I recently finished reading CS Lewis' series of essays on education, The Abolition of Man. I actually read this book years ago as an elementary education major at a Christian university, but to be completely honest it didn't really make an impact on me then - I didn't really have a context by which to really understand it at that time, I don't think. This time around, informed by much of the study I have done over the past several years of Charlotte Mason's principles and the Christian classical liberal arts tradition, the impact these essays made on me was huge. All of a sudden a lot of pieces fit together in my mind – it became clear to me why it is I do what I am doing and why it is vitally important to stay the course even with the culture around me tries to pull me away.
This post is going to be an attempt to summarize some of my thinking along these lines. I considered writing a full series exploring the connections I discovered, but to be honest, I don't really have enough time to pull my pages and pages of quotes and notes together into some coherent whole. After my summary, I will leave you with a list of some of the other reading that I have done over the past several years that informed my understanding of Lewis' words so that you can dig for yourself and see what you find. J
In the three essays that comprise The Abolition of Man ("Men without Chests", "The Tao", "The Abolition of Man"), Lewis describes some of the troubling trends he noted in the field of education in his time. Although originally written in 1944, much of what he observed then still rings true. Ultimately, he is warning against subjectivism and the trend away from acknowledging and rooting our educational practice in objective, absolute Truth (what he refers to in his essays as "the Tao"). When we fail to recognize and order our lives by these moral absolutes, we are no longer freeborn men. Lewis says, "It is not that they are bad men. They are not men at all." They become slaves – slaves to impulses, instincts, to the few 'Conditioners' who decide what 'truth' is if it is no longer fixed and absolute. "The practical result of education in [this] spirit," Lewis tells us, "must be the destruction of the society that accepts it." The antidote, he says, is to remain in the "Tao": "In the Tao itself, as long as we remain within it, we find the concrete reality in which to participate is to be truly human: the real common will and common reason of humanity, alive, and growing like a tree, and branching out, as the situation varies, into ever new beauties and dignities of application."
One way we can 'remain in the Tao', as Lewis puts it, is by following the principles of the Christian classical tradition – of which Charlotte Mason's ideas are one excellent expression. These principles are firmly rooted in the Truth, Beauty, and Goodness that find their source in God Himself. The goal is to order the souls of our children and students according to what is True and Good and Beautiful and thereby cultivate wisdom and virtue by the help of the Holy Spirit. The result of this kind of education – or perhaps formation is a better word since we are dealing with whole persons and not just minds – is free men and free women, not slaves subject to the ebb and flow of the dominant culture around them. Lewis' essays helped me to clarify why it is so important to 'instruct the conscience' and to help my students understand 'the way of the will' and 'the way of reason' (terms used by Charlotte Mason in her writings). This is why I am a classical educator and why I follow the principles that Charlotte Mason has laid out in her writings. It is because, as Lewis put it, "the task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts."
Reading that has informed my thoughts on The Abolition of Man:
- Charlotte Mason's writings, especially Volume 4, Ourselves and Volume 6, Towards a Philosophy of Education
- Brandy Vencel's 20 Principles Study – I did this with a group on the AO Forum a couple years ago, but the same study has now been published as Start Here
- Consider This by Karen Glass, especially the chapter titled "Finding the Forest amid the Trees" on synthetic vs. analytic learning
- Various resources from the Circe Institute
- The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain, especially the chapters on "Piety" and "Gymnastic and Music"