I’ve been scouring C. S. Lewis’s essays for pertinent comments for the Academic Roundtable in which I will be participating at the upcoming summer Lewis Foundation conference. This is work? Not really. More like fun.
In the process of my scouring, I reread his “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” a followup to the fabulously successful book, The Screwtape Letters, that put Lewis on the literary map for Americans.
As a lifelong educator, just now completing my 27th year of teaching at the college level, I was struck anew and afresh by his commentary on how hell would like education to be carried out. Lewis’s critique sounds so very contemporary, despite having been written at the end of the 1950s.
In the words of the devilish Screwtape, Lewis lays out the scheme:
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.” These differences between the pupils—for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences—must be disguised.
He then describes how this can be accomplished at various levels of education, with the first example being the one closest to my experience:
At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not.
Aren’t we told continually by our social engineers that everyone deserves a college education? We’re now being pressured to pay for everyone’s college education. But college is not for everyone, a statement I make based on those 27 years of teaching I mentioned above. Some students have no idea why they are there, and many should be directing their lives elsewhere. Isn’t the Biblical concept that of a diversity of talents?
Lewis/Screwtape then takes aim at basic elementary education:
At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing the things that children used to do in their spare time. Let them, for example, make mud-pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work.
We wouldn’t want anyone to feel bad about failing; it would damage self-esteem:
Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have—I believe the English already use the phrase—“parity of esteem.” . . . Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma—Beelzebub, what a useful word!—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.
So what is the overall goal, according to Screwtape?
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. . . .
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.
I also can agree with, and shudder at, his concluding statement: “Of course this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will.”
A Lewis prophecy coming to pass in our day.