The Lion, the Witch, and the Problem with Education

Observations from C.S. Lewis

Chances are that if you’re reading this, you already know who C.S. Lewis was, or maybe you’re just familiar with the name, but can’t quite place it. After all, it’s been a long 13 years since the last Narnia film’s release.

Who’s C.S. Lewis and What Does He Have to Do with Education?

C.S. Lewis
John Chillingworth/Getty

Clive Staples Lewis — “C.S.” to the rest of us — was an Irish author and scholar whose day job was to chair Oxford University’s Medieval and Renaissance Literature department (About C.S. Lewis – Official Site). When he wasn’t enjoying the delightful bureaucracy that is chairing a university department, he was writing.

His Chronicles of Narnia series has, to date, sold more than 100 million copies and led to three successful films (About C.S. Lewis – Official Site). Narnia is renowned for its world-building and glaringly obvious christian morality lessons. Except, you know, with a lion named Aslan instead of Jesus.

Lewis didn’t limit himself to gospel retellings, though. Seven years prior to publishing The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (no Oxford comma!?) Lewis gave a series of lectures later published as: The Abolition of Man: Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools (phew!). 

Essentially — and I’m being shamelessly reductive here — Lewis happened upon an English textbook written in the 1930s that included, in his view, some undertones of moral subjectivism. Lewis saw this as deeply problematic for student values and began writing the aforementioned lectures in response. The ultimate iteration of his rebukes culminated in The Abolition of Man, in which he outlines not only a critique of moral subjectivism, but a treatise on what education should be. 

As a teacher who recently departed the classroom, I’m fresh out of tolerance for hearing about what politicians, the public, and university professors believe about education. In this instance, however, revisiting the ideas that evolved from Lewis’s initial takedown of moral subjectivism intrigues me. Let’s get into it. 

The Purpose of Education According to C.S. Lewis

What began as a critique of a textbook ultimately became an examination of the “why?” of education. Any teacher who has sat through a mind-numbing (and unhelpful) “teacher preparation program” has had to learn the lofty goals of educating children in this country. Namely, forming an educated citizenry that can sustain a democratic republic. Lewis, who was not guided by principles of American education, had a more nuanced take. 

Unsurprisingly, C.S. Lewis believed that education should impart values and root itself in the idea of character formation. Beyond that, he had some really interesting things to say about the importance of creativity and imagination — two elements that modern American education has systematically continued to push to the side.

Lewis believed in the importance of cultivating a love for learning and intellectual curiosity. He believed in balancing knowledge acquisition with personal growth and moral development. In his perspective: “Imagination awakens us to the dragons and unicorns in our own lives and encourages us to look deeper into the supernatural part of our being” (“what should they teach at these schools?” lewis on education and imagination – official site). For Lewis, nurturing a students’ imagination was the most effective way to reach them spiritually — something later echoed in the Narnia series.

“Imagination awakens us to the dragons and unicorns in our own lives and encourages us to look deeper into the supernatural part of our being”

C.S. Lewis

In Narnia, Lewis follows the age-old “show, don’t tell” advice given to all writers. Instead of telling readers about right and wrong, good and bad, he gives them an imaginative story arch with those traits personified (or anthropomorphized, in the case of Aslan and others). Readers (and, much later, viewers) are more likely to be amenable to the values outlined in a fantastical story because it ignites the imagination and stimulates creative thinking. 

Reaching students in this way is the “how?” to Lewis’ “why?”

Lewis’s Criticism of Modern Education

Imparting objectivism and Christian-grounded values through imagination and creativity has an equal and opposite paradigm: modern education. More specifically, the demand in modern education for specialization and thus the loss of a well-rounded experience. 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the push for “STEM” schools and curricula. Despite pushback from educators and attempts to rebrand as “STREAM” (science, technology, wRiting, engineering, art, and math), there is no question which of the disciplines are more valued in this age. 

I’m worried about it, and so was C.S. Lewis. He worried that a push for specialization in education would lead to the devaluing of the classics and “traditional” subjects like philosophy and literature (C.S. Lewis and the worth of a liberal education). While I personally don’t hold a torch for classical education, as an “exited” educator I am sad to see disciplines of so-called “high learning” relegated to elective-only status.

Philosophy and literature (along with their non-STEM counterparts) are important. World languages (my content area) are important.

Is philosophy going to earn you a well-paying job? No. It’s not meant to. Is it going to give you the skills to understand a complex issue through multiple viewpoints and frames of reference? Yes. I argue — as Lewis did — that that is worthwhile and important. 

After all, as Lewis may have said: “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man into a clever devil.”

“Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man into a clever devil”

Attributed to C.S. Lewis

Current Trends and Challenges in Education

Standardized Testing

If you went to school in the United States, you’ve had to take a standardized test. If you live in the United States, you have an opinion of them. 

C.S. Lewis was conflicted when it came to the matter of standardized testing. He was frustrated that the culmination of students’ learning process, imagination, and creativity boiled down to a test. He found it deeply problematic that succeeding on tests was virtually the only way to attain better education and more desirable work (if only he’d known about Varsity Blues!).

At the same time, he recognized that standardized testing was the only way to maintain democratic ideals and equal opportunity for students (What C.S. Lewis thought of testing). This both-sides view of standardized testing echoes through to today as we engage in a societal debate over the fairness of funding education, paying teachers, and relying too heavily on testing data. The only real change in the argument’s framework nowadays is the fact that even the most academically-challenged legacy student will still likely get into Harvard.

Technology in the Classroom

Another aspect of modern education that Lewis would’ve challenged is the omnipresence of technology. While 15 years ago the idea of a 1:1 program was exciting and cutting-edge, today it is the bane of most teachers’ existence. Students are not learning more or learning better with a Chromebook or iPad. If anything, they’re learning that they don’t really have to learn. Why pay attention to a teacher when you’ve got a whole world’s worth of information at your fingertips? Why engage in philosophical discussions, creative problem solving, imaginative thinking, or even basic decency when Chat GPT can write your English paper and summarize Cartesian philosophy “like [you’re] in fifth grade.”

On this topic, my bitterness shines through clear as day. I think, though, that C.S. Lewis would agree. Our addiction to technology and its importance in the learning process has stripped the best parts of education away. While there’s no silver bullet to fix all that currently ails education, there have been few developments in education as damaging as this.

Bridging the Gap Between Lewis’s Ideals and Modern Education

So what can we bring to the modern-day “table” from C.S. Lewis’s eighty-year-old writings on the “why?” and “how?” of education? The answer really depends on your school of thought. 

Christian Values Education?

There are many communities across this country that advocate for more explicit teaching of Christian-based values in schools. They, like Lewis, reject the philosophy of moral subjectivity and believe that learning Christian-based objectivism is good for students everywhere. 

I am not of that viewpoint, but I respect it insofar as I believe these advocates fundamentally want what’s best for children. Having taught in public schools and private ones, religious schools and secular ones, I do not believe there is a role for religion in public education. You are free to disagree — something I always encouraged my students to do (respectfully).

A Liberal Arts Approach

For me, then, the value of Lewis’s writings lies in the advocacy for the liberal arts. A liberal arts education (not to be confused with “liberal” as a term for the American political Left) is one whose aim is to care for the whole child and value the gifts that they bring to the classroom. It is one that treats all disciplines equally; there is no “gold star” for being strong in math as opposed to history. 

It’s an education theory that flies in the face of the one we have, in which eighteen-year-olds are supposed to decide what they want to specialize in for life while assuming the financial burden of costly student loans. What we have is an education system that devalues the trades, the blue collar workers that keep the country running, and those who might not find fulfillment in a college lecture hall. As anti-capitalist of an argument as it may seem, I think these aspects of our education system are misguided and damaging. I think they have set my generation (and the ones after it) up for failure, and I think that attempts at course-correcting have been too little, too late. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

Look, C.S. Lewis doesn’t have an answer. His eighty-year-old opinions are interesting artifacts that tell the story of an education system that we’d like to think has evolved. What an examination of his beliefs reveals, though, is the underlying desire of so many of us to create a vibrant, intelligent, and curious citizenry — not merely one that can code or create Oppenheimer-level physics projects.

Maybe it begins with a paradigm shift. Or a national teacher shortage and mass resignations. Or maybe it begins with a look at our past to compare what educators thought then and what they still think now. 

But who am I to philosophize on paradigm shifts? I was taught the quadratic equation instead.

girl in old fashioned dress standing in library holding books


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