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