Education: Essential Good or Consumer Good?

Is Education an essential good or a consumer good?  Are there intrinsic traits of Education that if, at best, neglected and, at worst, forgotten, will create an unintended, negative impact upon a student in ways unknown and unforeseen?  Or can Education be creatively packaged and presented in new, exciting ways that suit the desires of the individual and still retain its essential goodness? 

If it is an essential good, then it does have certain core, intrinsic elements that if one or more are ignored or removed the whole of Education crumbles and is bastardized.  If Education is an essential good, then it must be handled and delivered with respect to its makeup.  If, however, Education is a consumer good, then it is malleable with nay a negative ramification.  The immediate audience, a society’s culture, and the market place can shape its delivery methods.

In Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis argues for the highest qualities in Education to be preserved and utilized else the soul of man will be left stammering for breath.  To illustrate this, he shares a devastating critique of a textbook of his day, which woefully fell short in educating its intended audience.  To protect the publisher and the authors from public ridicule, Lewis entitled the textbook, The Green Book, and called its authors, Gaius and Titius. A section of their book critiques “the well-known story of Coleridge at the waterfall.” Coleridge overhears two observers at a waterfall share their sentiments with each other about the natural wonder.  The first remarks, “Sublime.”  The second says, “Pretty.”  Coleridge mentally applauds the first comment and repudiates the second.  Gaius and Titius find fault with Coleridge because, in their estimation, he has not accurately interpreted the first person’s comment. One may think the “sublime” comment was about the waterfall, but, according to the authors, the comment was actually about the person’s feelings about the waterfall.  They interpret the first observer’s comment thusly, “I have feelings in my mind with the word ‘Sublime.’

Lewis contends Gaius and Titius have placed two absurd ideas into the student’s head with their incorrect analysis. Firstly, every “predicate of value” is a “statement about the emotional state of the speaker.”  If this is so, would the complimentary phrase, “You are humble,” mean the speaker is actually stating he has humble feelings?  Or would the phrase “You are contemptible,” reveal the speaker has contemptible feelings toward another?  Of course not. Secondly, the authors imply “all such statements are unimportant.” Lewis believes authors’ judgment was “inadvertent,” but nonetheless the absence of careful thinking on their part has weighty ramifications upon the reader’s mind.  “The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy … who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.”

Lewis is explaining the critical nature of Education. One missed hit in the forging of a young mind can create cracks that weaken the mind in not only one area, but also in many.  These are the ramifications, unknown and unforeseen.

Gaius and Titius made another critical mistake as they strove to teach good writing.  In the text, they critiqued an advertisement for a pleasure cruise. The advertisement promises, “’adventuring after the treasures of the Indies,’” and “bringing home themselves a ‘treasure’ of ‘golden hours’ and glowing colours.’’  They feebly countered the claims of the advertisement by stating the travelers will not have any true adventures and any treasure they do bring home will be of a “purely metaphorical nature.”  Lewis grants them this, but immediately states others inferior to them could have pointed this out. Gaius and Titius’s deeper flaw is the same critique could be applied to good literature communicating the same emotion.  Writers, such as Wordsworth to Browne, would have their descriptive, metaphorical writing fall under the same poor judgment.

Lewis suggests a better method whereby to critique the advertisement would be to compare it with a piece of quality English composition, maybe Johnson’s famous passage from Western Islands. Then, the student may be able to see the paltry language used in the advertisement. He concludes, “It would also have had the merit of being a lesson in literature: a subject of which Gaius and Titius, despite their professed purpose, are uncommonly shy.”

In this portion of The Abolition of Man, Lewis has explained the reality of the interwoven nature of Education. Education is comprised of core traits, that if modified or separated from the whole ceases to be effective within the means of what it is.  Gaius and Titius compromised the integrity of the traits when they improperly and incompletely gave their instruction about literary criticism.

Lewis sums up the effect by proclaiming “men without chests” are being produced.  He says, “[the students’] heads are no bigger than the ordinary: it is the atrophy of the chest beneath that makes them seem so.  … And all the time such is the tragi-comedy of our situation we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. … We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Hence, one must conclude Education is an essential good and it must be treated in accord with what it is and not who the recipient is.  Education dictates that certain topics must be taught in a certain manner using methods that correspond to the topic’s makeup.  Education is a good that enriches the mind.  It is not meant to entertain the senses.  Education is a forger of discipline and perseverance.

Latin is a prime example of this. Instruction in Latin is a superior tutor in discipline, perseverance, and gratification in the long-term.  Indeed, a dead language it may be, but not dead in its powerful utility.  Education contains the ability to stimulate the mind beyond knowing to hungering.  If received properly, it pushes a student to explore and study topics well past his period of lecture and homework.  As well, Education is a vehicle used to show one the superior enjoyment possible when his mind is strengthened with substance and not pleased with superficiality.

In the same way in which Lewis critiqued the subtle, yet crucial, mistakes in The Green Book, crucial and less subtle mistakes are being made today and must be critiqued.  These mistakes have transformed Education into a consumer good. Fun and exciting are terms used by educators as ways in which to engage students. Hence, methods are predominantly shaped by these terms not by the subject being taught. Classroom instructors are encouraged to be creative in lesson presentation in hopes of engaging the students. The students are conditioned to expect something new, different, or innovative each time they step into the classroom.  Technology and toy manufacturers are also determining the delivery method of the knowledge. They have created an expectation of fun in education. From a young age, students are being educated with flashing lights, motions graphics, and fictional characters.

What are the results of this approach? The expectation and utility of Education have changed.  The student now expects to be entertained while being educated.  Consequently, the student flippantly dismisses certain classes over others because the classes of his preference titillate his 21st century, internet-produced attention span and appetite.

The student has become a consumer.

Just as Madison Avenue packages America’s products in hopes of enticing many to purchase, teachers now package their subject matter in hopes of enticing students to engage.  As well, schools seeking accreditation are being evaluated, to a significant degree, based upon the student’s response to what is taught. Teachers are forced to teach based upon a student’s receptivity and not based upon the nature of the subject matter.  Therefore, certain values of the subject matter are lost because they are not taught thoroughly, explained to the fullest extent, or analyzed properly. The values have been replaced by methods that elicit excitement and create a “fun” learning atmosphere. The subjective is being given more weight than the objective.

Furthermore, the usefulness of Education is now based on whether one’s individual appetite is satiated.  The student now determines his level of interest and his attention to learn based upon his immature definition and view of “worth.”

Conversely, Lewis argues, by quoting Aristotle, that Education’s utility “is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought.”  More specifically, John Burnet, in his introduction to his translation of Aristotle’s philosophy of Education states, “[Education] exists only in order that a certain character of soul may be produced in the young, and the production of that character is its end.”

Character is not forged with fun, excitement, and a rotating slate of new teaching methods.  It is forged through habit, studiousness, discipline, perseverance, and, yes, even some cerebral anguish. Proper Education is about more than increasing the student’s knowledge. It is also about cultivating the whole of a person grounded in proper character.  This cannot be achieved when Education is used inadvertently as a consumer good stimulating mainly the senses. It can be achieved only when Education as an essential good shapes the soul.

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This article originally published at HarperCollins’ CSLewis.com.