Eloquence as Re-enchantment: A Reply to Gabriel Haley’s “The Re-enchantment of Education”

Glenn E. Sanders
King University

Professor Haley’s essay1 brings to mind a conversation with a colleague once, a long-time student of modern British history. We were talking about the efforts of Christian colleges to connect Christian faith and liberal learning when the matter of C. S. Lewis’s popularity among evangelicals came up. With his usual insightfulness, my colleague asked whether Lewis wasn’t “old-fashioned,” pleasant and informative to read but out-of-step with contemporary concerns and ideas—not the best figure for today’s Christian thinkers to emulate.

Professor Haley’s connection of Rudolph Otto’s category of the “numinous” to Lewis’s argument in The Abolition of Man clarifies Lewis’s goals, specifically Lewis’s desire to “[awaken] the proper imaginative and emotional responses appropriate to the objective givenness of the world” in opposition to the privileging of “a series of subjective responses, whether they be affective or rational,” that ignore their fit with reality.2 In his effort to draw on Lewis’s insights to encourage a “re-enchantment” in education, however, Professor Haley decontextualizes Lewis’s efforts and overstates the influence of a stark objective-subjective dichotomy. Lewis’s formulation makes more sense as the product of a particular historical moment. Attention to historical context makes the limitations of half a century apparent. Professor Haley’s approach risks ignoring Lewis’s real contribution to the re-enchantment of education: his appeal to eloquence in a world of contested discourses. An “old-fashioned” Lewis does not provide adequate grounds for educational reform, but he does point toward fruitful paths—offering other invaluable insights and inspirations.

Professor Haley affirms Lewis’s rejection of “critical thinking” and the modern priority of the “analytical habit of mind”: 

Lewis is suggesting, following Otto, that the a priori givenness of things in fact demands an initial attitude of reverence rather than one of mastery. Since narratives in general already contain an internal code of conduct, they are able to promote—or to use Otto’s word, ‘awaken’—a habit of receptivity within the reader. Furthermore, it is literature that is historically other which is best suited for a literary education….Lewis is thus suggesting that through narrative we can become attuned to humanity’s teleological orientation” and ground education in a “training of the emotions and habits fitting to a predetermined morality” rather than in “the modern tendency toward a quasi-scientific feeling of mastery.3

The dichotomy here between modernist subjectivity (bad) and a traditional realism based on the Tao (good) is stark. To draw the argument so and to set up possible educational reforms, Professor Haley offers John Dewey as the example of the non-teleological, utilitarian approach against which Lewis responds. The example distorts. Dewey here is a caricature, a whipping-boy for the failures of modern education. Lewis appears heroic, recommending “the role of narrative as a way to habituate emotions so that they [are] fitting to their object.”4 Both positions are oversimplified, taken out of their historical contexts.

Dewey’s ideas on progressive education—non-teleological, communal, pragmatic in its emphasis on results—developed after the intellectual shock of the American Civil War and the evolution of American democracy toward its contemporary form of multicultural mass society. Heroic science had a strong initial edge for providing answers where tradition had only reinforced existing patterns of thought and power. Lewis also responded to an intellectual shock, but his arose from the devastation of World War I, the aggressive application of modernist ideals in art and society, and the Nazis’ early postmodern glorification of power and propagandistic re-fashioning of reality. Lewis’s attack on the Innovators—“men without chests”—was only one among many revaluations of traditional ideals at the time, including the creative world-creations of his friend J. R. R. Tolkien.  

Historical contexts suggest that neither writers’ views fully support a stark objective-subjective dichotomy. Dewey meant “critical thinking” to help build a responsive democracy—a telos of sorts. Its actual goals were opposite those Professor Haley claims for it—that an education for “’community’ instead of ‘virtue’ is a student population that is easily manipulated, since communities detached from a higher good easily fall prey to the wealthy and powerful.”5 Also, Dewey’s appeal to community arose from the Progressivism and Populism of his early adulthood—both efforts to find new solutions to new social and economic problems. Conversely, the claim of Lewis’s Tao to preserve “authentic humanity” through a “doctrine of objective value” appears as a familiar Enlightenment universalism posited against the excesses of early twentieth-century nationalism. Lewis naturally appealed to stable tradition in the face of an irrational, violent fascism.

If historical context undercuts a stark objective-subjective dichotomy, so too do existential arguments against positivist claims from early last century and recent understandings of the brain and cognition. Both intellectual trends “muddy the waters.” The former does so by claiming the subjective as the essential locus of meaning through a necessary act of personal appropriation and action. The latter does so by positing a biological basis for the construction of the objective and the necessarily communal character of that construction. To set a “traditional attention to mystery, the non-rational, or the supra-rational” (as objective) against an “idiosyncratic response” of “a subjective understanding of feeling-responses”6 ignores fifty years of reflection and research. The dichotomy appears too pat—too much like an early “culture war” assumption, too easily deployed to support a much-desired category of the “numinous” “attuned to humanity’s teleological orientation,”7 a Tao that may seem an inductively evident moral foundation, but one that nonetheless has remained stubbornly elusive.

To suggest the limits of Lewis’s (and Professor Haley’s) objective-subjective dichotomy is not to claim that Lewis misread the modern condition. Several writers over the past fifty years have reached similar conclusions, but without making the dichotomy central or necessary. For example, following Aquinas, Josef Pieper writes that “the virtue of prudence resides in this: that the objective cognition of reality shall become determinative,” ultimately in action.8 Like Lewis, Pieper emphasizes a moral reality encountered through virtue. His Thomistic analysis, however, preserves a softer delineation of the objective and subjective, emphasizing the virtue more than a fully understandable reality. In similar fashion, Paul Griffiths’s characterization of the vice curiositas approximates the Dewey-inspired means to control the “cold and pervasive scientism.”9 The center of Griffiths’s view rests in the counter-virtue studiositas, a humble wonder at creation similar to “reverence.” Despite the similarities, however, Griffiths’s emphasis on the personal spiritual quest for virtue suggests a complexity beyond the objective-subjective dichotomy.10

Also, to suggest the limits of the dichotomy does not downplay other important features of Lewis’s efforts. The likely influence of Otto’s notion of the “numinous” is an example. Phenomenological descriptions can prove insightful and compelling. Unfortunately, their popularity has been largely limited to continental Catholic writers—most notably Pope John Paul II—perhaps because such close readings of lived experience take patience to prepare, read, and apply. Professor Haley’s summary of Otto’s descriptions not only helps explain Lewis’s argument but also provides a novel take on what “knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue”11 aim to conform the soul. A second example is Lewis’s insistence on “humanity’s teleological orientation.”12 This insistence may rest in a common-sense appreciation of Aristotle and the general need for teloi in explanations (e.g., a chair is to sit in), also a contrary discomfort at facile denials of teloi in scientific explanations (e.g., an atom does not have a nature to fulfill). Whatever the case, education as a social act necessarily includes particular aspirations and ends, and Lewis is right to desire these. (The difficulties for the objective-subjective dichotomy above arise in part by ignoring Dewey’s goals.) Lewis is also correct to emphasize narrative’s habituating force.

The limits that historical context and contemporary existential and psychological understandings impose on Lewis’s objective-subjective dichotomy do, however, have implications for Professor Haley’s assumptions about “disenchantment” and his recommendations for “re-enchantment.” A Deweyan emphasis on “community” has not necessarily imposed a rabid “scientism,” for which only Lewis’s education for virtue and “fit with reality” is the answer. The Tao can provide guidance, but more as a moral pointer toward the good and good actions rather than an “objective moral reality.” The subjective is more than lightweight emotivism and is best not described as “merely” so. “Critical thinking” may ignore traditional standards and values, but it is not necessarily valueless, nor is the claim that it is valueless anything more than an assumption.

If “disenchantment” is not an easy matter, “re-enchantment” may not be either. I am sympathetic to Professor Haley’s four recommendations for better undergraduate education: the use of narratives to habituate emotions, an appeal to ecological consciousness as a “feeling-response” of appropriate reverence, the application of manual craftsmanship as “skilled practice” to teach submission to concrete realities, and an emphasis on canon as “texts deemed worthy of teaching by a multi-generational consensus.”13 In an educational world of on-line classes, state institutions the size of small cities, and the hold-over guild mentality still common in well-socialized academic subcultures, the challenges for a thorough-going implementation of these four reforms are great. The best hope is the spiritual cultivation of teachers—a sensitizing to the deep importance of worthy exempla (people and stories), to the environmental needs of human and non-human communities, to the character and place of work (manual and mental), and to the significances of qualitative difference. Apart from an overhaul of academic culture to reward spiritual sensitivity and support meaningful pedagogical innovation, without the constraints of anticipated social ends (e.g., “assessment”) or assumptions of “best practice” (e.g., the use of technology), the initiative will rest with loving and faithful individuals in single classrooms—or with a few like-minded friends.

I may sound pessimistic, but I am not. Lewis may be too old-fashioned in his objective-subjective dichotomy to provide Professor Haley with an adequate ground for his educational reforms. The foundation of a certain or satisfactory basis for “ethical obligation” may not be available, or even really desirable. The matter is for philosophers and theologians to determine convincingly. That limitation need not hinder change when the general directions are clear. The reforms nonetheless are worthy and make sense as means toward wisdom in a complex world. They certainly point toward a kind of “remoralization” now in demand after a century of modernist and postmodernist ideas, social forms, and economic expectations have created a deficit for civil life, moral decision, and community thriving.14

Rather than providing an explanation for these conditions in a reactive objective-subjective dichotomy, Lewis’s best service is as an example in the struggle. Lewis’s arguments may seem insufficient or old-fashioned, but, within their historical contexts, his efforts suggest a positive model for scholarly engagement with contemporary culture, specifically from a place where faith and tradition have important things to say. In a world of Nazis, he argues against a deracinated critical reason that veils a raw subjective emotivism. He favors the a priori embrace of an objective moral order communicated through tradition and an underlying sense of moral obligation. He desires to preserve the true, the good, the beautiful, and the Christian in education. Even if contextualization, contemporary thought, and multicultural realities might call into question the general applicability of these views, the fact of his serious engagement with the problem is an example of intellectual and moral courage. More importantly, his talents as a writer—precision, verve, creativity, good sense—communicate with unexpected power, as two generations of readers can attest. From the small-scale (word choice, sentence structure) to the grand (genre selection and use), Lewis’s writing persuades, convinces, and cajoles. He models what intellectuals of faith should do.  

Placing Lewis’s efforts within their contexts reveals what he was about. It matters little whether his specific formulations and responses are durable. Foundationalisms may produce a sense of certainty, but they must always lie under the suspicion of arising from special pleading rather than evidence. Also, time and changing insights have a way of eroding their claims to comprehensiveness or utility. Context suggests what a writer was trying to do. History points to what the writer has done—in Lewis’s case, reaffirmed the value of phenomenological description, contributed to the rehabilitation of teleological explanations, owned the priority of moral concerns through his affirmation of reverence in education, and promoted the significance of narrative and good writing for the good life. His model is the Renaissance humanist ideal of eloquence as the key to self-formation and community-building, but as filtered through Christian faith and charit, and tempered in the maelstrom of early twentieth-century crisis. His efforts are similar in spirit if not details to John Amos Comenius’s in the seventeenth century and John Henry Cardinal Newman’s in the nineteenth. Both men thought through the implications of contemporary ideas and culture for Christianity and education—Comenius through early Enlightenment rationalism and universalism, Newman through late Victorian mass society and doubt—and both men produced insights of long-standing value, even as times changed. Lewis is in their company.

Professor Haley’s argument for educational reform clarifies the principles and chief ideas behind Lewis’s response in The Abolition of Man. Even if the argument does not provide a convincing ground for the suggested reforms, it does make evident the intellectual background and logic of Lewis’s claims. Historical context and recent thought suggest that a softer version of Lewis’s objective-subjective dichotomy has more support as a type of postmodern realism, which would own the possibility of an underlying “real” known through virtue, but one likely forever so complex and elusive that it demands wisdom and mercy rather than certainty. That limited understanding should be enough for meaningful educational reforms based on narrative, environmental consciousness, manual work, a rehabilitated notion of canon, and other imaginative responses arising from the good examples of scholars like Lewis.

Notes

1.  Gabriel Haley, “The Re-Enchantment of Education: C.S. Lewis’s Idea of the Holy,” Journal of Scriptural Reasoning 17, no. 1 (August 2018).
2. Ibid., 6.
3. Ibid., 8.
4. Ibid., 8.
5. Ibid., 8.
6. Ibid., 2.
7. Ibid., 8.
8.  “Prudence, then, is the mold and mother of all virtues, the circumspect and resolute shaping power of our minds which transforms knowledge of reality into realization of the good.  It holds within itself the humility of silent, that is to say, of unbiased perception; the trueness-to-being of memory; the art of receiving counsel; alert, composed readiness for the unexpected.  Prudence means the studied seriousness and, as it were, the filter of deliberation, and at the same time the brave boldness to make final decisions.  It means purity, straightforwardness, candor, and simplicity of character; it means standing superior to the utilitarian complexities of mere ‘tactics’” (Josef Pieper, The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York:  Harcourt, Brace and World, 1965), 22).
9. Ibid., 7.
10.  Writing about the “damage-produced opacity” of human sin, Griffiths concludes, “The formation of appetite on its Christian construal is always…formation toward a greater degree of intimacy with creatures in harmony with awareness that both they and you, the appetitive one, are alike in being creatures, and alike, too, in having become partly opaque because of damage, and thereby not fully open to intimacy.  Appetite’s deformation occurs when the depth and range of creaturely intimacy is overestimated by idolizing either the appetitive subject or that subject’s objects; or when damage’s opacity is underestimated”  (Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite:  A Theological Grammar [Washington, D.C.:  Catholic University of America Press, 2009], 123).
11.  Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 77.
12. Haley, 8.
13. Ibid., 9-10.
14.  The neologism is not precisely correct.  All ideas and formal means of education necessarily respond to generally perceived (correctly or incorrectly) social needs.  Otherwise, those means would not gain currency.  Social need necessarily includes moral concerns.  Moral assumptions undergird all educational practices.  Despite the effort to create “value free, fact-based” education a century ago, moral concerns were relocated (into scientific agendas or the student development professions), not dismissed.  A twenty-first century “remoralization” is likelier due to a realization of the difficulties created by the approaches of the recent past, plus the rehabilitation of virtue ethics.

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