C.S. Lewis and Classical Christian Education II

by Louis Markos

I’ve never doubted that C. S. Lewis, were he alive today, would be a great fan and supporter of classical Christian education. In my last post, I substantiated my claim by surveying The Chronicles of Narnia; in this post, I will shift my focus from Narnia to the first installment of Lewis’s Space (also called the Ransom, or Cosmic) Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet.

In Lewis’s H. G. Wells–like novel, his hero, a philologist named Ransom, is kidnapped by two villains and taken to Mars. At the outset of his journey, Ransom is a modernist and a materialist who would have dismissed medieval cosmology, philosophy, theology, aesthetics, and culture as primitive and outdated. By the end, his eyes are opened to aspects of reality—of goodness, truth, and beauty—that he had previously ignored.

In many ways, the “education” Ransom goes through is similar to that offered at a good classical Christian academy or by dedicated homeschooling parents. He is taught to look beyond the surface, to explore deeper meanings, to move from the physical to the meta-physical, the natural to the super-natural. That is not to say that everything he learns is specifically “Christian”; much of it hails back to Homer’s Iliad, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. Ransom does not exchange a narrow materialism for a narrow Biblicism. Rather, he is empowered to drink from the twin streams of Jerusalem and Athens, and to access the fruits of both special and general revelation.

More than merely learn new facts about the universe, Ransom is enabled, through the rational creatures he interacts with on Mars, to find beauty and goodness in order and hierarchy. He learns that the medieval-like society he meets on Mars, one that is organized similarly to the perfect state Plato lays down in his Republic, is not stagnant and antiprogressive, but firm, centered, and confident. Its love of order gives it strength and purpose, bringing balance and harmony to group and individual alike. Its hierarchical structure does not crush and flatten out identity but diversifies and preserves it.

All three of Mars’s rational creatures—who parallel Plato’s guardians, soldiers, and artisans—obey an angelic creature known as the Oyarsa, who functions as a sort-of philosopher-king. At first, the modernist Ransom thinks the Oyarsa must be a tyrant and that the rational creatures must resent his authority—but he soon finds that the Oyarsa’s kingship is positive and affirming, providing its subjects with dignity, value, and worth.

As Ransom’s education frees him from his chronological snobbery, from his unfounded prejudice that innovation and progress are marks of moral and cultural superiority, he realizes that the “primitive” state of Martian technology does not place them on a lower rung of the evolutionary ladder. While the chief villain, Weston, takes for granted that the Martians are savages whom he has a moral right to clear away to make room for the more “civilized” and “advanced” earthlings, Ransom gains the critical ability to see that the “backward” Martians possess virtues that we humans sadly lack.

Most students today who actively pursue a classical Christian education—whether they do so at an academy, at home, or through a hybrid model that combines both—will inevitably come to realize that they are engaged in something that is profoundly countercultural. Our age, infected with chronological snobbery, counts itself superior not only to medieval Christianity, but also to the humanistic, pre-Christian cultures of Greece and Rome. We take for granted that the movers and shakers of society—the leaders of industry, education, and politics—should be specialists who possess technical skills, rather than generalists with a wide and diverse understanding of history, literature, philosophy, and the arts.

Though classical Christian education does not dismiss the positive role that specialists can play in society, it commits itself to fulfilling the more traditional and stabilizing social task of creating ladies and gentlemen who can see past the trees to take in the fullness of the forest. The Ransom who lands on Mars has the mind of a social scientist who studies groups from a distance in order to fit them into a number-crunching, statistics-driven, ultimately antihumanistic schema. By the middle of the book, he is living and learning side by side with the heroic inhabitants of Mars.

Like Lewis’s protagonist, the student who proceeds through a classical Christian curriculum is encouraged to participate in the past, to give it his sympathetic imagination, rather than to stand in judgment on it as old, backward, and unenlightened. To borrow a wonderful Lewisian metaphor, he is trained not to study the medieval knight from the outside, but to put on his armor and look at the world through his visor. Whereas modern education seems hell-bent on turning students into jaded skeptics, naysaying cynics, and overly sensitive prudes, classical Christian education, like Ransom’s adventures on Mars, seeks to inculcate in those it trains a spirit of wonder, awe, humility, and joy.

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