Meditations with C. S. Lewis: Jungles and Deserts in Education

C. S. Lewis, best known as the author of The Chronicles of Narnia, was also one of the most profound thinkers of twentieth century Christianity.  Along with J. R. R. Tolkien, he has inspired millions of people, include all of the authors at Lantern Hollow Press.  On Sundays we would like to take a moment to offer up a little Lewis for your consideration.

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The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.
–The Abolition of Man

One of the real marks of Lewis’s genius as a writer is how well his points have stood the test of time.  In fact, most of the time when I sit down to write one of these meditations, I find myself simply restating the essence of Lewis’s points to a more modern audience.  Their content is still just as relevant, but our context forces a new application.  Here, though, I think western culture has changed enough to lead me to disagree with Lewis:  Since he wrote, education in western civilization has become both jungle and desert at once.  We cannot afford to ignore either.

When Lewis was writing The Abolition of Man, he was combating a rising tide of modernity that was trying to rid humanity of “sentimentality” by reducing all that is good and admirable to “scientific” principles that could be culled from observation of nature.  Put simply, humanity was being actively reduced to the status of an animal, and philosophers were unwilling to give up what everyone thinks is “good” about humanity at the same time. So, for instance, self-sacrificial love was supposed to be still laudable, even though we rejected the idea of a greater love or a transcendent right and wrong.

We cannot reason to the word “ought” from nature.  Lewis was completely correct when he pointed out that there is no legitimate way to justify most morally positive decisions by the dark practicality we see in nature, and he was also right when he decried the fact that this nonsense was being taught to children.  It was only a matter of time until some of them began to call the bluff laid down by the secularists:  If my morals are to be based on nature, why can’t I lie, cheat, steal, or even murder, if I can get away with it?  This has led, as Lewis predicted, to the significant moral decay we see all around us.

What Lewis did not predict was how the jungle would simultaneously intrude on our efforts to educate.  The average westerner–adult and child–has access to far more information now in the digital age than Lewis likely ever imagined would be possible.  Everyone is bombarded with literally hundreds of competing truth claims every day, from what toothpaste is best to who you should vote for to who you should worship.  This has contributed to a sort of information overload, since it would be patently impossible for most of us to even begin to sort through the mess.  Moreover, the sheer volume of “facts” out there can be used selectively to support whatever positions we might take a fancy to occupying that day.

For many children (and adults) the result is something akin to dropping them into the North Atlantic without a life preserver.  People today are drowning in a mass of “facts,” ideas, and truth claims that they have been ill-equipped by life and education to stay on top of and sort through.  The main philosophies that they have absorbed are often either of little help to them or will actively drag them down faster.  Many simply give up trying to stay afloat and allow themselves to “die” in a sort of intellectual suicide, clinging for comfort to whatever happens to make them happy for a time, no matter how true it is or what the consequences will be later.

If I were to stick to Lewis’s analogy, the job of the educator today is to both irrigate deserts and chop jungles all at once.  Better, we must teach our students–whether they be in a classroom or in a church–how to find their way through an arid jungle that offers only death to the better, more fertile lands beyond.

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Click here for the entire run of “Meditations with C. S. Lewis” so far.

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on September 9, 2012, in Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Meditations, Social Commentary and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. You might be “disagreeing” with Lewis to an extent, but I certainly don’t think he would disagree with your modern redefining of his comment. I think you can definitely update his concept so long as you hold onto the key emphasis within it: that the educator is supposed to, as much as possible, be encouraging good and healthy intellect and enabling students to grow and flourish. The difference now is that in order to do so, unhealthy things must be cut down before good things can grow, whereas in Lewis’s time, there was more often an ability to cultivate what was already there.

    Sorry… I know you were feeling so very excited about finally being able to disagree with Lewis… but I think you and he still agree on the essence of the thing. 😛

  1. Pingback: C. S. Lewis, taking modernity and postmodernity out to the toolshed | Lantern Hollow Press

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