“These well-meaning educationalists are quite right in thinking that literary appreciation is a delicate thing. What they do not seem to see is that for this very reason elementary examinations on literary subjects ought to confine themselves to just those dry and factual questions which are so often ridiculed. The questions were never supposed to test appreciation; the idea was to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good. And this, so far from being a defect in such examinations is just what renders them useful or even tolerable.
. . .What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called to come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very age when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.”
– C.S. Lewis, excerpt from the Essay “The Parthenon And The Optative”
When we look at education from such changed standards as those 75 years later, it is almost difficult to follow Lewis’ line of reason because education philosophies have shifted around so greatly. Even still, I can’t help but find immense application of Lewis’ timeless theories to critique the Common Core standards and modern education paradigms. Some of the things he expresses also seem to contradict my own thoughts and experiences. Before I explain our overarching agreements and what I believe he would think of the Common Core, let me discuss our possibly disagreement.
Lewis goes on to end the article by saying “Of course we meet many people who explain to us that they would by now have been great readers of poetry if it had not been ‘spoiled for them’ at school by ‘doing’ it for examinations of the old kind. It is theoretically possible. Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. . .It may be so: but why should we believe it is. We have only their word for it; and how do they know?”
I confess that I am one of these people. I am now as a man an eager omnivore of a critical and enthused reader, but I was long dormant in my desire to learn. I felt very dull toward learning throughout high school and for almost five years after college. I would not say that this has as much to do with being tested as it did with a lacking of inspired teachers.
I had some apathetic teachers and some great teachers who cared deeply for their student’s well-being, but none of which were inspired by their course subject matter. I can only think of three teachers I have ever sat under whose own inspirations on the subject matter were palpable in the classroom, and these have stuck with me. I can only imagine what my education would have been like if my teachers had all been hired based on their response to the question, “tell me what you love about (_subject_matter_)?” In my mind, education on all fronts should always be 3x as concerned about inspiring a desire to learn as it is with any other aspect of how to teach.
I think C.S. Lewis would have appreciate the fine distinction between a student turned off by being tested and a student turned off by a bored teacher, although I cannot assume that he would necessarily agree with the justification of the one if he ridiculed the other. I can say that he himself, the professors who taught him, and those whom he surrounded himself with seemed always to have a lust for critical and impassioned learning. I have yet to read anything by him distinguishing between those in education who are passionate and those who seem disingenuous. It seems that most whom he agreed and disagreed with were at least passionate about their ideas, and perhaps the problem rarely arose in his own circles.
He is right when he says that literary appreciation (and all kinds of deep appreciation) is a delicate thing. I once had a roommate who could only really enjoyed reading instruction manuals. I understand and love that different types of people learn differently and enjoy things differently. That’s why we should all be exposed to passionate car mechanics, starry-eyed scientists, and enthusiastic book worms. Our system should not be so heavy-handed as to disengage the teacher from his materials. Every student should have the opportunity to see a dictionary, instruction booklet, and novel used appropriately and passionately. Then perhaps we could all start getting out of our comfort zones and appreciating our own natural passions and foreign ones at the same time. I have met numerous educators who are being disrupted from engaging with student’s minds by the Common Core. Some have even quit teaching after 30 years of service.
I can’t imagine that Lewis would have been eager to see a teacher’s materials handed down to them from on high with a big brother figure in the classroom a couple times a month, but I can say that I would love to sit and chat with him about this circumstance more than almost any other subject.
Stay tuned for the ways I think we agree in Part II.