Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Lewis and I on Education and Social Struggle

Imagine your son coming home from an all boys public school after a long term away. As his father or mother, you are naturally interested to know what's been going on in your son's life. What sort of things has he been learning? What friends has he made? Has he received any recognition or joined any social groups? After talking about a few of these things your son lets slip that he is a Tart. What is a Tart, you say? A Tart is a catamite. The Tart is but one of the categories of young men who had the privilege o public education during C. S. Lewis's time as an adolescent at Wyvern college.

What could be worse that pederasty in public school? Such rampant sexual manipulation is surely the worst conceivable sin an institution of education for young men can tolerate, is it not? Not in the least, says Lewis:

Spiritually speaking, the deadly thing was that school life was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation of adult life as well. . . .And that is why I cannot give pederasty anything like a first place among the evils of the Coll [Wyvern]. People commonly talk as if every other evil were more tolerable than this. But why? Because those of us who do not share the vice feel for it a certain nausea, as we do, say, for necrophily? I think that of very little relevance to moral judgment. Because it produces permanent perversion? But there is very little evidence that it does. The Bloods would have preferred girls to boys if they could have come by them; when, at a later age, girls were obtainable, they probably took them. Is it then on Christian grounds? But how many of those who fulminate on the matter are in fact Christians? And what Christian, in a society so worldly and cruel as that of Wyvern, would pick out the carnal sins for special reprobation? Cruelty is surely more evil than lust and the World at least as dangerous as the Flesh. The real reason for all the pother is, in my opinion, neither Christian nor ethical. We attack this vice not because it is the worst but because it is, by adult standards, the most disreputable and unmentionable, and happens also to be a crime in English law. The World will lead you only to Hell; but sodomy may lead you to jail and create a scandal, and lose you your job. The World, to do it justice, seldom does that.

The cruelty attendent upon the social struggle for significance and achievement (a struggle that, Lewis points out, was not based upon class at all, but upon physical prowess, intellectual prowess, and beauty and personality) was more destructive to the minds of the boys--who by it were either pushed into conformity with a system that glorified vanity while accusing all transgressions as undue vanity, or pushed into defiance of such conformity by developing a sense of priggish arrogance and condescension toward the herd. Ironically, Lewis argues, the very thing some might consider the worst sin of Wyvern was actually one of the few places where the besetting sin of social struggle was mitigated:

If those of us who have known a school like Wyvern dared to speak the truth, we should have to say that pederasty, however great an evil in itself, was, in that time and place, the only foothold or cranny left for certain good things. IT was the only counterpoise to the social struggle; the one oasis (though green only with weeds and moist only with fetid water) in the burning desert of competitive ambition. In his unnatural love affairs, and perhaps only there, the Blood went a little out of himself, forgot for a few hours that he was One of the Most Important People There Are. It softens the picture. A perversion was the only chink left through which something spontaneous and uncalculating could creep in. Plato was right after all. Eros, turned upside down, blackened, distorted, and filthy, still bore the traces of his divinity.

Without getting into Lewis's view of Eros, I think it is safe to say that he would agree that the function of pederasty for easing social struggle was equally weighty for sustaining the loss of fatherly Eros toward these boys. At any rate, It isn't Lewis's controversial (but not really) softening of pederasty that is germane to my interests. So often those who speak about public schools as places of danger because of the violence or sex that goes on there are blind to the far more pervasive and destructive effects of social struggle. It may look different than it did at Lewis's Wyvern, but the pressure to simultaneously "stand out" (be athletic, smart, beautiful, witty, etc.) and conform to the often highly specialized and routinized group norms ("this is how we talk here," "this is how you act here,") produces in children the worst sort of pride--"I matter because I'm like these VIP people," and "I matter because I'm NOT like those VIP people." Instead of identifying talents, which could benefit the community and glorify God, children are taught to use their gifts for self-advancement, manipulation, and even overt coercion.

Not social setting is immune to the tendencies of social struggle (how many churches have split over this very sin??), but it isn't merely hard, but quite implausible to expect any child to avoid corruption when the status quo of social struggle is not only tolerated, but lauded as the very purpose for pursuing public education (as it was in Lewis's day, and as it is still in ours). "Kids need to be socialized!" is one clarion call. The very fact that humans are by nature social beings ensures that socialization will occur--even on a desert island with no fellow humans the solitary individual will adopt social values and obey social norms. The question is what sort of socialization one desires, and all education appoints a standard for producing citizens of a certain ilk, and where that model citizen is not envisioned as the image of Christ, built upon the standards of His Gospel, what God-respecting parent could in good conscience send their child to what is by default a factory for producing antichrists? There is no room for neutrality, and the best one could hope for would be a deveined, disempowered presentation of Christ that puts His sovereign Lordship on par with every other autonomous individual--one more voice in the crowd, take it or leave it.

Many well-meaning Christians wish to consider public education an acceptable option among others; one in which several categories are considered together (quality of curriculum, safety of the children, teacher to student ratio, etc.) and maybe even weighted for importance. Let it be known that such approaches implicitly or otherwise accept that education is an addendum to the spiritual formation and maturation of a child, that information transfer is the only purpose of instruction, and that parental influence is prima facie stronger influences than peer group social pressures. Let it also be known that such approaches implicitly or otherwise accept that Christ's claims to explicit Lordship are not universal, since one can, with no negative loss, learn science, mathematics, physics, history, philosophy (ethics, metaphysics, epistemology) law, politics, art, and even religion without Christ's Sovereign authority recognized or applied through the propositions of His self-revelation in Scripture. Let it be known that the image of Christ into which parents wish their children to grow is made narrow and irrelevant to most of their intellectual and social concerns upon such a view, for the subjects they study and the peers with which they interact need not acknowledge or abide by His sovereign authority and command.

Lest I rail only upon advocates of public education, Lewis's warning is just as applicable to homeschooling families and private (including private Christian) schools. If families and churches can and have imploded in their efforts to honor God as a result of the pressures of social struggle, exchanging intellectual foundations and methods of instruction does not ensure that the exchange is immune to the same vices and dangers. What parent hasn't struggled against the motive to build up a child's image based upon how well the child reflects the parent's own prideful aspirations? What church hasn't struggled against using arbitrary social norms as standards for acceptable or even salutatory membership value and recognition? In other words, if one's goal is to have children grow into the image of Christ, it will take more than an acceptable brand label and rejection of non-brand labels; more than a zealous spirit and puritan work ethic. It will require taking every thought captive to the impeccable and all-sufficient authority of Christ, believing that Scripture may not provide a specific command for every decision, but it nevertheless commands how we are to approach to making every decision, which is simply to say that even decisions of Christian liberty, so frequently appealed to for support in argument, are to be brought into conformity with commands that are binding (for example, one is free to eat four meals in a day, but one is not free to do so gluttonously). A choice of Christian liberty that entails subverting the claims of Christ's Sovereign Lordship over all is not an exercise of liberty, but licentious treason.

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