Lewis on Progressive Education: God Help Us All

C. S. Lewis 2C. S. Lewis developed friendships with a number of American college and university professors. One of them, Nathan Comfort Starr, visited Lewis three times over a period of fifteen years, and kept up a steady correspondence with him. Like Lewis, he was a Christian traditionalist when it came to education: learn the classics, hold students to a standard of intellectual rigor.

Starr was teaching at Rollins College in Florida in the early 1950s when a “progressive” president at the college decided to purge the traditionalists from the faculty. Because Lewis was such a revered figure, both in the scholarly and Christian worlds, he pleaded with him to write something that could be put in the newspapers or some such public organ, defending the professors.

Lewis certainly had great sympathy for them. In his response to Starr, he emphatically stated, “This is the sort of thing that makes my blood boil. The events at Rollins College seem to me to concentrate into one filthy amalgam every tendency in the modern world which I most hate and despise. And, as you say, this kind of thing will put an end to American scholarship if it goes on.”

Yet he declined to write something publicly, feeling that it would not be helpful. Here’s his rationale:

Why then did I not cable to an American paper as you suggested? My dear fellow, consider. What could unsolicited advice from a foreigner do except to stiffen the Wagnerian party by enlisting on its side every anti-British and every anti-God element in the state? You are asking me to damage a good cause by what would, from an unauthorized outsider like me, be simply impertinence. In a cooler moment (I don’t expect you to be cool at present) you will be thankful I didn’t. God help us all. It is terrible to live in a post-civilized age.

I have to agree with Lewis’s reasoning here. His intervention probably wouldn’t have helped. His response, though, does point to the fact that the current problems we face in education—at all levels—are not new. They have been brewing for a long time. Only now are they threatening to overwhelm us. The “progressive” element has had traditional education as a target for a long time.

We have dumbed down our expectations of students to the point of absurdity in many cases. Lewis referenced the “anti-God element in the state”; that element has only grown since he wrote that. We are, as he said, living “in a post-civilized age.” The reason we are rapidly descending into that age is that we are also an increasingly post-Christian age.

Lewis was correct in his plea: “God help us all.”