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The Abolition of Man is perhaps not a book you’d pick up were you shopping for books on education. Its subtitle (which may actually have been an ironic joke by Lewis) gestures towards education, but is certainly no click-bait: “Reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of schools”.

Despite its obscure title, The Abolition of Man is not only one of the best books on education, but one of the strongest defences of objective morality ever written.

But you have to wade in to get to the power of the argument. At first, it seems like an English professor trifling over textbooks, until you get about halfway in to the chapter, “Men Without Chests”. The authors of a school textbook current in the 1940s had taught their brand of “moral neutrality”, supposedly to teach children to resist sentimentalism and manipulative sales pitches. But in the process, they taught children that there is no such thing as a “sublime waterfall”, only pleasant feelings about the waterfall that a subject calls sublime. The authors were teaching a form of logical positivism, which teaches that beauty, morality, values, and ethics are entirely subjective, inward, and psychological phenomena. A waterfall, which is nothing more than H2O cascading over a rock face, cannot be any of those things. It is simply matter.

Lewis had no time for this kind of brainwashing of children. By teaching this kind of thing, teachers were falsely telling children that values and ethics are relative, personal, and inward, while smuggling in their own values. Teaching children that waterfalls have no intrinsic beauty is a value system. It is a morality. It is an aesthetic theory. But it is all the more insidious by claiming to be the neutral observer of other value systems, claiming to be objectively true itself, while defining other moral systems as subjective, variable and not correspondent to anything in reality.

Lewis reminds us that the first principle of education is to train children to love rightly. Education is not an exercise in cool, dispassionate absorption of facts. It is the experience of cheering on the right, and booing the wrong. It is learning to admire the noble and disdain the base. It is developing an honour for what it true, good, and beautiful, and a scorn for the false, evil, and ugly. In other words, it is training the child’s sentiments, his overall affections towards the world.

Going back to Greece and Rome, Lewis reminds us that the ancients taught their children to judge all things for their value, and develop healthy admiration for what was true, good, and beautiful, and develop healthy distaste for what was false, evil, and ugly. This was not simply the training of the reason, but the training of the heart, not simply the accumulation of knowledge, but the development of desires. Education, for pre-moderns, was not the path to a career, it was the shaping of a human to be just, noble, honourable, and responsible.

In Lewis’ words, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”

According to Lewis, the Greeks saw that the part of man that mediates between reason (the head) and appetite (the belly or loins) are the affections or desires (the chest). When the ‘chest’ (or the noble affections) is trained, the human had a seat in the soul to protect it from giving in to sheer visceral appetites and passions.

By contrast, modern education pretends to eschew all judgements (except for non-judgementalism), embrace all truths (except exclusive truth), and see all things ‘beautiful in their own way’ (except those who claim that beauty is an objective reality – they find those people ugly). Twelve years of this produces what Lewis calls “Men Without Chests”. That part of the human which loves, admires and praises, or disdains, hates, and refuses is sorely underdeveloped, or even missing, or else horribly deformed.

When it is missing, what results is a human with nothing between himself and his appetites. The man without developed affections pendulums between brutality (loving too harshly) and sentimentality (loving too sweetly). Brutality and sentimentality are equal and opposite errors, and leave you at the mercy of appetite, whim, and feelings. Discernment dies, measure and restraint are thrown off, and a society of passion, rage, lust, and power ensues.

By contrast, a Christian education self-consciously wants its learners to love rightly. Christian education pursues ordinate affections: loving things hierarchically, according to their value, and loving them appropriately, according to their nature. This means a Christian education immerses its pupils in theology, history and literature. For here the children will learn by exposure to examples, which is the primary way the moral imagination is shaped. It is in seeing characters love, hate, lust, fight, envy, sacrifice, and wrestle through the human experience that learners watch and imitate. They find heroes and heroines, villains and antagonists, models and pariahs.

This also implies instructors who point out what should be believed, loved, desired, and admired. The teachers themselves need to have a robust theology, and the ability to sort through pagan and classical stories, through general and church history, and through Christian and non-Christian literature, so as to “test all things, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil”. It is not education by seclusion, by censorship or by isolation. It is a moderated exposure to a curated collection of the best that has been thought and written.

Therefore, a Christian education that stints on literature is not worth the name. Prescribing cheap Christian fiction, hagiographic Christian biographies, or place-name-date history is not what we mean by Christian education. Gospel-song poetry is not Christian education. These may seem Christian to the lazy observer, but they will not shape the tastes of the children in profound ways. They will momentarily affirm the prejudices of the parents, but they will fail to deeply shape the child’s love of the true, the good, and the beautiful. Christian education is a slow walk through literature, poetry, history and music, to expose the child to moral and aesthetic excellence, and teach the appropriate responses.

This also precludes the self-study approach to Christian homeschooling. No child possesses a kind of innate discernment to extract from literature, history, poetry or biblical narrative all the moral and aesthetic lessons. No child can independently see what needs to be admired without some kind of guidance, some moderated question-and-answer, some demonstration and explanation.

The Abolition of Man teaches us that Christian education shapes the heart before it informs the mind. Should an education merely provide knowledge for a career, Lewis would say that the child may have been trained, but not educated.

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  1. Avatar David

    “The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man.”

    “Man’s final conquest has proved to be the abolition of Man.”

    What a sobering read. Reviewing the headlines of the last two years, I am inclined to believe that Lewis’s fears for the future of education and the society have been realized.

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