The 'End' of Man: Education and the Individual, Pt. 1

C.S. Lewis' The Abolition of Man is a book Lewis presented as a three-part lecture at King's College, Newcastle, in 1943.  He had been gifted an elementary school textbook by its authors.  He was disturbed enough by the slant of the material that he determined to write a rebuttal-- yes, a rebuttal to an elementary school textbook.  In 1943.  So what did he see that too many didn't, so early in the history of progressive education?

The title says a lot.  Abolish means 'to end the observance or effect of,' 'to close down, nullify, make void, bring to an end.'  Lewis believed that the textbook he'd received foreshadowed the future of society.  It detailed the education of 'man made void.'  In order to protect the textbook's presumably well-intentioned authors, he provided them with the pseudonyms 'Gaius and Titius.'
Lewis relates a portion of the book about a waterfall and a tourist who considers it 'sublime.'  Gaius and Titius reject this opinion.  "What he was saying," they tell us, "was really I have feelings associated in my mind about the word 'sublime', or shortly, I have sublime feelings ... This confusion is continually present in language as we use it.  We appear to be saying something very important about something; and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings."

What was C.S. Lewis' problem with this statement that would cause him to write a book about it?  In a textbook meant to teach the English language to elementary-age students, the authors taught (in a manner so coy that one might miss it in a blink) that nothing is truly venerable or truly contemptible.  All is a matter of opinion, perception, or emotion. A waterfall has no value of itself, except the value we give it with our opinion of it.

"If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement of one's feelings ... It would force them to maintain that You are contemptible means I have contemptible feelings; in fact that Your feelings are contemptible means My feelings are contemptible."  And thus, nothing is truly contemptible, except the feelings we have toward it.  Meanwhile, "The schoolboy who reads this passage ... will believe two propositions: firstly, that all [such statements are] about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant...

"The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy; a boy who thinks he is 'doing' his 'English prep' and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.  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 recognized as a controversy at all.  The authors themselves, I suspect, hardly know what they are doing to the boy, and he cannot know what is being done to him."  A boy doing his English prep begins the slow infusion process into moral relativity.

Lewis does not entirely concede that the authors do this unconsciously.  He later considers the possibility that 'the trousered ape and the urban blockhead may be precisely the kind of man they really wish to produce... They may be intending to make a clean sweep of traditional values and start with a new set. ... But I doubt whether [they] have really planned to propagate their philosophy.  I think they have slipped into it [because] literary criticism is quite difficult, and what they actually do is much easier.'  He presumes the purveyors of such an education may be trousered apes or urban blockheads themselves, so to speak.

"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 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 defense 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."

How much that single paragraph says about our current state of education!  It conjures images of classrooms filled with individuals forbidden from physical contact, the volumes of naturally-occurring thoughts and subject matters that form in a child's brain which he is forbidden to speak; standardized materials which he is mandated to read, and the mandated thoughts he should think about them; essays given failing grades because the opinion expressed is not aligned to the instructor's opinion; even police arriving to interrogate a child who engaged in a game of 'cops and robbers' on the playground.  This is not the learning environment God intended for his children.  Quite the opposite-- it's the environment fantasized about by the common enemy of all mankind. 

Lewis continues, "The difference between the old and the new education will be an important one.  Where the old initiated, the new merely 'conditions'.  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 birds know nothing.  In a word, the old was a kind of propogation--men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda. ...

"The operation of [this textbook] and its kind is to produce what may be called Men without Chests.  It is an outrage that they should be commonly spoken of as Intellectuals.  This gives them the chance to say that he who attacks them attacks Intelligence.  It is not so...

"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.

"All the time-- such is the tragi-comedy of our situation-- we continue to clamour 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 be fruitful... The practical result of [such] education ... must be the destruction of the society which accepts it."

So begins 'The Abolition of Man'-- the end of the moral individual. 


  1. Thanks for your insight, Carrie, and for illustrating these modern (and classic) issues so well. I appreciate it.

  2. C.S. Lewis was brilliant, wasn't he? Thanks for reading!


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