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Propagation vs. Propaganda in Education
On ordinate reactions to reality
I have previously written about The Abolition of Man, a collection of three lectures by C.S. Lewis that warned against moral relativism. A major part of these lectures had to do with how the younger generation is educated. In fact, this formed the starting point of Lewis’ entire argument.
In the first chapter, “Men without Chests,” Lewis recounted how he had been sent a book on English intended for schoolboys and girls. He called it The Green Book and its authors Gaius and Titius in order to conceal their identities. His main concern was about one particular section of the text:
In their second chapter Gaius and Titius quote the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall. You remember that there were two tourists present: that one called it 'sublime' and the other 'pretty'; and that Coleridge mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust. Gaius and Titius comment as follows: ‘When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall... Actually ... he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings.’
Lewis disagreed with this assertion, pointing out the obvious “confusion” within it:
The feelings which make a man call an object sublime are not sublime feelings but feelings of veneration. If This is sublime is to be reduced at all to a statement about the speaker's feelings, the proper translation would be I have humble feelings. If the view held by Gaius and Titius were consistently applied it would lead to obvious absurdities. It would force them to maintain that You are contemptible means I have contemptible feelings', in fact that Your feelings are contemptible means My feelings are contemptible.
Aside from this confusion, the main issue with Gaius and Titius’ view, according to Lewis, was that children who read it will believe two propositions:
Firstly, that all statements containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.
Taking such a stance on values and reducing them to mere emotional states was, in Lewis’ view, a grave mistake that would eventually lead to the conquest of the Conditioners, who are motivated simply by instincts and pleasure.
But, said Lewis, this was not always so:
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.
To say that the cataract is sublime means saying that our emotion of humility is appropriate or ordinate to the reality, and thus to speak of something else besides the emotion; just as to say that a shoe fits is to speak not only of shoes but of feet.
In my opinion, it is safe to say that Gaius and Titius’ view has taken root today. We no longer believe nor educate the younger generation about the appropriate emotional reactions to reality—subjectivism rules the day instead. If one person says the waterfall is sublime while another says it is merely pretty, both are equally “valid.” As Lewis says, this leads to a completely different type of educational outlook:
Hence the educational problem is wholly different according as you stand within or without the Tao. For those within, the task is to train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists.
Where the old initiated, the new merely ‘conditions’. The old dealt with its pupils as grown birds deal with young birds when they teach them to fly; the new deals with them more as the poultry-keeper deals with young birds— making them thus or thus for purposes of which the birds know nothing. In a word, the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.
The other day, I was reading the essay On Study and Teaching by Hugh of Saint Victor (c. 1096–1141), and I felt it was a fairly good example of the “old” style of teaching as initiation and propagation rather than mere conditioning. In particular, a section on “mediation” about what one has learned stood out:
Meditation is frequent and planned cogitation, which prudently investigates the cause and origin, the method and usefulness, of anything. Meditation has its beginnings in reading, yet it is not constrained by any rules and precepts of reading. For it is delightful to have recourse to a certain suitable distance, where a free vision is possible for the contemplation of truth, and sometimes to touch lightly now these and then those causes of things, and sometimes to penetrate into them more deeply, and to leave nothing uncertain, and nothing obscure. The beginning of learning, therefore, is in reading, its consummation is in meditation. If anyone learns to love it intimately, and wants to have time for it more often, it bestows an exceedingly pleasant life, and offers the greatest consolation in time of trouble. For that is best which removes the spirit from the clash of earthly tumults, and also makes it possible in a certain sense to taste in this life the sweetness of everlasting peace. And then through those things which have been created, one will learn to seek and to know Him who created all things; then, equally, knowledge will instruct and joy will fill the mind. And thus it is that the greatest solace is in meditation.
Hugh of Saint Victor describes here not only a proper and appropriate emotional reaction to reality, but to learning itself: an attitude of delight, contemplation, and love.
Ultimately, for Hugh of Saint Victor, the goal of learning about created things at all is to seek and know the creator. Because he posits this ultimate reality, it means that the created world has inherent and objective predicates of value that demand a certain type of emotional response. Not all responses would be equally as “valid” in such a view, harkening to what Lewis was trying to describe about the way the old dealt with pupils vs. the new.
(I feel it is important to say that even if we accept the idea of objective values, that doesn't mean we won't have disagreements and debates about what those are and what our proper orientation to them should be. As with anything in life, even much that we call “objective,” this still requires dialogue and discovery.)
More recently, I was also reading the translator’s preface to the second edition of Rudolph Otto’s The Idea of the Holy. In one part, the translator, John W. Harvey, was attempting to explain what he thought had been some misconceptions of Otto’s work.
One such misconception was around the concept of “numinous feeling.” Otto did not mean for the numinous to be conceptualized as merely a subjective feeling but as a form of awareness of an objective reality:
The ambiguity attaching both to the English feeling and the German Gefühl should not therefore mislead us. We do after all speak of feeling the beauty of a landscape or feeling the presence of a friend, and our ‘feeling’ in these cases is not merely an emotion engendered or stimulated in the mind but also a recognition of something in the objective situation awaiting discovery and acknowledgement.
Harvey wrote these words in 1949, six years after Lewis delivered his lecture. In those words, we still see a reflection of the “old” view that, for example, the beauty of a landscape is an objective reality rather than just a personal, subjective experience.
Nowadays, I think this is still the philosophy that many people carry in their hearts—the idea that there are proper reactions and emotional states to “objective situations awaiting discovery and acknowledgement.”
But I think many would also drop this philosophy under the pretext of being “objective” and “rational.” These words have come to be synonymous with “emotionless,” and they force us to view all emotional responses as at the same time equally valid and equally unimportant.
And therein lies the problem, as it leads, according to Lewis, to “men without chests.”
Such is the tragi-comedy of our situation — we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
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