To See the World As It Really Is: C. S. Lewis on Education

Having examined the form of education that Lewis rejects, we turn now to a brief summation of his own view. The following tenets are not the whole of Lewis’s educational paradigm, but instead form some of the nonnegotiables that Lewis felt were under particular attack in his day.

The Tao

Genuine education embraces the Tao. For Lewis, the Tao appears to be a combination of the absoluteness of reality and the human way of life that conforms to this reality. In other words, reality simply is a certain way, and human beings are called to order their lives by the pattern of the Tao.

Lewis believed that some aspect of the Tao was present in all major ancient philosophies and religions (Christian, Platonic, Oriental, Stoic, etc). Christians in search of biblical support for such an idea might look to Romans 1, where what can be known about God (i.e. Absolute Reality) has been revealed to and perceived by all men because God has made it known.

The Doctrine of Objective Value

For Lewis, the common feature in all manifestations of the Tao is the doctrine of objective value:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it — believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit our approval or disapproval, our reverence, or our contempt (The Abolition of Man, 27-28). . .

It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are. Those who know the Tao can hold that to call children delightful or old men venerable is not simply to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognize a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not (31).

In short, the “givenness” of the world, and in particular, the Ultimate Reality that stands behind it, means that when we are confronted with various aspects of reality, we are obligated to respond with certain rational and emotional reactions.

The Principle of Proportionate Regard

But it’s not enough to simply feel something in response to the objective reality of the world. You must also feel rightly and proportionately to the way the world is.

"Can you be righteous," asks Traherne, "unless you be just in rendering to things their due esteem? All things were made to be yours and you were made to prize them according to their value?". . . St. Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought (28-29).

These three realities form the foundation of true education. They also shape the aim of education.

For those within [the Tao], the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are themselves appropriate. . .

The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful (32).

Following Plato, Lewis believed that we ought to initiate the young into these right responses, even before they are able to rationally understand or explain what they are feeling. The goal of such inculcation of right responses is that, when a child raised in this way grows up and encounters Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, he will welcome them with open arms, because he has been prepared for, and indeed, resembles them already.

Now, We Get the Point of the Narnian Stories

So then, the function of the Narnian stories in Lewis’s approach to education becomes clear. The Narnian stories display through imaginative fiction and fairy tale the way that the world really is. Here is courage and bravery in its shining glory. Here is honesty and truth-telling in its simplicity and profundity. Here is treachery in all its ugliness. Here is the face of Evil. Here also is the face of Good.

A child raised on such stories will have developed the patterns and habits of thought and affection that will be well prepared to embrace the True, the Good, and the Beautiful (that is, to embrace Jesus Christ) when he finally encounters them (Him!) when he is grown. Like John the Baptist, Lewis and his cast of Narnians will have prepared the way.

Joe Rigney is Assistant Professor of Theology and Christian Worldview at Bethlehem College and Seminary.