C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters remains one of his most admired and imaginative books. In the later editions, Lewis added a little essay called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast.” In it, the master devil shares his insights into how to undermine the human race. One of his methods is to destroy education. If his formula sounds familiar, there might be a good reason. Here’s a portion of Screwtape’s speech at the “Annual Dinner of the Tempters’ Training College for Young Devils”:
What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual. And is it not pretty to notice how “democracy” is now doing for us the work that was once done by the most ancient Dictatorships, and by the same methods?
The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma . . . by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will vanish. The few who might want to learn will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers—or should I say, nurses—will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time of real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.