Chalk and Cheese: Education Then and Now

In chapter one of The Abolition of Man, published in 1944, C.S. Lewis criticises the way education, instead of teaching students to discriminate between what is true and false and what is good and bad, conditions them to rely on emotions and a subjective view of how individuals relate to one another and perceive and understand the world.

In opposition, drawing on Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Oriental teachings (what he describes as the Tao), Lewis writes “… what is common to them all is something we cannot neglect.  It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others are really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are”.

Lewis goes on to suggest, for those immersed in the Tao, calling children delightful and old men venerable is not “to record a psychological fact about our own parental or filial emotions at the moment, but to recognise a quality which demands a certain response from us whether we make it or not”. Central to Lewis’ argument is that children must be taught to appreciate the true nature of things as opposed to the progressive, romanticised view that children grow naturally to discernment and knowledge (now rebadged as ‘self-agency’ and ‘personalised learning’ where teachers are guides by the side).

Lewis writes children “must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust and hatred of those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful”.  For teachers to do otherwise is to impoverish children with a barren, soulless and ego-centred education more akin to what he describes as “merely propaganda”.

Pierre Ryckmans, in his 1996 Boyer Lectures, also stresses the danger of subjectivism.  After recounting an episode where an academic attacks Chinese literati painting as bourgeois, Ryckmans writes “From his perspective, value judgments were necessarily a form of cultural arrogance… a vain and subjective expression of social prejudice”.  Ryckmans goes on to argue, given the lack of objective values, universities are now dead, but nobody has noticed.

The way literature is taught in schools provides a striking example of how destructive and impoverished education has become.  Since the mid-to-late 1960’s the definition of literature has been exploded to include multi-media texts, graffiti, SMS texting, posters and student’s own writing. No longer are students introduced to classic myths, fables, legends and fairy tales and those enduring works that have stood the test of time, have something profound and insightful to say about human nature and the circumambient universe and that are exemplary examples of their craft.

As argued by British academic Terry Eagleton “there is no such thing as a literary work or tradition which is valuable in itself, regardless of what anyone might have said or come to say about it.  ‘Value’ is a transitive term: it means whatever is valued by certain people in specific situations, according to particular criteria and in the light of given purposes”.

In addition to literature being reduced to social constructs, students, even when they encounter what was once termed the literary canon, are taught to analyse such works in terms of neo-Marxist and postmodern inspired critical theory and critical literacy. Instead of being appreciated for their moral, spiritual and aesthetic qualities the works of Chaucer, Donne, Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens, Yeats and Dostoyevsky are analysed and critiqued in terms of power relationships and how they enforce the hegemony of a Eurocentric, imperialist, heteronormative and exploitive, capitalist society.

Whereas studying literature once involved humility, patience and a willingness to accept one’s own knowledge and understanding was, by necessity limited, students are now taught the author is dead, there are as many interpretations of a text as there are readers and those same texts have no inherent value or meaning.

The Bible, instead of being the word of God, is simply yet another text among many that has to be analysed and deconstructed in terms of its time and place instead of expressing eternal truths about what constitutes good and evil and how best to find redemption and salvation.

Some years back an editorial in The Australian newspaper suggested “the act of imaginative empathy is a virtue to be encouraged”.  Atticus, Scout’s father in To Kill a Mockingbird, says something similar when he says: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it”.

As William Blake understood, literature, at its best, allows the reader to cleanse the doors of perception and to enter an imaginative world to experience emotions and thoughts in a uniquely moving and intense way.  Such an encounter involves what Coleridge terms “the willing suspension of disbelief”.  A gift denied by neo-Marxist inspired postmodern theory that puts Shakespeare’s King Lear on the same level as an Ikea self-help manual and where students are forced to deconstruct literature in terms of power, victimhood and identity politics.

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a senior fellow at the ACU’s PM Glynn Institute

11 thoughts on “Chalk and Cheese: Education Then and Now

  • Tony Tea says:

    So, what you are saying – deconstructively speaking, of course – is that Scout was a Scot?

  • Kevin Donnelly says:

    In these gender fluid days when you can be anything on the LGBTIQA+ spectrum Scout now identifies as Scott.

    • Necessityofchoice says:

      Scot, Scout, Scott … ??

      Super to witness a typo generating some humour instead of a triumphal ‘gotcha’ .

      That could never happen in the sterile world of the current academic analytic paradigm.

      Thanks Guys.

  • NarelleG says:

    Keep up the great work Kevin.Whilst ever you publish many of us share to sm.

    As retired teacher I am appalled at what is happening.

    I keep thinking Marxism.


    I am thankful that I got my compulsory education before the end of the sixties. I still regularly use what I was taught. The best part is I continue to expand on that solid foundation which encouraged traditional, time honoured objective educational values. I am happy to say, that for me, learning is one of life’s greatest pleasures.

  • Sean F says:

    My daughter 12 is currently reading Watership Down. Jane Austen, then Tolkien next. My son 10 is currently reading Lord of the Flies. Next short stories of Edgar Allen Poe, then onto The Explorers by Tim Flannery. Not all hope is lost!

    • colin_jory says:

      Hooray! But keep it quiet, Sean F, otherwise the school will be inundated with applications, and it will face the Herculean task of finding teachers who have actually read those books. — or have read books at all!

  • Henry Van Zanden says:

    I have witnessed firsthand the demise of History in NSW. It began in the 1980s. We used to teach Australian history before the 20th century in high schools. We once had a logical approach to world history starting from Stone Age, man, the earliest civilisations, and ancient Greece/Rome. It progressed in year 8 to the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and Reformation. In Year 9, students learned Australian history from its discoveries, First Fleet, First Settlement, Aboriginals, convicts, settlers, squatters, bushrangers, and the gold rushes.
    We now have ‘the negative impact colonisation had on Aboriginals’, the ‘invasion of Australia’, and an illogical hotch-potch of Asian, African, South American, Middle-Eastern histories that have no logical progression or connection with our European heritage. There is one constant: the demonisation of European contact with non-European countries.
    The Crusades are taught, vilifying the European countries, with no regard or mention of the hundreds of years of Islamic incursions into Europe. There is no understanding that the Crusades were a reaction to Islamic aggression and attacks on Christian pilgrims. Although students have to learn the Seven Pillars of Islam and the basic tenets of Islam, Christianity is not allowed to be taught.
    In the entire teaching of history at high school, you will find no criticism of Islam or recognition of its aggressive empire-building. There is no mention of Islamic slavery and attacks on Europe to obtain slaves.
    When I was teaching year 10 history, it was so overcrowded that it left little time for analytical discussion. There was one constant: when teaching about the world wars, and the Vietnam War, the causes of these conflicts were no longer taught or examined. Although one battle was selectively taught in each war, most of the course was devoted to the homefront. Heaven forbid that we should learn about the bravery of Australian soldiers!
    Year 11 used to be devoted to the causes of WW! and Australia’s involvement on the Western front. Gone.
    I can remember teaching a Year 8 class and convincing them that the US did not start the Pacific War against Japan. The topic we were studying was dropping atomic bombs in Japan. Taken in isolation, it gives a distorted view of WWII.
    Instead of encouraging students to question, analyse and argue their case using evidence, teaching history had become increasingly dogmatic.
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    • vickisanderson says:

      Henry, I taught Ancient History for the HSC to adults in the 1980s. I was also concurrently on the Ancient History Syllabus Committee. I recall that during that period Committee members were faced with a putsch by some left wing school teachers to introduce Aboriginal Studies into the Syllabus. My view was (& still is) that Aboriginal Studies belonged in the subject area of Social and Physical Anthropology. However, it seems that they won eventually since the Stage 6 (Year 11) syllabus appears to include Aboriginal & Torres Strait culture as a unit.

      My recollection was that these adjutants were humourless, demanding and polemical. Just what you would expect from cultural Marxists.

    • David Isaac says:

      ‘The US did not start the Pacific War’
      These things are always so tricky. Roosevelt sought a way into the European war and wished to check Japanese expansion. This was by progressive trade sanctions, culminating in an oil embargo from mid-1941., which forced Japan, either to give up its ambition to lead Asia or to pursue war on the US and Britain. FDR had positioned the Pacific fleet in remote Pearl Harbor against advice from Sec. of the Navy Knox and there is much evidence that the actual Dec. 7 attack was anticipated days in advance. The carrier fleet was at sea but the capital ships and sailors were sacrificed in order to provide a sufficient ‘causus belli’. So technically Japan started the war but it was doing exactly as Roosevelt hoped it would.

  • padmmdpat says:

    In the mid 60’s when I was being taught in a working class catholic boys’ school , in Year 7 we read a book of Australian short stories, an anthology of poems and we had to memorize 12 of them, The Wind In the Willows, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Merchant of Venice. I was 13 years old. And today…..?

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