I’m preparing to begin my twenty-seventh year of teaching college this fall. One of the joys I’ve had is the free hand to develop upper-level courses for history majors. Due to all my research on C. S. Lewis this year (and my still-hoped-for book on him), I will be teaching a course on him in the upcoming semester.
Lewis and education go together. He had many wise and insightful comments on the aims and limits of education. For a good summary, everyone should read The Abolition of Man (which my students will read this fall). Yet he sprinkled gems about education throughout his writings.
One, in particular, an essay called “On the Transmission of Christianity,” offers the kinds of thoughts that make me say, “Yes, exactly!” For instance, he comments,
None can give to another what he does not possess himself. No generation can bequeath to its successor what it has not got. You may frame the syllabus as you please. But . . . if we are sceptical we shall teach scepticism to our pupils, if fools only folly, if vulgar only vulgarity, if saints sanctity, if heroes heroism. Education is only the most fully conscious of the channels whereby each generation influences the next. It is not a closed system. Nothing which was not in the teachers can flow from them into the pupils. [emphasis mine]
Teachers are the key. You can tell them what they are supposed to teach (as state authorities try to do), but even if those authorities want them to teach things that are consistent with Christian faith, it will not come across the way it is intended if the teachers themselves have none of that faith. The whole system of government-controlled education, in my view, is flawed. Lewis tackles that as well:
It is unlikely that in the next forty years England will have a government which would encourage or even tolerate any radically Christian elements in its State system of education. Where the tide flows towards increasing State control, Christianity, with its claims in one way personal and in the other way ecumenical and both ways antithetical to omnicompetent government, must always in fact . . . be treated as an enemy.
Substitute America for England in that comment and you have our current state of affairs. He continues,
Like learning, like the family, like any ancient and liberal profession, like the common law, it [Christianity] gives the individual a standing ground against the State. Hence Rousseau, the father of the totalitarians, said wisely enough, from his own point of view, of Christianity, Je ne connais rien de plus contraire l’esprit social [I know nothing more opposed to the social spirit].
In the second place, even if we were permitted to force a Christian curriculum on the existing schools with the existing teachers we should only be making masters hypocrites and hardening the pupils’ hearts.
This is why I’ve never been excited by attempts to force public schools to be Christian. Instead, I’ve always advocated alternatives to the public system. The only hope for real Christian education is outside government control. It appears Lewis may have been in agreement with that position.