Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Wednesday with Words: C.S. Lewis on Education

As I finished The Screwtape Letters, I was surprised in the back of my library's paperback by another short story, "Screwtape Proposes a Toast".  This was written well after the book itself, and has its own preface, which grabbed my attention.  C. S. Lewis used this "toast" to make a few points about the state of education in America at the time (1962).  He disguised it by having Screwtape  speak of education in England, so as not to offend the Americans.  HA.  What he had to say then is every bit as true now.  Here is what struck me in the preface to the toast.
In my view there is a sense in which education ought to be democratic and another sense in which it ought not.  It ought to be democratic in the sense of being available, without distinction of sex, color, class, race or religion, to all who can - and will - diligently accept it.  But once the young people are inside the school there must be no attempt to establish a factitious egalitarianism between the idlers and dunces on the one hand and the clever and industrious on the other.  A modern nation needs a very large class of genuinely educated people and it is the primary function of schools and universities to supply them.  To lower standards or disguise inequalities is fatal.
 If this sounds harsh, I would observe that the opposite policy is really devised to soothe the inferiority complex not of the idlers and dunces but of their parents.  Do not be in the least afraid that those who live out their school days - which would be brief - on the back bench of the lowest class will suffer any trauma when they see promotion and honors and official approval going to the diligent minority.  They are stronger than it.  They can punch its head and kick its stern.  All the distinctions they really care about - the popularity and the success in games - go not to it [the diligent minority] but to them.  They enjoy their school days very much.  Our real problem is to see that they impede as little as possible the purposes for which school really exists.
My, my, my.  I do believe we have reached the goal of having the young ones stay in school well past when they want to be done (age 18 laws, anyone?).  I think we have also lowered standards to fatal levels.  I don't think it sounds harsh, but I'm sure those who disagree with this truth do!  Especially the barb about soothing the parents, wow!  Tell us what you really think, Mr. Lewis.

Do you agree or disagree with his assertions?  What can be done now?  Is it too late?


7 comments:

  1. Ooooh, interesting. I enjoyed reading this! First off, I still haven't read The Screwtape Letters and really want to! Secondly, I totally agree that we force kids to stay in school, and to learn more than they really need to (how many kids really need to learn algebra 2? and I'm a former math teacher, ha), much longer than they need to be there. There was an article a week or two ago about education in Finland that really interesting. I think we should do what they do: once the kids reach high school level, allow them to pursue academics or a vocation. Upper level math and science and all that just isn't for everyone, and the kids check out.

    Angela @ www.angelawilhite.com

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    1. You should read it - it isn't a very long book! And I agree - after about age 14, then can start making some decisions for their future. Thanks for stopping by!

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  2. I don't know that schools attempt to disguise inequalities but they do try to get at the cause of them. Why are kids failing? Are they not able to pay attention because they come to school hungry? Will medicating some of them help? Are their parents keeping them up late with their own chaotic lives? I think his assumption that all kids who are not doing well in school are not doing well because of their own preference for sports is a bit prejudicial. Have we lowered standards? That hasn't been my experience. We have been arguing about standards for 100+ years. We don't know what standards to uphold and which to let go. What is a good, basic education that is suitable for everyone vs. one that suits the academics who wish to pursue a higher education? What accommodations are appropriate for our disabled kids - the kinds of accommodations that will produce a Temple Grandin, for example - and what accommodations are simply a distraction or a cop out? I think anyone, even C.S. Lewis, who is willing to take cheap shots at education had best have a vision of the alternative.

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    1. Great questions! And there are definitely truths in those questions. I do think, though, that standards are lower at a specific age (say 8th grade) than they were at that same age a hundred years ago. I've not read any other Lewis books, so am not sure what his encompassing vision for education was, but he did go on to say much more than what I quoted here. Check it out! Thanks for stopping by :)

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  3. Screwtape has got to be on my reading list. Thanks for these quotes! While the idea that all can learn the same amount of things at the same level are championed in our democratic society, the working out of this idea and practicality thereof are questionable at best. I think Lewis has the right of it here.

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  4. I have Screwtape Letters sitting on my shelf but have never read the whole thing--sounds like I need to. From this quote, I don't get the sense that he's directing his comments at students genuinely struggling but rather those that are choosing the back-row-idling option. I'm thinking of students like the "big boys" in Laura Ingalls Wilder's schools. ;) His point seems to be that we don't need to worry too much about them because in many ways, they've chosen their path and will be easily able to take care of themselves. On the other hand, I think a true education aims to hit a broader spectrum than the usual "diligent minority"--or perhaps better said, to turn some of those idlers into the diligent minority simply by the attractiveness of the education? I'm thinking of CM here. Anyway, I'm a sucker for educational quips and Screwtape is going on my summer reading list! :)

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    1. That's the sort of person I think he was talking to/about, as well, Celeste. Let me know what you think when you've finished it!

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