The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis – Modern Education and the Creation of “Men Without Chests”

I have written in previously in support of freedom of choice in our education models and in particular for support of the classical education model. I firmly believe that it is an inalienable right to be free to choose what manner or education is received, rather than the myopic and freedom of choice smothering one size fits all and centrally directed and dictated (and increasingly expensive with little return on investment) modern American education model we have blundered into. Recently, I found an ally of sorts in an unexpected corner – in the writings of C.S. Lewis. Many will recognize Lewis for \ his Chronicles of Narnia series or perhaps his more direct Christian books such as Mere Christianity and the Screwtape Letters, but oft neglected is his powerful and remarkably prescient book on primary education, The Abolition of Man.

In the Abolition of Man, Lewis takes aim at the then (1940s) education reformers and their zeal for removing the development of a foundation of objective values and replacing it with something in which the individual becomes much more critical and subjective. In a sense, this era witnessed the shift from attempts at educators to develop the moral and ethical character of a child to simply treating them as children to be loaded up with facts and to ostensibly create nothing more than rational and logical human beings who could conform to a certain desired standard way of thinking. With the hindsight of the year 2016, it is apparent to me that such reformers were successful in their aims with the modern education system as we know it. Of the reformers, Lewis has these rather harsh critiques:

They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the young minds of young people against emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head…. Their scepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values: about the values in their own set they are not nearly sceptical enough.

The consequence of such teaching is not benign in Lewis’ estimation, rather, it leads to the creation of an adult who is not really a human at all. Lewis has these dire observations about what the new education model would produce:

The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly: the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds – making them thus or thus for purposes of which the bird knows nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation – men transmitting manhood to men: the new is merely propaganda…

…We were told it all long ago by Plato. As the king governs by his executive, so Reason in man must rule the appetites by means of the ‘spirited element.’ The head rules the belly through the chest – the seat, as Alanus tells us, of Magnanimity, of emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest – Magnanimity – Sentiment- these are indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral man…

…It is not excess of thought but defect of fertile and generous emotion that marks them out. Their heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so. And all the time – such is the tragi-comedy of our situation – we continue to clamor 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 honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings by fruitful.

[As an side, since Lewis invoked the great word Magnanimty – I am linking to a previous article on the subject of that very word, that also connects back to the broader themes and points I am attempting to make in this one.]

To be clear, what Lewis has in mind when he speaks of the “old” is a return to fortifying the character of a child through teaching of objective values. One might call this conecpt ‘Natural Law’ – basic, fundamental, or even first principle universal virtues that we should all aspire to and should commonly agree should be inculcated in our children. Lest I set off any alarm bells for my secular friends, I should indicate that of all the Lewis books, this is one that is the least explicitly Christian. In fact, the virtues and values he builds up in the narrative he collectively labels The Tao, borrowing heavily from an ancient Chinese term that seems to translate roughly into “The Way.” While there are many Christian principles that are consistent with the Tao, Lewis endeavors to build a comprehensive list of virtues that reach back to ancient Egypt, Babylon, Confucius China, Indian Hinduism as well as building on ancient philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, it is a very Aristotelian list of virtues and ethics that Lewis builds into his Tao, echoing much of what Aristotle includes in his Nicomachean Ethics.  Specifically, Aristotle indicated that, “The aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.” Years prior, Aristotle’s mentor Plato said much the same about education when he stated that, “The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred.”  In Plato’s Republic, he elaborates that the well-nurtured youth is one, “who would see most clearly whatever was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.All this before he is an age of reason; so that when Reason at length comes to him, then, bred as he has been, he will hold out his hands in welcome and recognize her because of the affinity he bears to her.”

Lewis provides ample examples of what is included in the Tao – Natural Law elements such as honor, courage, good faith, justice, being free from cruelty and calumny, charity, and many others. The list of objective values that we could be teaching in schools could be distilled to seven virtues or as expansive as four-hundred. Our ample history and thousands of pages published on the subject from some of the world’s greatest philosphers and theologians provides us plenty of rich and viable options to choose from. I am personally partial to a recent innovation and list from Deirdre McCloskey’s book Bourgeois Equality in which she arrives at seven core values – a snapshot at which I have taken liberty of including in the (rather amateurish) picture below. Perhaps the broader point is that our public education systems aren’t teaching any of these. If there is any “value” being taught, it is the maniacal pursuit of of tolerance under a veneer of moral relativism. I believe this to be a travesty of the highest order, and I find it morally repugnant and offensive that we are under the shackles of being forced to pay tax dollars and forced to send our children to a school teaching such methods (and neglecting all others) by simple virtue of the arbitrarily drawn school districts we live in. We scramble to live in the right neighborhoods and pay dearly for housing  and property taxes to buy into certain school districts while ignoring that there truly is little difference in the education that is received out of them. There may be better “outcomes” due to clustering into wealthy neighborhoods, but ask yourselves, is there truly any differnece in what is learned? Does your chid truly develop any better character than the child forced into the “poor” school down the street? Isn’t it an injustice that the child born into poverty has no choice but to go to their locally zoned school? The connection back to my opening paragraph is that I believe school choice and reform is an idea ripe for harvest. I only hope to convince my fellow citizens of this fact one day, so that we can benefit our children, our families, communities, states, and nation.

Seven Principle Virtues.jpg



Why I support the resurgence of classical education

Classical Education

From my point of view, the key direction and goal of primary education should be to create virtuous citizens of high moral character and ethics combined with a unique power to think creatively for themselves, formulate arguments based upon reason and logic, and be able to articulate their points in a respectful and eloquent manner. In short – education should create people of noble character and great wisdom. As ancient as the philosopher Plato, the concept of an education was to create a model citizen that enriched and cultivated both the mind such that reason ruled over emotion and appetite as well as the body through physical education.  I ask the reader whether they feel that the public education model succeeds in fostering the development of this duly described individual of great character. I know my own personal journey through public education was one spent more as a number rather than an individual that was powerfully challenged and crafted along the way. Mediocrity begets mediocrity, and within the typical education methods of modern day America, it is extremely easy to slip through the cracks but still get passed along from grade to grade.

My own children attend a Classical Christian school, and I must admit that I am envious of the education that they are receiving at such an early age relative to my own experiences. While I personally appreciate the Christian focus and foundational elements that supplement the classical education at my own children’s school, I should point out at the outset that the classical model could stand alone on its own merits in a secular setting as well. Briefly described, classical education follows a trivium model of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Classical schools have a varied approach to other subject matters, but they will typically add in essential elements of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, as well as Greek and Latin. Before scoffing at the concept of learning these rarely used languages, recognize that more so than any others, these languages undergird the structure of many other languages (including English) and allow the future adult to analyze ancient texts full of wisdom in their original constructs and unimpeded by the limitations of translation.

Child development begins with a grammar school that teaches critical concepts and facts across multiple disciplines during a life period in which the child is most receptive to memorization. It is during this stage that the aforementioned foreign languages are most stressed since it is easier for a child to absorb them. Students at this level concentrate on poetry, phonics, spelling, basic math facts and rules, plant and animal kingdoms, and the history of ancient civilizations such as Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, and Rome. In the Christian models, they are learning about the beauty of creation and what it means to love each other and our world along the way. The transition is made to a dialectical model, commonly called the School of Logic in classical education parlance, during what is traditionally known as middle school years. In this period, the young adolescent transitions from rote memorization and facts based learning to argumentation and thinking and articulating the basis for their thoughts. Students move on to more advanced maths such as algebra and geometry. Most importantly, students at this level are expected to be able to write and defend a thesis and engage in discussions and debates with their peers and teachers in a Socratic method. The final stages of the model are commonly called the School of Rhetoric. At this stage, students are expected to be able to write and speak with the power of one with convictions that can be backed up with well structured research and reason.

When one can see in the classical education syllabus of the upper school years that the students are exploring and debating the concepts outlined in classical texts from Homer, St. Augustine, Shakespeare, Dante, Virgil, Plato, and Aristotle, to more relatively modern day luminaries such as John Locke, Alexis de Tocqueville, Edmund Burke, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson, coupled with deep study and debate on the key terms and concepts in texts such as the U.S. Constitution, The Federalist Papers, The Declaration of Independence, and many other such texts, then one can understand the full measure of the type of learning that occurs in classical schools.

How is this different than public schools? Public schools’ fundamental nature is primarily categorized as utilitarianism – which can be described as attempting to achieve the highest aggregate outcome through uniformity and standardization against backdrop challenges of limited resources and diverse student capabilities . The cynical description would be that public schools invariably teach to the lowest common denominator in order to achieve this end, although it is more appropriate to indicate that it is the middle of the bell curve (the average student) that is catered to while the highly gifted, students that need additional focus, and children that learn differently or have other primary interests (arts, music, sciences) that receive the short end of the stick.  My other observation on public schools is that they are extremely susceptible to chasing of the latest teaching fads that have no robust statistical evidence supporting their efficacy (i.e. using iPads, Common Core) due to a highly centralized and bureaucratic model that is inevitable with government run programs. It was this utilitarianism that prompted an essay from Dorothy Sayers in the 1940s titled “The Lost Tools of Learning” in which Sayers takes aim at the public education model that has dominated America and Britain since the early 1900s, lamenting that within public schools children “learn everything, except the art of learning.” Indeed, the classical education resurgence owes much to the spark that was lit by the Sayers essay.  As an antidote to the less than stellar public school models, Sayers promoted the return to Greco-Roman and early American and British styles of education, including a curriculum focused on the aforementioned trivium.  Her prescriptions were eventually enacted by a husband and wife who opened a Classical Christian school in Idaho in the 1980s based on their reading and understanding of the Sayers’ essay. Their own school grew rapidly at the same time that many others, both private and publicly funded charter schools, began opening along the same classical lines.  Today, there are an estimated 500 classical schools in America with somewhere around 50,000 students. More can be read on the origin and the growth of classical education at Eric Metaxas’ blog,  National Review, American Spectator, and lest I be accused of cherry-picking conservative publications, even CNN published their own encomium to classical education. The principles of classical education are apolitical and should transcend political creeds. The CNN article is informative in that it pulls together some relative performance statistics that indicate that classical Christian schools are outperforming their public school peers:

Each year, the Association of Classical and Christian Schools compares the SAT scores of classically educated students with national statistics. The class of 2012 averaged 621 in reading, 606 in writing and 597 in math, scores much higher than the national average. A 2011 survey of its member schools’ alumni showed that 98.3% attended college

Aside from the quantitative impacts I will add some qualitative observations from my own numerous personal interactions. I can say that the difference in classically trained adolescents  compared to their publicly educated peers is unequivocally obvious when one meets and talks with students that hail from such schools. Between moves from Kansas to Texas, I have been exposed to two classical schools. The representative students I have met and observed are polite, respectful, can look you in the eyes and speak coherently about high-minded topics, are not ashamed or afraid to participate in theatrical and musical performances, and can sit through such events and group gatherings without being glued to their phones. In a word, there is a great amount of relative maturity possessed by these students. The broader point is that students of this age are capable of remarkable character and maturity, and more,  if we only set the expectations and equip them to do so. With no focus on the development of individual character in public schools, those expectations must somehow come from the inherent and atypical nature within or from the guidance of parents, who have the difficult challenge of increasingly less time with their child to mold such traits as students spend most of their waking hours in schools and with their student peers. I will briefly indicate that the classical education differs from private Christian schools as well in that the typical private Christian school tends to emulate the public school methods and then adds in a Bible class.  In contrast, the focus of the Classical Christian school is to promote a broader narrative in the value of searching for truth through rational thought and exploration, developing virtues, and seeing the beauty of the creation and the Creator through every school discipline that the student encounters.

In order to ward off a criticism that such models are currently only an option for the upper middle class and above, I will close by making it clear of my political and philosophical support for school choice reforms at the local, state, and federal levels that free up money spent on education such that the dollars are attached to the student rather than the school  assigned to the area that the student happens to reside in. My points articulated on this matter are found in other blog posts – more fully in this post where I quote economist Donald Boudreaux and discuss the inherent illogic of being forced to send our kids to school by the zip code we live in, but also briefly here, where I use a Hayek quote to talk about the strangulating effects of letting a government mandate the methods of instruction,  and here, where I point out the erosion of support for Common Core, which is just one of many fads that government bureaucrats have and will latch onto and unilaterally shove down our throats in the absence of more market-based feedback loops. If we were to free parents and students from the shackles of paying high property taxes for the “privilege” of being forced to send their child to a certain school based purely on address, then we would see the ability of children from all socioeconomic backgrounds be able to attend this type (and many other innovative education models) of school, thus transforming our American society for the better.


Quote of the Week


It is incredible given the current debates around Common Core how much has not changed since Hayek’s time of writing his seminal book, The Constitution of Liberty in the early 1960s. This is evident in his chapter covering the role of government in education and research when he writes,

Even if education were a science which provided us with the best methods of achieving certain goals, we could hardly wish the latest methods to be applied universally and to the complete exclusion of others – still less that the aims should be uniform. Very few of the problems of education, however, are scientific questions in the sense that they can be decided by any objective tests. They are mostly either outright questions of value, or at least the kind of questions concerning which the only ground for trusting the judgment of some people rather than others is that the former have shown more good sense in other respects. Indeed, the very possibility that, with a system of government education, all elementary education may come to be dominated by the theories of a particular group who genuinely believe that they have scientific answers to those problems should be sufficient to warn us of the risks involved in subjecting the whole educational system to a central direction.

Thus, one of Hayek’s main concerns with the a predominate role of government in education was centralized control over the methods of instruction and shutting down any diversity and innovation in teaching methods, even going so far as to indicate that at best such control could invariably lead to a stultifying “scientific” uniform approach to education, and at worst, would lead to a dictatorship of mind control, thus repressing freedom of the mind.  Hayek’s policy prescriptions in the face of such negative consequences, while recognizing the need to still educate one’s citizens and children, was that it is proper for government to mandate children’s education and to provide resources for the truly indigent, but otherwise allow parents and children to choose which manner of education was most suited to them, and conversely for their to be a proliferation of education options that provided a diversity of instructional methods.


Our freedom to choose should extend to our choice of schools for our children

Donald Boudreaux, a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, recently published on Cafe Hayek an interesting thought experiment on what life would be like if we had to shop for food in the same manner we “shop” for education for our children for primary education in, If Supermarkets Were Run Like Public Schools.  

I find the thought experiment fascinatingly absurd, and that is precisely the point. We as citizens would never willfully subject ourselves to such rigidity in choice or willingly allow the creation of such a monopolistic power that takes from us a significant portion of our taxes and pushes it to a consumer experience that would inevitably be frustratingly unremarkable in its homogeneity, unchecked cost increases, and lack of innovation and growth that entrenched interests and a lack of competitive market creates. We would never allow the government such restrictive power over our choice of something so critical as food, the forced  inability to purchase a diverse range of goods that fit our proclivities, and the lack of choice of where we buy it. Yet this is the experience that we find in the typical public school model in municipalities across the U.S.

Imagine the power and freedom to choose where to send your child to school. Imagine what you could choose if you had ready access to the $10,000 that the government taxes and sends directly to one school that is currently your only option. Imagine having those funds attached directly to your child for you to spend at any accredited school of your choice. In such a world, innovative schools would proliferate and could cater uniquely to the needs of those that are seeking top-tier experiences and education in science and math, music and arts, traditional trades, computer science, or even athletics. Failing schools would close and cease to harm those in poor communities, who could take their money and the “votes of their feet” to high-performing schools, freeing them from the generational cycle aspect of poverty.

In another great summary with many links on research of the beneficial aspects of school choice and some of the shoddy and self-serving research out there that indicates that school choice has no impact, I also recommend the Post on the Sacred Cow Chips blog, Proof of Concept: School Choice versus Failing Public Schools.  

Common Core – eroding support

No common opinions on the Common Core –

I must admit some ambivalence on this issue. I think given the centralized nature of education currently that it is a necessary evil. That being said, if I could build a system from scratch, it would be far more localized with municipalities and states making the bulk of education and standards decisions. I would also be greatly supportive of attaching school funding to the children and have it follow and flow to whichever school they or their parents saw fit to attend, promoting far more choice and accountability than we have today and allowing children to escape failing schools