C. S. Lewis on Democratic Education

Democratic Education

“Democratic Education” is Lewis’s title for his “Notes on the Way” from Time and Tide, vol. XXV (29 April 1944), pp. 369-70

(I have it on an audible book, free if you are a member, ‘Education and History’, a collection of Lewis essays read by Ralph Cosham)

“Democratic education, says Aristotle, ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy. Until we have realized that the two things do not necessarily go together we cannot think clearly about education.”

I think today we mainly mean a third thing, an admirable thing in basic intent, education for all, that is, education is available to all. Unfortunately, we can approach this in two ways, as making education as financially free and available to every child as we can do, or by making it equally *attainable* to every child, and the second is where we’ve been heading, and it’s a problem. Lewis saw it coming but didn’t seem quite able to believe western civilization would really be this blindly stupid:

“For example, an education which gave the able and diligent boys no advantage over the stupid and idle ones, would be in one sense democratic. It would be egalitarian and democrats like equality. The caucus race in Alice in Wonderland, where all the competitors won and all got prizes, was a “democratic” race: like the Garter it tolerated no nonsense about merit (1). Such total egalitarianism in education has not yet been openly recommended, but a movement in that direction begins to appear. It can be seen in the growing demand that subjects which some boys do very much better than others should not be compulsory. Yesterday it was Latin — today, as I see from a letter in one of the papers, it is Mathematics. Both these subjects give an “unfair advantage” to boys of a certain type. To abolish that advantage is therefore in one sense democratic.”

Latin is long gone from all public school curricula in America, and if I am wrong, I am fairly certain it will be in schools in upper class neighbourhoods untroubled by the lower classes.  Science and math are under fire. An emphasis on proper English or an unbecoming insistence that two plus two is five is racist.

“But of course there is no reason for stopping with the abolition of these two compulsions. To be consistent we must go further. We must also abolish all compulsory subjects, and we must make the curriculum so wide that “every boy will get a chance at something”. Even the boy who can’t or won’t learn his alphabet can be praised and petted for something — handicrafts or gymnastics, moral leadership or deportment, citizenship or the care of guinea-pigs, “hobbies” or musical appreciation — anything he likes.. Then no boy, and no boy’s parents, need feel inferior.”

And thus, participation trophies.

:An education on those lines will be pleasing to democratic feelings. It will have repaired the inequalities of nature. But it is quite another question whether it will breed a democratic nation which can survive, or even one whose survival is desirable.”

And here we are.

“The improbability that a nation thus educated could survive need not be labored. Obviously it can escape destruction only if its rivals and enemies are so obliging as to adopt the same system. A nation of dunces can be safe only in a world of dunces. But the question of desirability is more interesting.”

We salute our Chinese overlords.  Or Russian. Doesn’t much matter, really, tyranny is tyranny.

“The demand for equality has two sources — one of them is among the noblest, the other is the basest of human emotions. The noble source is the desire for fair play. But the other source is the hatred of superiority. At the present moment it would be very unrealistic to overlook the importance of the latter. There is in all men a tendency (only corrigible by good training from without and persistent moral effort from within) to resent the existence of what is stronger, subtler or better than themselves. In uncorrected and brutal men this hardens into an implacable and disinterested hatred for every kind of excellence. The vocabulary of a period tells tales. There is reason to be alarmed at the immense vogue today of such words as “highbrow”, “upstage”, “old school tie”, “academic”, “smug”, and “complacent”. These words, as used today, are sores — one feels the poison throbbing in them.”

And snob.  People are called snob not for any attitude within themselves, but simply because they read poetry, or read Shakespeare, or know the fork goes to the left of the plate, or spell properly, or listen to classical music, or go to an art museum for pleasure.

And here I will cease editorialising because I am not clever and I am not as good as C. S. Lewis:

“The kind of “democratic” education which is already looming ahead is bad because it endeavors to propitiate evil passions — to appease envy. There are two reasons for not attempting this. In the first place, you will not succeed. Envy is insatiable. The more you concede to it the more it will demand. No attitude of humility which you can possibly adopt will propitiate a man with an inferiority complex. In the second place, you are trying to introduce equality where equality is fatal.

Equality (outside mathematics) is a purely social conception. It applies to man as a political and economic animal. It has no place in the world of the mind. Beauty is not democratic — she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic — she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic — she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demand for equality into these higher spheres. Ethical, intellectual, or aesthetic democracy is death.

A truly democratic education — one which will preserve democracy — must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly “highbrow”. In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and who can know (with very few exceptions they are the same boy). The stupid boy, nearly always, is the boy who does not want to know. It must, in a certain sense, subordinate the interests of the many to those of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university. Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.

“And what”, you ask, “about the dull boy? What about our Tommy, who is so highly strung and doesn’t like doing ‘sums and grammar’? Is he to be brutally sacrificed to other people’s sons?” I answer — dear Madam, you quite misunderstand Tommy’s real wishes and real interests. It is the “aristocratic” system which will really give Tommy what he wants. If you let me have my way, Tommy will gravitate very comfortably to the bottom of the form; and there he will sit at the back of the room chewing caramels and conversing sotto voce with his peers, occasionally ragging and occasionally getting punished, and all the time imbibing that playfully intransigent attitude to authority which is our chief protection against England’s becoming a servile State. When he grows up he will not be a Porson (2); but the world will still have room for a great many more Tommies than Porsons. There are dozens of jobs (much better paid than the intellectual ones) in which he can be very useful and very happy. In addition, there will be one priceless benefit that he will enjoy — he will know he’s not clever. The distinction between him and the great brains will have been clear to him ever since, in the playground, he punched the heads containing those great brains. He will have a certain half amused respect for them. He will cheerfully admit that, though he could knock spots off them on the golf links, they know and do what he cannot. He will be a pillar of democracy. He will allow just the right amount of rope to those clever ones.

But what you want to do is to take away from Tommy that whole free, private life as part of the everlasting opposition which is his whole desire. You have already robbed him of all real play by making games compulsory. Must you meddle further? When (during a Latin lesson really intended for his betters) he is contentedly whittling a piece of wood into a boat under the desk, must you come in to discover a “talent” and pack him off to the woodcarving class, so that what hitherto was fun must become one more lesson? Do you think he will thank you? Half the charm of carving the boat lay in the fact that it involved a resistance to authority. Must you take that pleasure – a pleasure without which no true democracy can exist – away from him? Give him marks for his hobby, officialize it, finally fool the poor boy into the belief that what he is doing is just as clever “in its own way” as real work? What do you think will come of it? When he gets out into the real world he is bound to discover the truth. He may be disappointed. Because you have turned this simple, wholesome creature into a coxcomb, he will resent those inferiorities which (but for you) would not have irked him at all. A mild pleasure in ragging, a determination not to be much interfered with, is a valuable brake on reckless planning and a valuable curb on the meddlesomeness of minor officials. Envy bleating “I’m as good as you”, is, on the other hand, the hotbed of Fascism. You are going about to take away the one and foment the other. Democracy demands that little men should not take big ones too seriously — it dies when it is full of little men who think they are big themselves !!

(1) The Order of the Garter, instituted by King Edward III in 1344, is the highest order of knighthood. Lewis had in mind the comment made by Lord Melbourne (1779-1848) about the Order: “I like the Garter; there is no damned merit in it.”
(2) Richard Porson (1759-1808), son of the parish clerk at East Ruston, near North Walsham, showed extraordinary memory when a boy, and by the help of various protectors he was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1792 he became Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge.


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  1. D Martin
    Posted December 31, 2020 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    Oh wow. So many things to ruminate on.

    I’ll admit the idea that Tommy ought to be left at the bottom of the form is quite a shocker. I can definitely follow his reasoning…. but what about CM? I think her approach allows the same outcome with perhaps a more… person acknowledging approach? She would not callously leave him at the bottom of the form, nor would she allow him to refuse his attention to the lesson. She certainly would allow him the handicraft classes. And yet, because she sees every individual as a person, she would ensure both Tommy and Porson got what they needed most; they would both be happy in their final vocations while respecting the other’s. Or do I misunderstand CM?

    • Headmistress
      Posted January 7, 2021 at 9:38 am | Permalink

      I don’t think Lewis is banning the handicraft class. He just isn’t in favor pretending it’s a substitute for academics.
      In CM’s time, too, she only had the boys until they were 12. Then they were usually either sent to Eton type establishments or to trade school or work.

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