“What should they teach at these schools?” Lewis on Education and Imagination

I love to investigate the tables Barnes and Noble has set up for local schools’ summer reading. A few weeks ago, I was pleased to find The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe on several of their displays. I started thinking, and I feel certain that seeing his book there would bring a great sense of joy into C. S. Lewis’s heart, not merely because people are still reading his stories, but, more profoundly, because of Lewis’s strong convictions about the role of imaginative literature in education.

Many times we consider imagination as something apart from reality, something we use to escape from the stark world around us; but for Lewis, and for people who see a spiritual world that illuminates the material, imagination can be a means of fostering belief in the spiritual aspect of reality. Dragons, unicorns, and elves do not really exist, but if children grow up believing in such magical beings, then it can become much easier for their adult selves to trust in the existence of a supernatural God. For Lewis and, he hoped, for many of his readers, imagination should play an integral role in the educational process.

Lewis’s book, The Abolition of Man, is subtitled “Reflections on Education with Special References to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools.” (No wonder we usually hear it called just The Abolition of Man!) This short volume contains many of Lewis’s thoughts on the nature of imagination and the function he believes it should serve in the classroom. The main focus of The Abolition of Man is Lewis’s argument for the existence and importance of an objective, universal truth. He calls this truth the “Tao” and equates it with “Natural Law” (43). He also describes it as “the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false” (18), and he believes that ignoring the Tao will result in a distorted understanding of all things, since the Tao defines and underlies reality itself. With that said, I don’t want to get too far off track in explaining Lewis’s fascinating concept of the Tao, since the discussion at hand deals with education and imagination. What, then, does the Tao have to do with education? And where does imagination fit into this picture?

Lewis posits that both the nourishment and the destruction of humanity’s relationship with the Tao can begin in the educational system. According to Lewis, an education truly serving its purpose must provide students with insight into the nature of the Tao. He declares: “The practical result of education [that rejects the Tao] must be the destruction of the society which accepts it” (27). If there is no objective reality to inform the pursuit of knowledge, then students will have no basis in which to ground their value judgments. For Lewis, the ability to judge right from wrong is something that must be addressed in education. We know Lewis, as a Christian, must have based his value judgments in the faith he professed, but in The Abolition of Man Lewis speaks as a philosopher, seeking to appeal to a wide audience of Christians and non-Christians alike. This philosopher-Lewis asserts that “if we are to have values at all we must accept the ultimate platitudes of Practical Reason [the Tao] as having absolute validity” (49). In other words, if we are to deem any one thing as “good” or “bad,” then we must have an absolute reality on which to base these estimations of value. Lewis sees education as the means of instilling the right ideas of “good” and “bad” into the minds of human beings and as the way to teach people how to “like and dislike what [they] ought” (16).

According to Lewis, an education that properly helps students to “like and dislike what [they] ought” must recognize the importance of imagination. He says: “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 sensibilities 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” (14). Lewis thinks an overly rationalistic kind of instruction, in which the formation of “hearts” and “sentiments” is neglected, fails to fulfill the purpose of education. It fails to treat students as human beings: body and soul, mind and heart, material and spiritual. For Lewis, reality is comprised of both spiritual and material sides, and to disregard either side is to have a faulty perception of reality. An education that includes the consideration of imaginative literature helps students to recognize the spiritual side of reality. Imagination awakens us to the dragons and unicorns in our own lives and encourages us to look deeper into the supernatural part of our being.

I can’t help thinking it was for this reason – for the sake of encouraging this ultimate belief in the spiritual – that the academic, intellectual Lewis, who was reportedly not particularly fond of interacting with kids, spent so much of his time and energy writing stories for children. We see the relationship between imagination and spiritual reality come to life in the Narnia Chronicles. When the Pevensie children grow older, they are told by Aslan that they will not be returning to Narnia but will have to come to know him in their own world. In this sense, Narnia was a preparation for something that was to come, something that would take the children away from Narnia for a time, but ultimately bring them back home to it. The journeys to Narnia are an educational right of passage for the Pevensies that parallel their journeys from youth to maturity. When her sister and brothers initially disbelieve Lucy’s experience in the land of the wardrobe, the wise Professor Kirk (who has firsthand knowledge of Narnia’s existence) wonders, “I wonder what they do teach them at these schools?” (54). The professor, like Lewis, knows that education should not prevent children from believing in the existence of something beyond the everyday, material world of earthly experience.

So what would Professor Kirk say about our schools today? What would Lewis think about how we are doing things in the contemporary classroom? As I said, I’m sure he would be pleased to see his Narnia books on summer reading lists along with other imaginative works such as The Wizard of Oz, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Hobbit. But surely he would also have some reservations about the way we are running classrooms today. I wonder how he would feel about the emphasis placed on standardized testing in our schools and in college application processes. I think he might worry about the literature departments starving for money at some universities, while sports, science, and technology-related programs are living like kings. I don’t mean to say that Lewis saw the study of literature as more important than science or mathematics – on the contrary, I think he appreciated the beauty of scientific and mathematical truths. What he did not want was for the scientific disciplines to be over-emphasized at the expense of the imaginative ones, since he saw imagination as essential for the development of each human person.

In reflecting on Lewis’s pertinence for our contemporary environment, especially considering the recent film adaptations of the Narnia Chronicles, I think it is important to expand our thoughts on education into the realm of our present “entertainment” industry. In today’s world, where standardized tests seem to mean more than standard writing skills and professional athletes make more money than professional educators, it is the entertainment industry that has taken over a big chunk of imaginative education. Popular culture is even studied in the classroom these days, as I have seen in my experience as a teaching assistant in charge of a required writing class for freshmen college students. Teachers are encouraged to use film, TV, advertising, and other aspects of pop culture as pedagogical tools in the classroom. Now, my first reaction to this trend was to wonder if we haven’t started inserting too much imagination into education. I mean, aren’t kids already watching way too much TV and playing way too many video games? Haven’t some kids gotten so confused about the difference between reality and fantasy that we’ve seen horrible results like school shootings and bombings? Where do we draw the line between an imagination that helps us to understand true reality and one that prompts us to create a false, harmful reality?

Lewis would, without a doubt, point us back to the Tao. He would tell us that it isn’t too much imagination that is destructive, but too little adherence to the objective truths that define reality. These truths must be incorporated into education, or chaos can result. “Without the aid of trained emotions,” says Lewis in The Abolition of Man, “the intellect is powerless against the animal organism” (24). For Lewis, the role of imagination in the educational world is that act of training the emotions.

Just as absolute laws, such as gravity, inform scientific studies, so does the Tao act as the basis for imaginative considerations. Imagination, formed in the way of Lewis’s Tao, and working in conjunction with reason, can help students to perceive the expanses as well as the boundaries of reality, so that they can progress in the knowledge of spiritual and material reality as a whole. So, no, we shouldn’t all encourage our children to skip math class and go see Prince Caspian – but I think Lewis would challenge us to always leave the wardrobe door wide open.

Marisa White is from Ormond Beach, Florida. Her academic interests lie mainly in the area of 20th Century British Christian literature, especially George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, Evelyn Waugh, and Graham Greene. She finished her M.A. at Florida State University in the Spring of 2008, with a thesis titled, “Sacramental Unity in the Writing of C.S. Lewis: Romanticism, Imagination, and Truth in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength.”

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