any simple increase of power on Man’s side. Each new power won by man is a power over man as well.

The belief that men can cast aside God’s natural moral order and create one of their own is not new, but we can see it even more clearly in our day. Lewis says this is attempted via our education system, yet he also points to why the “planners” have trouble achieving their goals:

For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means . . . the power of some men to make other men what they please. In all ages, no doubt, nurture and instruction have, in some sense, attempted to exercise this power. But the situation to which we must look forward will be novel in two respects.

In the first place, the power will be enormously increased. Hitherto the plans of educationalists have achieved very little of what they attempted and indeed . . . we may well thank 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.

But the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.

Even though Lewis usually avoided direct political commentary, he was well aware of the detrimental effects of what he termed the “omnicompetent state.” Once the dreams of the “planners” become the dreams of the politicians, only evil can follow.

C. S. Lewis 5The problem is then compounded by what Lewis sees as the second difference from the past: no longer do these planners feel bound to natural law and the traditional ways of thinking that accompany it. Previous ages always handed on to the next generation what they had received, in the same manner as birds teach their young ones how to fly. No more, says Lewis:

This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao [natural law] there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.

The conditioners have been emancipated from all that. It is one more part of Nature which they have conquered. The ultimate springs of human actions are no longer, for them, something given. . . . It is the function of the Conditioners to control, not to obey them. They know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce. They themselves are outside, above.

These “conditioners” are the new masters of humanity. They will decide what is right and what is wrong based on their own views, not God’s. Lewis concludes,

The Conditioners, then, are to choose what kind of artificial Tao they will, for their own good reasons, produce in the Human race.

If that sounds scary to you, you have the right reaction. I won’t take time to try to point out the myriad ways this has occurred in our society at present. You can, I’m sure, come up with examples yourself.

Next Saturday, I’ll complete these thoughts from The Abolition of Man.

Lewis: The Education of Man

Abolition of ManThis past week, I reread C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man. Although I have been reminded of quotes from it throughout my life, probably the last time I had read it all the way through was forty years ago. So, I decided, it was time again.

It’s a small book, but packed to the brim with insights on education and worldview. It didn’t start out in book form, but as special talks he gave at a university during WWII; later, it was turned into a book, and we all should be grateful it was.

The first chapter is a witty critique of modern education. What struck me was how the critique continues to hit home after sixty years. One of the most poignant quotes is this:

For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.

I admit I wasn’t sure at first if I agreed with the jungle-desert analogy. Don’t our students have a lot of false ideas that need to be hacked away? Yet those false ideas truly are a desert of the mind and soul. Our students know so little, and what they think they do know is often just propaganda masquerading as education. I think he’s right.

Lewis then aims at the removal of “just sentiments,” or what he would call the things that are really true, pointing out that they are being replaced. We must reject the desert of total subjectivism and come to grips with reality:

It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of things the universe is and the kind of things we are.

In other words, we don’t make this up as we go; there are some bedrock concepts that are demonstrably true, and that have been taught through the ages. Modern education fails when it throws out objective reality. There is truth and there is falsehood, and the distinction between the two should be the basis of education.

I love his summary of what the new educational model is attempting to create:

The difference between the old and the new education will be an important one. Where the old initiated, the new merely “conditions.” The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds—making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.

Think of all the trendy things in modern education. Our students come to college well versed in environmentalism, radical feminism, and income inequality. They know little or nothing about real history or the proper functioning of government. I know this from experience.

We train students in this way and then wonder why our society is what it is. Lewis sums it up this way:

And all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more “drive,” or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or “creativity.”

In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.

And that’s only chapter 1. More next Saturday. But for now, this reminder:

Abolition of Man Quote #3


Puritans & Education

My last few posts about the early Puritans have contained controversy, as they attempted to deal with disagreement in the Massachusetts colony. They had to decide what to do with people like Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and the Quakers who showed up later. Some of their decisions may have been just, while others (such as hanging Quakers) clearly were not.

Let’s leave most of that controversy behind today and examine the Puritan desire to educate their communities. In a document called New England’s First Fruits, written in 1643 to explain what they were doing with education, we get this bedrock philosophical foundation for the need for education:

After God had carried us safe to New England, and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, rear’d convenient places for God’s worship, and settled the Civil Government; One of the next things we longed for, and looked after was to advance Learning, and to perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministry to the churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the dust.

Dame SchoolHow did they go about this for the different levels of education? First, considering they lived pretty much in small communities, they tended to organize what they called “common” schools. These schools usually met in the church building, since it was at the center of the community; often the local minister doubled as the schoolteacher. Educational standards were set by local committees who were also members of the church.

It’s important to understand that the Puritans never conceived of any type of education that wasn’t clearly Biblical in orientation.

Education acts passed by the legislature in the 1640s required parents to ensure their children were properly instructed in the Christian faith, reading proficiency, the laws of the colony, and in a vocation (often through an internship with another member of the community who had a business). Parents were even warned that if they didn’t take this responsibility seriously, their children might be placed in another home to make sure they got the education they needed.

A more specific act, often referred to as The Old Deluder Satan Act, passed the legislature in 1647. It was given that name because the Puritans believed an uneducated person, particularly one who was ignorant of the Scripture, could be more easily deceived by Satan and fall into error.

This act required towns with at least fifty families to set up common schools. Towns with at least one hundred families had to set up a grammar school, which was a higher level of learning. The decision for how to fund these schools was put in the hands of the locality; the citizens of the town could determine if they wanted to pool their money for them (i.e., taxes) or charge tuition. Or both. The key, though, is that is was the locality’s choice; it was not imposed by a higher authority.

Neither did parents have to put their children in these schools; they remained free to educate at home, if they chose to do so.

What about those who sought a higher education? In 1636, plans were put into effect to set up a college. Mr. John Harvard offered his library to help it get started; as you may guess, it was named after him.

Harvard BuildingsIt’s fascinating to review Harvard’s Rules and Precepts in its initial years. Here’s one of the precepts:

Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life, John 17:3 and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him Prov. 2,3.

Yale--First BuildingIn 1701, Connecticut set up its first college, Yale. Like Harvard, the original intent was to give students a solid foundation in the faith as they went into the world to do God’s will. Early instructions at Yale included the following:

Every student shall consider the main end of his study . . . to know God in Jesus Christ and answerable to lead a Godly, sober life.

All scholars shall lead religious, godly and blameless lives according to the rules of God’s Word, diligently reading the Holy Scriptures, the fountain of light and truth; and constantly attend upon all the duties of religion, both in public and secret.

Seeing God is the giver of all wisdom, every scholar, besides private or secret prayer, . . . shall be present morning and evening at public prayer in the hall at the accustomed hour.

Not bad for beginnings. Now, the best aims don’t always come to fruition. Certainly not all the students followed those principles; yet it’s significant to take into account the goals of the founders of these institutions.

Yale continued as a bulwark of Christian education at least through the first half of the nineteenth century, aided by leadership from men such as Timothy Dwight and Nathaniel Taylor. Revivals occurred at Yale regularly.

Not so for Harvard, which, by the turn of the nineteenth century, had been taken over by Unitarians who denied the deity of Jesus.

This points to a hard truth: one must stay vigilant to keep education on track. The temptation remains today for Christian colleges and universities to water down the Gospel and try to fit into the trends of the times. We do so at our spiritual peril.

Let’s at least give the Puritans credit for putting into operation an educational system that sought to honor God first.

Learning How to Think

Just a quick commentary today on education. How many times have you heard educators say, “Don’t tell children what to think, but teach them how to think”? I understand the concept, really. I want my students to learn how to think also. Yet aren’t there some things we have to tell them first? Aren’t there some building blocks that must be in place before they can launch out and do their own thinking?

How to Learn

This is applicable at the college level as well. When I teach an American history survey course, I don’t start off by asking students what they “think” about certain people or events in American history. Why? Because most of them don’t have any thoughts about either the people or the events.

That’s why I concentrate on giving them the basic facts, along with Biblical principles, so they are ready to think more deeply about our history and its application to our society today.

There are far too many educational clichés making the rounds. Examine each one carefully before adopting it. In other words, learn to think for yourself.

Researching C. S. Lewis

Now that I’m on sabbatical, projects have seemingly sprung up out of nowhere to keep me busy. One that has been in the back of my mind for a while has now taken a prominent place in my active imagination. I’ve always wanted to write something about C. S. Lewis. While reading a recent biography of him, I grabbed hold of an idea that I hope will come to fruition. I would like to assess, as much as possible, the impact Lewis has made on America and Americans individually. For some reason, America embraced him and his writings far more eagerly than his home nation of Britain. Why was that? How much documentation is there of his influence on Americans?

I thought that might be worth investigating, so since I was at Wheaton College this past week, I made sure to carve out some time to visit the Wade Center, which is a fantastic repository of all things C. S. Lewis and other key British authors such as J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers. It’s really rather amazing that a small Christian college in America has all these treasures. Amazing . . . and a real blessing for researchers like me.

The Wade Center is not huge, but it is welcoming and very helpful to researchers. I was staying at a guest house on campus, and the Wade Center was just across the street, so this is what greeted me every time I left the guest house:


Where else, in America, can one go to see some original C. S. Lewis artifacts? For instance, here’s the desk he used both at Oxford and in his home later:


If you are wondering where he got the idea for children to walk into a wardrobe and then into a land called Narnia, perhaps you don’t need to look any further than this piece of furniture that belonged to him:


I even enjoyed viewing his teapot, tea cup, and pewter mug. How very British of him:


And there was the research room itself, a veritable sanctuary for those of us who love to immerse ourselves in musty manuscripts and really good books:


I found a place to call my own:


My time at the Wade was a time I could enter into another “world,” if only briefly. This was just the beginning stage of the research. Will a book result from this? Perhaps that’s where faith comes in.

The Core of Common Core

Common CoreI post on the subject of education quite often; that’s to be expected from someone in my profession. I share the concerns voiced about the Common Core initiative and have read many of the critiques with respect to the specifics of Common Core. I agree with most of what I have read.

Yet there are political conservatives who support this approach because they are enamored with the promise of enforcing a basic education for all, particularly when they perceive, quite rightly, that education overall is failing. Despite the glowing public statements we hear from politicians and those in the education bureaucracy, our students know less now than they did in previous decades. And they didn’t know all that much in those previous decades.

So some conservatives jump on board a program like Common Core, thinking it will provide the solution. Aside from the slanted political and cultural agenda that will undoubtedly dominate any educational endeavor today, there is a more basic critique that conservatives, and particularly evangelical Christian conservatives, should pay attention to.

Common Core, like all of its ancestors, is a program driven by government. Don’t believe the propaganda that tells you this is grassroots education reform; it’s thinly disguised government-directed education, and that should be the major critique. We long ago sacrificed our children to a government system. For a nation that prized liberty, I’m amazed how the wool was pulled over our eyes in this area. We rejected a state-sponsored religious establishment because it deemed to tell people what to think and believe, yet we then accepted an educational system that does exactly the same.

There is now an orthodoxy pushed by the government. We are told what to believe about religion, the environment, sex, and a whole host of other things. There is an officially approved list of aggrieved groups to whom we must be sensitive. And everyone must bow to the official wisdom. We are in this predicament because we continue to look to government as the source of education.

In early America, the sources of education stemmed from family and church. Today, we’re told those institutions cannot be trusted to handle that responsibility. We must trust the government to educate our children.

Common Core

This is the era of Obama. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Yet we keep wearing our blinders when it comes to education. It’s time to take them off and see what’s really happening.

Technology & Those Things That Matter Most

In order to stave off misunderstanding, before I get to my main point today, let me assure any and all readers that I really do like new technology. I mean, I’m using a computer right now, and there are still some who haven’t crossed that barrier. I’m not one of them.

TypewriterHow I wish I’d had a laptop back in 1981 when I was completing my master’s thesis. Try typing a 138-page paper in time for graduation, knowing that if you make a mistake along the way, it might require retyping multiple pages. In fact, when I turned in my thesis, a fact-checker found technical errors that had to be corrected within 48 hours or I wouldn’t be able to graduate. The errors required a complete redo of the thesis, which, in pre-computer days, meant I had to hire two typists to do the job quickly.

No, I’m not a Luddite (feel free to Google that, if necessary).

When I teach, I love using whatever technologies might be available to help get the message out. As a new professor, back in the late 1980s-early 1990s, I still didn’t have a personal computer. All my teaching was done via writing on white boards in the classroom. Later, I graduated to the overhead projector and thought I had stumbled across a slice of heaven. Then, when I finally was issued a laptop, in the late-1990s, I discovered the wonders of PowerPoint and my life has never been the same.

I don’t yet have a smart phone. Mine is just semi-smart; I get e-mail without attachments and I don’t want to pay for internet access. My main objection to moving into that realm is purely monetary, not some kind of fondness for former days when all phones could do was call someone. Skype has been a joy, allowing me to connect with family in other places, even halfway around the world.

So why did I go to this length to make it clear I’m not a technophobe?

CellphonesI’m concerned that, in the midst of all these marvelous advancements, we don’t lose either our humanity or our ability to pay attention to anything not techno-oriented. When I’m walking through campus, for instance, sometimes it seems as if all the students are in their own little world. Everyone is texting, talking on their cell, or lost in whatever realm they may be connected to with those wires leading to their ears.

I know this is not just a student issue, but that’s where I live. A few years ago, I took the drastic step of forbidding the use of any technology—laptops, cell phones, whatever—in my lower-level survey courses, the ones that are part of the general education portion of our curriculum. You see, I already have a problem getting students interested in basic American history courses to begin with. Most take them because they are required to take at least one history course of some kind. They don’t really want to be there, so why not spend the time more profitably (in their view) on Facebook, Twitter, or any of the other social networking sites?

So I decided to challenge them to see if it’s even possible for this current generation to set aside their devotion to their devices for a 50-minute period and concentrate on American history. Just 50 minutes. Is that too much to ask? For many, apparently it is. I won’t go to the next level and confiscate phones as they enter the classroom, but I will admit to some discouragement. The discouragement is not primarily that I am being disrespected as a teacher; it’s more that they are so unwilling to spend that small amount of time doing something as traditional as listening and taking notes.

My deeper concern is that they won’t be able to communicate in anything but shorthand (u no wht i meen) and won’t develop their powers of thought beyond soundbites. A people that illiterate—and I use that word advisedly—are like sheep to slaughter as they unthinkingly contribute to cultural degeneration and political foolishness.

Just so you know, I don’t have a stringent policy of forbidding cellphones and laptops in my upper-level history courses. For the most part, the students in those courses want to be there, and they seek to add to their knowledge and understanding. But I’m finding those kinds of students to be increasingly rare, at least in my personal experience.

Am I simply a curmudgeon who likes to complain about anything new? I hope not. I also hope I might be wrong in my analysis of what I now perceive as a societal malady. I see the great potential of technology and wouldn’t want to return to typewritten theses. Yet I wonder. What are we losing as we continue on this path?

ConversationA people absorbed in another world might not have time for other people who are staring them in the face. When I have meetings with individuals, whether a luncheon or just a conversation, I set aside my cellphone during that time. I won’t access it. I believe God wants me instead to devote my time to that other person, uninterrupted by the demands of texts, tweets, or Facebook messages. There is a time for that, but not when I’m supposed to be talking with someone personally, face-to-face.

Can we also be so absorbed by these media that we don’t have time for a face-to-face with the One who gave us the intellectual capacity to create the media in the first place?

All I’m saying is that we need to keep our priorities straight. We all need to examine ourselves regularly to ensure we aren’t crowding out of our lives those things that matter most.