Their Eyes Were All I Needed to See

We’re at the point in my C. S. Lewis course where I am giving the students The Abolition of Man. It’s a harder read than most of what I give them from Lewis, but I’ve never seriously considered dropping it from the course. It’s just too important, and the concepts within it are so significant to their worldview that I believe I would be doing a disservice to avoid it.

I do, though, make sure I give it enough time to germinate in their minds by splitting the reading assignments from it into three separate class sessions. It won’t do to rush through Lewis’s scholarly and sophisticated arguments.

This past Thursday, we covered chapter one. Those familiar with the work can probably recite by heart some of the key passages of that chapter: the creation of men without chests and the need for educators to irrigate deserts in their students. But there is so much more.

Each time before I teach The Abolition of Man, I re-read it, and each time I get more out of it than before. This time, I was impressed with a couple of other Lewisian gems that hadn’t stood out previously. The presumed grammar text that Lewis is critiquing is really something more—it’s not truly focused on grammar but something else, and the most grievous aspect is whom it is affecting, according to Lewis:

They are dealing with a boy: a boy who thinks he is “doing” his “English prep” and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake. It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him [emphasis mine] to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognized as a controversy at all.

One of my students immediately caught the link to what she learned in psychology about the conditioning/stimulus-response technique used on animals. She clearly saw that this was what was being advocated here; she realized how people often have been “conditioned” to think in certain ways without even understanding why they think in those ways.

That was a good moment for a professor. Only another teacher can fully grasp what I mean by that.

A few pages later, another passage resonated with me in a deeper way than in previous readings of the text:

They [the authors of the book] may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. . . .

I must, for the moment, content myself with pointing out that it is a philosophical and not a literary position. In filling their book with it they have been unjust to the parent or headmaster who buys it and who has got the work of amateur philosophers where he expected the work of professional grammarians.

A man would be annoyed if his son returned from the dentist with his teeth untouched and his head crammed with the dentist’s obiter dicta on bimetallism or the Baconian theory.

I was alert throughout the class session to observe how the students were receiving the chapter. What I saw was energetic note-taking (even without a forthcoming exam on the book), the nodding of heads at various points I was making, and eyes that made it clear that this discussion was enriching their earlier reading of the chapter. The students were all masked, but their eyes were all I needed to see to know that Lewis had struck a chord in their minds and hearts.

Chapters two and three will be our focus next week, and I look forward to this ongoing challenge to mine greater depths in this short—but rich—book.