Student Essay: C. S. Lewis on Education

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The question of education has grown significantly over the past few decades as parents seek alternatives to government schools. With the question of where to educate comes the question of how to educate. What should education produce in pupils? To answer these questions, I turn to the works of C. S. Lewis. Lewis is well known for many of his works; I will be looking at one of his shorter books. The Abolition of Man was written alongside the third volume of the Space Trilogy as reflections on education, especially in the upper forms of English. However, it goes much further, as a defense of what he calls “the Tao” and of objective value.

An education in the Tao completes the purpose of education and serves the student. The most important cultivation that can be done is training a child to be righteous. In this, he concurs with the great minds of history. Aristotle wrote: “Education of the mind without education of the heart is no education at all.” This education of the heart is specifically in the ordering of affections, that is, giving affection to things in the order they merit. Where can one find the standard of what people ought to love and hate? Lewis finds it in the Tao: the term (derived from China) refers to the philosophical and moral principles common to the ancient Greeks, Judaism, and others. Here one finds the duties to kindred, nation, and the weak, and virtues of fortitude, temperance, prudence, and justice. Also called the rules of practical reason, these form the law of decent human behavior. Lewis says this does not come naturally to youth. It must be taught, as an adult bird teaches a young bird to fly.

Lewis contrasts education in the Tao to education as the intellectuals of his day desired. He writes on The Green Book, which was designed to teach students literature. Rather than teaching literature, the book teaches not merely the separation of fact and value, but the annihilation of value. Students were taught that propositions of value “appear to be saying something important: and actually [we] are only saying something about ourselves.” Thus, one could not assign value to an object but only speak on one’s own feelings. Furthermore, these feelings or sentiments were neither rational nor irrational. This path taught only the mind, suppressing the heart. The Tao taught that things merited certain sentiments, and right emotional responses really did indicate something about the value of the object. This path’s main objective was to train the heart, which also entailed teaching the mind.

Each path produces a different effect on students and shows a different conception of education’s purpose. So, which is better: education of the mind only, like The Green Book, or primarily of the heart, like the Tao

Any man who is cut off from the past, and content with the future, is a man most unjustly disinherited.

G. K. Chesterton

Some may object to the education of the heart, in that it shall lead to neglecting the education of the mind. Doubtless, educating the mind is an important task. Students need to learn the skills and general information essential to adult life. One would not want a student to leave school with an impeccable moral compass, yet no literacy. However, practical knowledge alone does not make a functioning adult. The heart must be educated alongside the head.

Another question is whether Lewis’s work truly speaks to our time. The Abolition of Man was written over seventy years ago—certainly, the world has changed since then. This much is true. But, while parts of the intellectual crowd have shifted away from a rejection of all objective values to an acceptance of a few they hold above all else, Lewis’ argument still holds true. In scholarship, the split between facts and values remains. In the realm of policy, facts reign supreme, while values are relegated to private life: they are merely personal preferences which have no bearing on the public sector. However, turning right and wrong into an arbitrary choice is disastrous for the moral character of any society, and it remains essential to keep a conception of values as facts.

Education is an influential part of any person’s life. It is in education that healthy sentiments are either cultivated or eradicated. If you wish to bring a boy to manhood or a girl to womanhood, seek an education that teaches both knowledge and virtue.

Katerina is a 17-year-old spending her gap year in Athens, Greece. She enjoys sewing, cooking, philosophy, and music. She plans to study Liberal Arts at New Saint Andrews College, ID.


If you liked this piece, take a look at this author profile of Avicenna, this “Great Conversation” post about the concept of citizenship, or this student essay on Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s novel Cancer Ward. And be sure to check out our weekly podcast, Anchored, hosted by our founder Jeremy Tate.

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