06 July 2006

The Unfortunately Fulfilled Prophecy, Part I: The Abolition of Man and Contemporary Higher Education

CS Lewis does not write The Abolition of Man as a crusty old man wishing for bygone days, nor as a hardened academic who cannot allow for shifts in pedagogical theory. Furthermore, he does not address these thoughts (originally lectures, which my students claim they would rather have heard than read) to those especially interested in literary criticism or orthodox theology. Rather, this book contains a general ontological critique: how we are in society and how we read society. Therefore, his claims should not merely concern those of us who claim to have walked uphill both ways through the snow to school, or those of us who teach; they ought to concern us all.

After all, Lewis proves himself a prophet of the postmodern age in his first lecture, entitled "Men Without Chests." When he describes men without the
Tao, the practical principles known to all by Reason (32), it is as though he somehow read today's newspapers 60 years early. Tao-less men have no moral innards, but they like to act moral; their hearts stripped out, society nevertheless expects them to pump blood.

Lewis
claims that we get such men when we deconstruct value judgments, suggesting (however subtly) that statements like "I think that landscape is lovely" are quite illegitimate, or at least useless, for what we really need to know is fact. Thus, we often teach "truths" while refusing to suggest how students might respond or think critically about or value such truths. In the world of composition pedagogy, this means we ask students to write "argumentative essays" but exclude any topics addressing religious or political values. Now, to be sure, most first-year college students are (in my experience) rather incapable of making good religious or political arguments, which is why I too avoid assignments about such topics. The incapability presents itself in two ways: they either resort to radical positions too abstract and complex to even start tackling in fewer than 100 pages (which means the students depend on generalizations and incomplete presentation of facts), or they resort to blind and blanket statements of belief that have no appeal except for "I think so, therefore it is." The postmodern mantra.

So is the contemporary educational problem how I choose essay assignments for first-year rhetoric? or is the real problem the educational milieu that bred those brains in the first place? Indeed, I believe Lewis has foreseen a philosophical problem that has pervaded our postmodern society: first-year college students are men (and women) without chests. And they don't even know it.

I
spend a lot of time in English 101 every fall convincing my students that using first-person pronouns in argumentative essays is okay, because in the ninth grade, Mrs. Henderson told them they never could write "I" anything, especially "I think" any position. Of course, this led to a whole lot of onerous "one believes this" kinds of phrases because Mrs. Henderson never taught them (perhaps Mrs. Henderson did not know this) that the reason ninth-graders should shy from claiming "I think something" is because human beings brought up on "Sesame Street" tend to assume that when they think something, they do not need evidence to back up their beliefs. That is, when they claim "I think that landscape is lovely," they should have some reasons for such a value statement: for example, "The trees are dropping all manner of bright-colored leaves, and I (along with a whole host of other people throughout history) think that the display of autumnal transformation has some objective aesthetic value, not to mention the fact that it just makes me feel more alive to see it."

H
owever, Mrs. Henderson does not really care whether or not her students have reasonable evidence for their beliefs. She does not even have some nuanced concern that the inability to articulate such evidence invalidates the value statement. Rather, when Mrs. Henderson tells her ninth-grade students they cannot use "I" in an essay, she is operating on the belief that the value statement itself does not matter. Now, just because some ninth-grade student "thinks" something does not make the statement automatically relevant to the real world, but when we act like it is not ever relevant and never will be, we create a world of grade-grubbing non-thinkers who nevertheless make policies that run our world.

That
is, we craft a society of voters and consumers who do not ask themselves "What belief has led him or her to assume that is true" when a politician or CEO says "This shall be." Rather, they just agree or disagree without any semblance of critical thinking about how someone might make such a claim. Here is the postmodern dilemma: high schoolers are not allowed to write value statements, so they never learn how to make good arguments about belief or policy that actually have evidence to back up those statements. Thus, they (and all the rest of us) talk like the individual has all power and authority from coffee shops to Congress.

M
ore on The Abolition of Man soon. . . .

1 comment:

Kathryn said...

One might think that I would believe in your evaluation of the value statement. And I do. :)

Nice work. I look forward to more.