The post two weeks ago by Richard described the inspiration found in C.S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man for a fresh research direction. As a companion piece, and in the spirit of the upcoming TFN event which seeks to learn from Lewis, I want to reflect on the vocation which took up much of his academic life: teaching.

Lewis had often trenchant opinions on the subject of pedagogy, some of which are laid out in The Abolition of Man (if you haven’t read it, take this second mention in as many weeks as a sign!), especially the first essay, ‘Men Without Chests‘. He criticises what he sees as an empty intellectualism animating much of modern education, which offers knowledge, but in a way which produces only cynics, not people of character. The ‘chest’ of the title is a metaphor for the quality of character that students gain only through deliberate training in virtue, the ’emotions organized by trained habit into stable sentiments’. In other words, the process of growing not only in knowledge but in the character necessary to deploy that knowledge in wise and humane ways.

In an educational system and academy increasingly pressurised by the demand to produce economically productive workers above any other motivation, Lewis’s warnings certainly remain relevant. But what kind of teaching is needed for the kind of training into virtue he envisions?

Lewis’s fictional representations of teachers and systems of education offer some interesting starting points for this question. I’ll just mention two of the most memorable, both from the Narnia series, and representing a negative and a positive example.

The opening of the penultimate Narnia book, The Silver Chair, gives a witheringly parodic portrait of ‘Experiment House’ – a school with no concern for anything close to training in character:

This is not going to be a school story, so I shall say as little as possible about Jill’s school, which was not a pleasant subject. It was “Co-educational”, a school for both boys and girls, what used to be called a “mixed” school; some said it was not nearly so mixed as the minds of the people who ran it. These people had the idea that boys and girls should be allowed to do what they liked. And unfortunately what ten or fifteen of the biggest boys and girls liked best was bullying the others.

Bullying at this school results only in a pupil’s being labelled an ‘interesting psychological case’ and becoming ‘rather a favourite than otherwise’. Significantly, this absence of moral consequence runs alongside academic incompetence: ‘the curious methods of teaching at Experiment House, [which meant] one did not learn much French or Math or Latin or things of that sort’.

By contrast, in Prince Caspian we have the character of Doctor Cornelius, Caspian’s tutor, whose curriculum covers ‘Cosmography, Rhetoric, Heraldry, Versification, and of course History, with a little Law, Physic, Alchemy and Astronomy’. The most important part of Cornelius’s teaching, however, is that he secretly imparts to Caspian the true history of Narnia (in a conversation with interesting resonances amid recent discussions about empire, colonialism, and history):

Up till now… [Caspian] had known nothing about the History of Narnia, and he was very surprised to learn that the royal family were newcomers in the country.

When Caspian asks ignorantly whether the ancient palace of Cair Paravel was located ‘where the ghosts live’, Cornelius gently rebukes him:

“Your Highness speaks as you have been taught… But it is all lies. There are no ghosts there. That is a story invented by the Telmarines… the Kings and great men, hating both the sea and the wood, partly believe these stories, and partly encourage them.”

The contrast here is instructive: while at Experiment House, even the most outrageously behaved children are encouraged rather than disciplined, Doctor Cornelius unflinchingly corrects the comforting narrative Caspian has been told about himself and his people, and teaches him to long for something else – the ‘Old Narnia’ of Aslan and his people. A right understanding of history, and his own place and responsibility within it, is crucial for Caspian’s formation into a king who can change the course of his country for the better.

In many ways, both these examples are incidental to the main plot of their respective novels. They show Lewis having some fun, either at the expense of the contemporary educational system (the Head of Experiment House ends up being fired, but made an Inspector ‘to interfere with other Heads’, and finally becomes an MP ‘where she lived happily ever after’), or with the mock-Renaissance reading list appropriate to the prince of an imaginary country (‘Will your Royal Highness be pleased to open Pulverulentus Siccus at the fourth page of his Grammatical Garden or the Arbour of Accidence pleasantlie open’d to Tender Wits?’).

But as is very often the case with Lewis, the jokes divert attention from a serious underlying meaning. Alister McGrath says that ‘Lewis’s apologetics can be seen as commending and offering counter-narratives rather than counter-arguments’. This attention to story as a key part of teaching and learning rightly is made concrete in Narnia. Knowledge alone, Lewis warns us, will produce empty noise at best and moral monsters at worst: virtue can only be built when we understand the story in which we live and recognise the reality of moral consequences within it.

Registration is still open for the Thinking Faith Network event CS Lewis: a visionary for our time? with Trevin Wax, online and in person on Saturday 5th November.

Alicia Smith
Latest posts by Alicia Smith (see all)

Alicia Smith

Alicia has been blogging for Faith in Scholarship since 2016. She completed a doctorate on the prayer practices of medieval solitary recluses in 2020 and is now an early-career research fellow at the Parker Library, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.