Mini-Essay: The Abolition of Man

It is a frequent lament of liberal education enthusiasts in this country that they must so often turn to the United States for inspiration. So it was that, via the US education think-tank the ISI, I first came across C S Lewis’ slim, digestible book on education, The Abolition of Man. Few books have had such a profound effect on me, especially on my views of education. It can be read for free here, and I much recommend this accompanying lecture (number 118 on the list, I believe) by the entertaining and rather mellifluous Dr. Richard Gamble.The book can be read in one sitting, and I would hate to spoil the experience for the uninitiated, so I shall limit my commentary to just one point – on sentiment in education.C S Lewis’ writing is a wonderful tonic to modern conceptions of sentiment, which leave most commentators divided between automatons and sentimentalists. Today, it seems, one is either in favour of regimentation, efficiency and accountability (see most of McKinsey’s reports on education systems, or politicians’ regular praise for the education systems of Korea and Singapore), or else one would rather schools resemble Rousseauian playgrounds, exalting creativity and individual expression above all else.

C S Lewis would be appalled by both visions, though it was his fears about the former – the technocraticisation of English schools; the mechanization of their products – that led him to write the book. In my favourite line, he writes: “The job of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.”

What did he mean by deserts? He worried that children were being educated in a way that robbed them of their souls – though atheists may prefer the word spirit. He illustrates his point with several examples, most from a popular elementary textbook of the time. I’ll repeat just one – on horses. In the textbook, the writer has found “a silly bit of writing on horses, where these animals are praised as the ‘willing servants’ of the early colonists in Australia”. The writer “debunks” this piece of writing and explains that horses were not interested in colonial expansion.

That C S Lewis picks out this example is a testament to his value as a writer on education, and to what we’ve lost now that his like are not around. Most parents or teachers would skim over this tiny detail as incidental, a bit trivial, not worth worrying about. Not Lewis, who writes:

“I find that the same operation, under the same general anaesthetic, is being carried out. Orbilius [his name for the writer] chooses for ‘debunking’ a silly bit of writing on horses…Of Ruksh and Sleipnir and the weeping horses of Achilles and the war-horse in the Book of Job—nay even of Brer Rabbit and of Peter Rabbit—of man’s prehistoric piety to ‘our brother the ox’—of all that this semi-anthropomorphic treatment of beasts has meant in human history and of the literature where it finds noble or piquant expression—he has not a word to say. Even of the problems of animal psychology as they exist for science he says nothing. He contents himself with explaining that horses are not, secundum litteram, interested in colonial expansion. This piece of information is really all that his pupils get from him. Why the composition before them is bad, when others that lie open to the same charge are good, they do not hear. Much less do they learn of the two classes of men who are, respectively, above and below the danger of such writing—the man who really knows horses and really loves them, not with anthropomorphic illusions, but with ordinate love, and the irredeemable urban blockhead to whom a horse is merely an old-fashioned means of transport. Some pleasure in their own ponies and dogs they will have lost; some incentive to cruelty or neglect they will have received; some pleasure in their own knowingness will have entered their minds. That is their day’s lesson in English, though of English they have learned nothing. Another little portion of the human heritage has been quietly taken from them before they were old enough to understand.”

Not just the missed opportunity to leave a child uplifted, but the actual reduction in scope and spirit that a lesson like this might cause, is tragically revealed. Elsewhere in the book, Lewis repeats the damaging consequences: “The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him…It is not a theory they put into his mind, but an assumption, which ten years hence, its origin forgotten and its presence unconscious, will condition him to take one side in a controversy which he has never recognised as a controversy at all.” That the capacity for worthy, “ordinate” sentiment is what it means to be human is why C S Lewis chooses such a fearsome title: by robbing children of this capacity, we are abolishing the species.

A very good friend, who teaches English at a top London independent school, tells me that C S Lewis’ fear is well-placed with regard to many of the colleagues he has worked with. One telling observation was the number of his colleagues – clever, professional, sometimes brilliant, well-meaning men and women – who would disparage as childish or needless their students’ tendency to imagine characters’ lives beyond the pages of a novel. History departments do the same damage to their students’ historical imaginations when they refuse to be drawn into class discussions on counterfactual history. As Lewis says, the result is that “we make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise.”

There is nothing about the sentimental approach encouraged by Lewis that means that the education has to lack rigour – so often the case with modern attempts to prioritise the sentimental. The English public schools used to be purposeful standard-bearers for a middle way, managing to be at once academically rigorous and encouraging of “ordinate” sentiment, but I for one have fears that this is now under threat. It is interesting to note that C S Lewis, like Tolkein, T S Eliot and other writers who left school before WWII, were the last generation to have had a rigorous classical education. Anyway, the book has much more to it than what I’ve discussed above, and I heartily recommend it.

4 thoughts on “Mini-Essay: The Abolition of Man”

  1. This is refreshing! I’m a home educating parent trying to give a genuine good ole British Classical Education to my children, yet struggling against the pull of the mind numbing national curriculum ideologies. Thank you for your encouragement. I will be reading Lewis’ book.

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