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Why C.S. Lewis’ ”The Abolition of Man” Still Matters: Forming Souls to See Reality 

September 23, 2020


Sometimes the proper education of a child is not successful; time and effort are sometimes not enough to convince a child of your vision of reality. 

Given my contrarian ways, some of my educators must have viewed me that way when I was a student. This may be simplistic and arrogant to say, but I regarded my education as having one purpose: to kill my childhood imagination and belief so as to make me serious about the serious world. 

As I see it now, my perception of what I thought my educators wanted me to see wasn’t the whole of reality but a thin slice, unfortunately presented as the whole. As I recall, my more passionate teachers, who were somewhat disdainful of old things, saw it as their job to liberate students from fantasy and move them into reality (a good motive). They did this, partly, by teaching us a helpful tool—namely, the scientific method—which they claimed could bring to light all things that were intelligible. I came to believe that this method was the only way of knowing reality, so I applied it without discrimination. But that meant I often felt like I was trying to stuff all things into a little box, or through the sausage grinder. The end product felt too cramped or became unrecognizable. 

But it did this much: it promised control. A great spokesman of such methodical thinking, Thomas Hobbes, said science is “knowing what we can do with it when we have it.” Yet something in me balked at such a promise. It didn’t seem to be very humane or a good way of approaching the world. I’d rather know a frog by watching it jump and doing what frogs do than dissecting it in a classroom! Or, in a similar vein, here’s a joke I heard from a college professor: “Do you know what Francis Bacon saw when he looked at a pig? Bacon!” I hope you get the gist. Perhaps there was a different approach, but at that time I was not getting it in school. 

Reading some of Shakespeare’s plays in eighth grade introduced me to a better, more humane vision of reality. You must be thinking, “An eighth grader reading Shakespeare?” I’m not lying. I had an elderly drama teacher—I liked the older teachers because they seemed more interested in the humanities—who introduced our class to Shakespeare. Besides the fear of being picked to read, what I recall from that class was Hamlet’s line to Horatio that “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” This made me think that perhaps the box the scientific method wanted me to fit all things into was too small. Perhaps there was a world beyond the method. 

Shakespeare, in my young mind, represented a different and more robust worldview, one more in touch with the human drama that explained the world. His plays presented a rich reality that had depths. The plays delved into philosophy, history, theology, science, psychology, politics—all aspects of reality were presented there. And this was the world I desired to know more about. But many of my peers, their parents, and some educators seemed convinced that spending one’s time reading Shakespeare was nice but ultimately useless given our utilitarian world. I greatly admired what the scientific method had wrought—I was at least confident doctors would not try to heal me by putting leeches on my skin—but I thought an education that indiscriminately applied such a method was limiting and only presenting one thin slice of reality. I later read C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and all my intuitions were spelled out about the current state of education. Lewis’ lectures helped me see the problems in the technocratic vision of education, and he set forth a sketch of a holistic educational vision that promised to see the world in a more humane way. 

Right after my encounter with Shakespeare, I learned about Plato, and I was hooked. Around this time the Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies were coming out and my friends were steeped in those books. But I wanted to delve into Plato, taking little interest in Lewis and Tolkien. But when I later got around to reading some of their works in college, I came to love them and found them just as critical of the scientistic technocracy I so lamented. They defended “the permanent things” threatened by the Brave New World that technocracy had wrought. 

Tolkien and Lewis experienced the horrors of the First World War, which destroyed the old world and its few remaining values and ushered in a new world heavily shaped by the technocratic paradigm. This paradigm, described by Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ as that which “sees nature as an insensate order, as a cold body of facts, as a mere ‘given,’ as an object of utility, as raw material to be hammered into a useful shape” (no. 115), generated a new order, leading Lewis to to write The Abolition of Man as a defense of the Tao (the Way, or natural law) that for centuries informed man’s respect for all things good and beautiful. 

Lewis wrote the three lectures for the Riddell Memorial Lecture Series at Durham University that make up his 1943 book The Abolition of Man or “Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools.” These lectures start as a critique of the education of the day and end by sketching out a proposal for an integral humanistic education that better comprehends reality. Lewis’ educational philosophy has never caught on in the education world. Small Christian academies, even Waldorf schools, have tried to put it into practice, but that is pretty much it. Classical Catholic schools have tried to follow Lewis’ vision as well, but for the most part education is even more scientistic and technocratic than it was in Lewis’ day. Catholic educators sometimes think that having a religion class is all that is needed to be a Catholic school, even while teaching all the other subjects, especially math and science, in the same way they are taught in secular schools. This does not suffice because the worldview presented via secular education tends to see reality in a technocratic way and such a vision does violence to reality. 

As it became evident that the Allies would eventually win the Second World War and would have to lead the ensuing social reconstruction, many great minds turned their attention to writing about education. Alan Jacobs presents these little known education proposals in his masterly book, The Year of Our Lord 1943. Many Christian intellectuals (Lewis, Maritain, Auden, Eliot, Weil) realized education shapes culture, and the education of that time was, in part, responsible for the war. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis shows how seemingly innocent textbooks unintentionally encourage the technocratic, scientistic outlook, enabling “the masters” to dissect, break apart, and mine reality according to whim and profit. His fears about the implicit philosophy operative within the education of his day turned out to be justified; just take a quick glance at history since 1943. 

Unfortunately, the education Lewis critiqued is still dominant today, despite the express attempt of schools to defend human rights. But as many are realizing, such a defense is not possible if education in the Tao is negated. My hope is that what Lewis sketched in The Abolition of Man will catch on as people realize in horror what the technocratic paradigm destroys. It may take a miracle to overcome technocracy, but we should bear in mind Hölderin’s words: “But where the danger grows, there is the saving power.” 

If you want schools to provide a better, more humane education—the one I so ardently desired as I matured—I recommend reading The Abolition of Man and giving it to any educators you know. Perhaps we can begin to implement the educational philosophy those Christian intellectuals developed for the schools back in 1943.