Saturday, January 10, 2009

Our English Syllabus

Once again, Lewis is able to write an essay about almost any subject-- so far we've gone through excerpts concerning philosophy, ethics, religion, apologetics, and now education. I guess I shouldn't be surprised, as Lewis was a college professor. His writings on such diverse topics expand my concept of C.S. Lewis as a person. I always thought of Lewis as a writer; he was a very unilateral, one-dimensional character in my mind. Now, my perceptions of him are expanding after having seen him delve profoundly into so many topics.

Honestly, I didn't find this essay to be the most interesting, but that is partly because I don't have a particular interest in the philosophy of education (or learning). My roommates last semester were both education majors and had these long discussions about the nature of education, and I just tuned it out. It's not just Lewis; I just find the topic unappealing. Of course, I should have a vested interest in it because, well, I am in college. I did find the essay thought-provoking, however.

Lewis first wrote about the importance of education and vocational training, coming to the resounding conclusion that, "If education is beaten by training, civilization dies." Lewis continued to differentiate learning from education, the former having "no connexion (sic) at all with education." One common denominator of all people who want to learn is their "thirst for knowledge." The reason for universities was to have "institutions for the support and encouragement of men devoted to learning." I like the way Lewis differentiated the two on page 86, "Learning is not education; but it can be used educationally by those who do not propose to pursue learning all their lives."

One interesting point Lewis made is this: "The student is, or ought to be, a young man who is already beginning to follow learning for its own sake, and who attaches himself to an older student, not precisely to be taught, but to pick up what he can." Evidently, Lewis believed that our higher education institutions have lost sight of that goal. He writes that, "Most of you, perhaps, have come here with the idea of completing your education rather than with the idea of entering a society devoted to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake." I remember my sophomore year of high school, looking at college books for the first time, reading that ivy league schools wanted people who desired to "learn for the sake of learning." It's sad that today people need to be told to be interested in learning. College used to be a privilege, even 50 years ago, but now it seems that everyone needs to go to college to have any career options at all. I hear so many people complaining about school, but they can't well drop out (what would they do to make money?) and as that attitude permeates to our educational institutions, it stifles the spirit of true learning. I see the majority of college students going to university with the goal that Lewis describes as "completing your education" (and I am not necessarily exempt from this category). I see few students coming to college for the "pursuit of knowledge." Lewis' point here is very convicting: "The proper question for a freshman is not 'What will do me most good?' but 'What do I most want to know?' " I think this point cannot be belabored enough today. My mind immediately goes to my friend who is a TREMENDOUS writer and literary critic, but she refuses to major in English, despite her thirst for knowledge in this area. She wants to make a lot of money, so she is an economics major and she hates it!

Then Lewis described the approaches used in education. One is the "composite syllabus," which rests on the assumption that a student "should at least study a bit of everything" (a little bit of philosophy, science, English, etc.). Lewis objects to this approach because it means that instead of you studying what you want to study, "the mind of the committee" would be deciding what they think you should learn, rather than what you actually want to learn. Lewis says, "Do not tell me that you would sooner have a nice composite menu of dishes from half the world drawn up for you." On the other hand, Lewis advocated the idea of a specialist who would help a student "wrestle with nature for yourself." I found this point quite interesting because of my own educational experiences. I spent two years at U of M, where the "core" requirements are essentially nothing. You basically get to take whatever you want. On the other hand, Calvin is the exact opposite. I find myself constantly taking "core" classes. Which is better, giving students a well balances, "liberal arts" education or letting students pick their own classes? I am inclined to think that the whole "liberal arts" education is not that valuable. I do not think that students should take only one subject for all four years of college, but students shouldn't be forced to take subjects about which they don't want to learn. I wonder if C.S. Lewis would think that with Calvin's core requirements, Calvin was actually trying to enforce Lewis' "composite menu." I would much rather take extra theology classes than spend my time in biology, when I know I will not only be miserable in it but not use it nearly as much as I would other subjects.

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