C.S. Lewis: The Dinosaur, the Parthenon, and the Optative

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Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Being a self-confessed dinosaur in the world of modern instincts, C.S. Lewis was, and is, therefore, refreshingly relevant. Already in 1944, his views on education were so well rooted in reason and experience that they were wonderfully out of date.

When I wrote last week on the glory of work, I had today’s blog post in mind. I thought: If I could ignite in you a love for the glory of work, maybe you would agree with Lewis about the relationship between the labor of learning to read, and the sweet fruits of good reading.

When I say “learning to read,” I mean more than the ABCs. Language is an inexhaustible thing. We are learning to read all our lives. And the better we learn to read, the more we see and feel. Great writers become guides into great truth and great joy — if we have learned to read. And, of course, the book with the deepest, highest, broadest, vastest vista of truth and beauty is the Bible. We’re never done learning to read it well.

It Takes Work

In 1944, Lewis published an essay called “The Parthenon and the Optative” — a very dinosaur-like title. It was an echo of one of Lewis’s disillusionments with the modern view of education. It was a defense of the truism that it takes work to learn how to read well. And it’s wonderfully worth it.

A teacher was grading the papers of students in the classics. Looking up from the “milk-and-watery” papers, he said, “The trouble with these boys is that their teachers have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking to them about the Optative.”

You get the idea, perhaps. The Optative is a mere, lowly, prosaic, boring grammatical mood of Greek verbs. The Parthenon is the magnificent, exciting, architectural capstone of Greek culture. The point is this: There’s no shortcut to a great appreciation of great things. The students’ writing about the Parthenon was “milk-and-watery” because they took a short cut.

Here’s what Lewis says about the situation.

Ever since then I have tended to use the Parthenon and the Optative as the symbols of two types of education. The one begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least a chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The other begins in “Appreciation” and ends in gush. (Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, HarperCollins, 2000, 444)

Skip the Work?

Everything in my personal experience, and my knowledge of human nature and human language, makes me believe Lewis is right. All we did in Mrs. Adams’ seventh-grade English class, that I can recall, is diagram sentences. We did it again when I was 22 — all the way through the Greek of Philippians, when I was in seminary. Tedious. Demanding. Inglorious — like studying equations to see what weight the arches can bear in the Parthenon.

The modern resistance to this kind of discipline and tedious work to master grammar and paradigms and syntax is that it’s a spoiler. The kids don’t enjoy it. It puts them off. Solution? Skip the work, and show them pictures of the Parthenon, and give them oral snippets from the Iliad and Odyssey.

Lewis responds,

[This way] teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can’t construe. . . . It plays havoc with the very distinction between truth and error. (444)

The Help We Need

But what about the people who say their appreciation of architecture was cut short by the pains of geometry and their experience of literature was soured by the rigors of grammar? Lewis ends his essay with this:

Of course we meet many people who explain to us that they would by now have been great readers of poetry if it had not been “spoiled for them” at school by “doing” it for examinations of the old kind. It is theoretically possible. Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. Perhaps they would have been strategists or heroes if they had never been put into Officer Training School. It may be so: but why should we believe that it is? We have only their word for it; and how do they know? (446)

Right. And I would add this. Great teachers are gifted to sow the seeds of joyful outcomes among the rigors of the painful basics. Students need help to see that swallowing a lot of sea water may need to precede the joy of surfing. Bruised knees may need to go before the pleasures of bicycling. And the optative may need to precede great poetry about the Parthenon.