A Manifesto for Liberal Education


For at least three decades now I’ve talked about liberal education in public, but I can say in my own favor that I’ve done it—at least done it lately—with a somewhat bad conscience. That bad conscience comes in part from adding yet more to a magnitude, that of words about education, which is already large (though not great) beyond all reason. The other part of my slight sense of guilt comes from talking at the public and the students and the teachers, just when my point usually is that people shouldn’t talk at but to each other.

This time round, and I’ve resolved that it should be the last time (though I haven’t much faith in that resolve), I’ll therefore do it differently. I’ll still talk for a while, but I’ll leave off in time for an ample question period. And instead of expanding in consecutive arguments and rounded periods on this subject, which is so close to my heart that I could probably do that, I’ll be concise to the point of brusqueness and bold to the point of offense. So much the more important will it be that you get your chance to give your counter-opinions as you question my theses. For that is the way I want to proceed this time: to nail my nine theses concerning liberal education on the imaginary gates of this college and then to weather whatever small storm results. So let me begin forthwith and in accordance with my introduction by announcing the following first thesis.

Thesis One: Lectures are not a legitimate part of liberal education, at least not as a primary part. I conceive of liberal education as quite sharply distinct from vocational training. This distinction goes back to Aristotle, who speaks of liberal, that is to say, free learning as being done for its own sake and not as a means to an end. Now when students are being trained in some expertise in which it is important that they should receive the most effective methods and the established facts from those who are learned in them, that is, from the professors and authorities, then lectures may be the right mode of imparting that knowledge. It might be more efficient to excuse students from class and to hand them outright the paper or notes from which the professors are reading, but insofar as a certain amount of theater on their part helps students remember the material, a live delivery may be useful. But liberal education as I understand it does not have the purpose of shaping students to professional standards. Instead it is a slow self-development guided by teachers who are also and genuinely fellow learners. The subject matter of liberal education is not primarily jigged methods and established facts, but questions and inquiries of the sort for which there are no experts and in the face of which students and teachers are not so far apart—not because the teachers are not far more learned but because the matter is so very deep. One way to put my first thesis is that professors should give up professing and take up teaching. Liberal learning is by its nature conversational or, to use a fancier term, dialectical. In a dialectical education the student is not the passive recipient of knowledge but an active participant in a common search. So the class is a place of real, not pretended questions, and the conversation is not a disguised solicitation of fixed answers but a shared effort. And that means throwing to the winds such false professorial ambitions as “covering the material” or “making students see” a certain thing, and above all “teaching them the methods of research” in a subject—for methods are, as I said, jigged ways of figuring, and they are the last thing a student should learn about, perhaps even as late as graduate school.

Read the rest at The Imaginative Conservative.


Envy and Egalitarianism: C.S. Lewis on Education

An excerpt from Louis Markos’ new handbook, C.S. Lewis: An Apologist for Education, published by Classical Academic Press. You can buy a copy of this book, or learn more about CAP’s Giants in the History of Education series, by clicking here. 

Two decades after publishing The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis published a standalone essay, “Screwtape Proposes a Toast,” in which the senior tempter Screwtape lectures his fellow devils at the Tempters’ Training College. In a preface he wrote to the essay, Lewis reveals that the true target of his satire was none other than the American public school system. As a result, the toast offers us one of Lewis’s most direct statements on the dangers latent in democratic concepts of education.

Lewis does not mince words in identifying the root of those dangers: envy. Although democracies are supposed to secure political equality, they tend, Lewis argues, to call for a tearing down of all forms of excellence. Rather than admit and accept that some students are naturally brighter than others, schools loosen their standards and create a lowest-common-denominator atmosphere fueled by a spirit that Lewis dubs “I’m as good as you.” Not satisfied with seeking equality before the law, democracies seek to effect an egalitarian vision of education in which no student is allowed to stick out or be left out.

 In words that could have been written today, Lewis has Screwtape draw out for his audience the implications of an envy-driven educational system: “The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. . . . Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not.” Though he devoted his life to providing students with a classical, liberal arts education, Lewis did not believe that college was for everyone or that it should be considered a political or God-given right. The attempt to provide all young people with a college education would not result in a nation of philosophers, he thought, but in a state of universal mediocrity.
Although Lewis “supported equality in the treatment of people,” argues Joel Heck, he

“. . . Was concerned about the negative effects of the self-esteem movement, the dumbing down of the curriculum (for the sake of not harming the self-esteem of those not gifted), the inappropriate rewarding of the lazy, and the holding back of the gifted (the negative side of egalitarianism) at the elementary school levels, as well as in higher education.”

Politically speaking, Lewis was by no means an elitist or aristocrat; however, when it came to the arts and education, he favored a system that encouraged and rewarded excellence.

This insight was not one that came to Lewis at the end of his life. During World War II, he published an essay titled “Democratic Education” (1944) in which he prophesied what would happen to a democracy that eliminated academic standards in order to foster egalitarianism and guard self-esteem. In its quest to protect schoolchildren (and their parents) from feelings of inferiority, such a society would end up breeding in them laziness and a false sense of their own strengths and limitations. By so doing, it would corrupt and weaken the will, drive, and creativity of the entire state. No, Lewis makes clear, a “truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy—must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly ‘high brow.’ ”

In formulating his theories of democratic education, Lewis was always guided by Aristotle’s reminder that the kind of behavior that a democracy breeds is often sharply at odds with the kind of behavior that allows it to flourish. Indeed, as Plato shows in his Republic, democracy tends to produce the very lack of temperance and respect for authority that ends up destroying it. For Lewis, proper education was not just a matter for abstract theorizing; it was a matter of survival! Just as an education that relativizes our stock responses toward treachery, ugliness, and debauchery will, in the end, deaden the souls of our youth, so an education that abandons standards and discipline will rob society of the creative and industrious minds it needs to thrive and grow.

And besides, Lewis reminds his readers, the weaker students themselves rarely want to be like the “brainy” ones. They are happy to play their games and ignore the more studious among their peers. Lewis wisely advises that rather than trying to turn all students into Latin scholars, society should steer the weaker students toward professions that will better suit their skills, make them happier, and likely gain them a larger paycheck than the academic-minded students.

Believing in Science

From David Hicks, the author of the book Norms and Nobility: A Treatise on Education, writing for the Circe Institute. It sums up perfectly why I don’t trust science and much prefer to put my faith in God:

“The good thing about science is it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”  With this statement, the man 60 Minutes describes as “Carl Sagan’s successor,” “the country’s most captivating scientific communicator,” Neil deGrasse Tyson, begins a lecture.  His audience greets these words with applause.

Now, Dr. Tyson is a very charming man, articulate, attractive, knowledgeable, enthusiastic and convincing, and there’s something disarming at the same time as provocative about his opening salvo. It’s a bit like my punching you in the chest with my finger and saying, “I’m speaking to you whether or not you’re listening.” But is his statement true?  Or if it is true, how is it any different from my saying “the good thing about Christianity is it’s true whether or not you believe in it?”  I know very few Christians who would argue with that statement, and I suspect that there are very few Jews or Moslems or Hindus who would argue with a similar statement affirming the objective truth of their own beliefs.

For sure, Dr. Tyson’s words imply that some things are true only because we believe them to be. What things might he and his appreciative audience have in mind?  My guess is that he’s trying to make a distinction between science and religion, and I suspect most of his audience “gets it.”  For them, religious beliefs are “true” only for those who believe them to be so, but science is true for all of us whether we believe in it or not.

Perhaps the place to start is by asking ourselves, what do we mean when we say that science is true?  Unlike Christianity whose truth-claims have been around for two thousand years and have remained remarkably stable throughout that time in spite of repeated challenges from both believers and non-believers, science has continually revised and upgraded its truth-claims, often even dismissing them as falsehoods as it seeks to understand the material universe. The truths of Christianity have informed virtually every charitable work, peace-keeping and non-violent initiative, educational foundation, and ethical code of conduct since the Gospel was written. Thousands, nay, millions have tested its precepts in their daily lives, sought and experienced comfort and healing in its prayers, and found meaning, purpose and hope in its teachings. Man created in the image of God preserved human dignity and freedom, and Nature declared by the Creator “good” sought and often found protection against the depredations of human greed and arrogance.

Science by its own admission and limitations can’t offer us “truths” like these, and the history of science makes it difficult to say science is true because of the “truths” it can and has offered, regardless of whether or not we believe them to be true.  Science once believed the earth was flat and enjoyed center stage in the universe.  Science once prescribed a good blood-letting as a cure for pneumonia and taught that heavy objects fall faster than light objects.  Does anyone doubt that one hundred years from now, or perhaps next year, science will dismiss some claim that scientists are making today about the nature of the universe and the laws governing it?

So if he can’t reasonably claim that scientific truths are infallibly, objectively, eternally true — the equivalent of saying that the sum of the angles of a triangle must equal 180 degrees — what does Dr. Tyson mean when he claims that science is true? Perhaps he is saying, without stating it explicitly, that science alone holds the key to the mysteries of the universe and will, if given world enough and time, unlock those mysteries.  Science is a true path.  If we apply its methods faithfully, if we ask the right questions and propose the right hypotheses, if we don’t doctor the data or use what science teaches us for nefarious purposes, if we continually refine our instruments and remain open to examining our assumptions, and if it turns out that all that matters is matter, then someday we will unlock the last mystery.


Would anyone care to take million-to-one odds on these suppositions?  And even if all those if’s were horses that beggars could ride, doesn’t it seem more likely that we’re talking about some species of Zeno’s Paradox whereby we might halve our ignorance every day between now and when our sun twinkles out in five billion years without unlocking that last mystery? And given our short, selfish and murderous history on the planet, is there really any probability at all that one of our ancestors will be around to witness the twinkle out?  If these observations are true, their truth will not depend on whether or not we believe in them.  Their truth may be caused in part by science, and science may help us anticipate, accelerate or forestall them, but will science as a “true path” help us, either individually or collectively, save ourselves or our planet?

This may not be the right question, but it does seem to be the question Dr. Tyson and the science messiahs want us to ask.  They propose we study the stars to find a soft, green place for our ancestors to land once the tools of science in our hands have poisoned beyond repair the beautiful planet we saw from Apollo 8.  They claim, as Dr. Tyson says, that “if everyone had a cosmic perspective you wouldn’t have legions of armies making war on each other.”  Really?  Will someone please explain the necessary connection between a cosmic perspective (presumably seeing from outer space the utter insignificance of our planet) and making war?  Why is this any more wishful thinking than to make peace because all men are brothers or because God forbids the taking of human life?  When scientists make gnomic utterances like this, they elicit applause from their devotees, but only convince the rest of us that these people are just as eager as the rest of us for something to believe in.  And science as a “true path” does indeed depend on whether or not you believe in it.

Permit me to doubt.


There is something which unites magic and applied science while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men: the solution is a technique; and both, in the practice of this technique, are ready to do things hitherto regarded as disgusting and impious….

– C.S. Lewis from The Abolition of Man

What’s Coming Next


With the gay marriage debate largely over, this is the next thing on the horizon. This isn’t really about tolerance, or even acceptance. This is about endorsement. You have to endorse the perversion or you are castigated as a bigot.

This fight started like most of them have, as a necessity for safety reasons. The person in question was being bullied in the male facilities and had to have a safe place. A third, neutral facility was offered and sufficed for a time, but, in the end, it just wasn’t enough. Again, this isn’t about tolerance. Activists argued using a third facility made the student feel different and singled out. The student identifies as female so that should be the same as being female. Gender is just a social construct. Who are we to deny this student the free expression of their individuality?

Having redefined marriage, having removed the symbolism of Jesus’ relationship to the church that it was intended to carry, they now move on to gender. We can be whoever, whatever we decide we want to be and completely ignore what God created us to be. Our society is running as fast and as far as they can from God. We need to pray that they will turn and see His light.

Remember Saint Patrick


Saint Paddy’s Day is for the pagans.

You might say it that way, and then carefully wash your Christian hands of all the carousing and empty revelry that makes all things Irish into an excuse for a godless spring party. But you might say the same thing, and mean it not as a call to circle the wagons, but to charge the hill.

Deep beneath much of what the day has become is the inspiring mission of Patrick pioneering the gospel among an unreached people, despite the frowning face of the church establishment. Saint Patrick’s Day, in its truest meaning, is not about avoiding the lost, but bringing them good news. It turns out Saint Paddy’s Day really is for the pagans.

Read the rest at desiringGod.