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CS Lewis on How to Evaluate a Text Book

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In David’s recent post about the Narnia movies, he made the point that they fail to capture Lewis’s understanding of reality. This is perhaps nowhere more clear than when you look inside Lewis’s ethical and aesthetic world in his most important book, The Abolition of Man.

In it, he famously summarized his first of three chapters (delivered as lectures) with the provocative charge that,

all the time — such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive,’ or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity.’ In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.

But, but, I sputter, but what is he talking about? It’s all very dramatic and all, but does it mean anything? What is the organ that we remove? What is a “man without a chest?” What qualities are we rendering impossible? And how on earth is such a thing even possible? How are we castrating, laughing at honor, and making men without chests?

In 23 paragraphs, beginning with these words in the first: “I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text books,” Lewis explains exactly what he means. Then in chapter 2, in 23 more paragraphs, he applies that explanation, beginning with the words, “The practical result of education in the spirit of The Green Book must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.”

Obviously, he is talking about education and he is ascribing extreme importance to it, the power to destroy a society that does it wrong.

I want in this post, and in some following as we move toward the conference, to try to get at what Lewis is saying. I want to simplify it so that we can follow the logic more simply, but I want to do so carefully because Lewis wrote the book the way he did on purpose. It is not a mere logical exercise. It is about reality and our relationship to it.

Let me begin at a rather high level of generalization and try to present the main points. They are, in this our day, controversial. That is one of the marks of the dissolution of our society.

Beginning by explaining that the writers of an elementary English Literature text fail in their duty to teach English but succeed in harming the child’s soul, Lewis proceeds to ask why they would do such a thing. He concludes that they are unable to do otherwise because of their educational predicament.

The way they harm the child’s soul is by “debunking” his sentiments as contemptible. More precisely, Lewis says that “the schoolboy will learn about literature precisely nothing. What he will learn quickly enough, and perhaps indelibly, is the belief that all emotions aroused by local association are in themselves contrary to reason and contemptible.” [I, 8 emph. added]

Later in the same paragraph he reasserts his claim: “Gaius and Titius, while teaching him nothing about letters, have cut out of his soul, long before he is old enough to choose, the possibility of having certain experiences which thinkers of more authority than they have held to be generous, fruitful, and humane.” [I, 8]

This post is not about how Gaius and Titius, names Lewis has given to these authors to protect their identity, affect this cutting from the soul, so I won’t go into that right now. I prefer to get at the basic point before analyzing it. So here I am asking, “Why would they do that?” not “How?” Why would an educator harm the pupil’s soul?

Lewis offers a few possible reasons, but ends by concluding, or at least suggesting, that they had no choice. They were given two options: either they could cultivate some sentiments, or they could debunk all sentiments.

In “the old view,” this was no problem. Everybody understood that the duty of the teacher is to cultivate just sentiments (I have identified at least 23 different ways Lewis expresses this idea in the first two chapters). But Lewis says “a new view” has taken hold of Gaius and Titius minds, and in that new view there are no just sentiments. All sentiments are unworthy. Emotions cannot correspond to reality. Facts and values have no relationship with each other. They

must regard all sentiments as equally non-rational…. As a result, they must decide to remove all sentiments, as far as possible, from the pupil’s mind; or else encourage some sentiments for reasons that have nothing to do with their intrinsic ‘justness’ or ‘ordinacy.’

I, 18


There are only two courses open to Gaius and Titius. Either they must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment [he is discussing the sweetness that the Romans ascribed to dying for Rome] like any other, or must set themselves to produce from the outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it.

I, 19

In short, the educator can either debunk all sentiments, or can condition some sentiments for the sake of someone other than the pupil. The modern educator is either a debunker or a conditioner.

Gaius and Titius, because they are better than their principles and are therefore opposed to propaganda, if not exactly to conditioning, choose the first option: they debunk.

This, however, will not do. For to debunk these sentiments is to remove something from their souls. It is to castrate them, to make “men without chests.” And once that has happened, resistance to the conditioner is removed with the chest.

Here, according to Lewis are the options:

1. You can recognize the objective reality of values, the fact that some things merit certain responses and others merit different responses.

2. You can deny the objectivity of values, asserting that feelings are not important, except perhaps to the feeler.

If you go with the first option, Lewis shows that you are operating within the permanent moral and aesthetic structure of the human race and you need never either debunk values or condition pupils. You simply cultivate justice in their souls.

If you go with the second option, you are stuck in the predicament he described above. You can debunk all values, neutering the pupil. Or you can select a certain set of values that you think the child should hold and “clarify” them. What you cannot do is lead the pupil on the path of wisdom or cultivate virtue in his soul.

The second option, the denial of objective values, is what Lewis calls “subjectivism.” In the first chapter, he shows the dilemma the subjectivist cannot escape. In the second he will show the theoretical problems with the theory. In the third, he will show how very inhumane – how “post-human” a theory it is.

Let me end with this humbling thought: the methods of conventional education are rooted in subjectivism. If we look to the accreditors and the test-makers for our validation, we have already demonstrated that we are “men without chests,” functionally subjectivist. We can’t do that to our students.

The movies give us a Peter and a Caspian without chests. Don’t let your teaching give us a Johnny or Sally lacking in the generosity, fruitfulness, and humanity (I, 8) that make life worth living and teaching the noblest calling – at least in the old view.

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