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The Edification of Man

August5

“I doubt whether we are sufficiently attentive to the importance of elementary text-books,” begins one of my favorite books by C. S. Lewis. As an English teacher, I am conscious of the importance of the books I and my students read, and this awareness leads me to re-read The Abolition of Man every few years.

The title of this short classic, published in 1947, might lead the prospective reader to think Lewis is writing another of his science fiction works or perhaps a prediction of the doom of mankind by nuclear war. Instead, he is writing a warning that educators can subtly—or not so subtly—remove their students’ seat of emotion or heart, destroying their ability to value what is good and true and to detest that which is bad and evil. Leaders who reject traditional values seek to numb or destroy the heart and create a generation of “men without chests” who are not truly men (human) at all. If they succeed, they will achieve the abolition of man.

Lewis begins by discussing an English textbook that criticizes a tourist viewing a waterfall for saying that it is sublime. The textbook writers instruct their young readers that although the tourist “appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall,” he was actually making “a remark about his own feelings” (14). At first sight, this might not seem to be a critical distinction. In fact, I might tend to agree with the textbook writers. But as Lewis continues his critique, it is clear that such thinking can destroy mankind.

The truth is that the waterfall is sublime. Intrinsic to the waterfall is something that deserves an emotional reaction of sublime feelings. After explaining the truth about this particular waterfall, Lewis goes on to explore other universal values common to all cultures. Certain actions and experiences by their very nature arouse in us approval or disapproval. The starry sky produces a sense of awe and wonder. Showing respect for parents and elders just feels right. Murder by its very nature calls us to respond with condemnation. Child abuse naturally shocks and appalls us. It is the goal of educators to see that the young develop these appropriate reactions to the universe around them.

This, of course, is where Christian education excels. As Christians, we hold traditional values—in truth, the only values anyone can rationally live by, as Lewis goes on to explain. Christian educators may without embarrassment or reserve explain to their students the magnificence of mathematics, the splendor of science, and the poignancy of a poem, as well as the ugliness of sin in human history. Christian teachers actively work to instill in their students proper responses to our world. Christian teachers strive for the edification of man, not for his abolition.

Lewis, C. S. The Abolition of Man. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1970.

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The Desirability of Difficulty

March7

God placed children in families because they could not survive without protection and nurturing that moms and dads (or their surrogates) provide. Normal adults instinctively watch over children and shield them from danger and difficulty. Is it possible, however, that we may carry this natural inclination too far? Could our efforts to safeguard children from life’s trials actually weaken them and make them less able to function as productive adults? Two books I have read in the past month suggest this to be true.
It is generally accepted that low self-esteem hinders academic accomplishments. Parents and teachers generally desire to help children feel better about themselves. We have been encouraged to lavish praise on our children. In fact, I recently encountered a new expression to describe this phenomenon: trophy kids. Trophy kids are those who are rewarded for simply participating in an activity. Unfortunately, when they grow up, trophy kids expect praise and a paycheck for just showing up at work.
Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt, by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, advocates boosting self-esteem; however, the author does not promote the usual gratuitous praise and positive-thinking approach. Instead, he views low self-esteem as a good thing. Why? Self-doubt feels bad, so it can encourage a person to try harder and become more competent. Competence, in turn, brings deserved rewards and praise, thus legitimately raising self-esteem.
Another more readable book by Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath, supports Chamorro-Premuzic’s thesis by telling stories of “underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants,” which demonstrate the “advantages of disadvantages” and the desirability of difficulty. In chapter four, for example, Gladwell deals with dyslexia—a condition you would not wish upon your child, but one which has allowed many people to be more creative, better listeners, and more successful than they might otherwise have been if they were able to read effortlessly.
The bottom line is that success usually requires competence, and competence requires hard work. Hard work is . . . well, difficult! We do not do our children any favors by easing their paths through the normal challenges of life. And when they encounter the extraordinary, more painful travails of life, as we comfort and support them, we can also gently encourage them to rise above their difficulties and become better than they would have been without the suffering.
A good, practical, Christian approach to this issue, written to inspire teenagers, is Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion against Low Expectations, by Alex and Brett Harris. If you are the parent of a teen, or a soon-to-be teen, I recommend you read it and then pass it on to your child.

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I am a Christian, a mother and grandmother, a sister, a daughter, a teacher, a widow, a friend. . .  My life is first of all defined by relationships–to God, to my family, to my students, to my friends. Of course, I am many other things: a reader, an e-mail writer, a piano player, and a somewhat reluctant traveler, for example.  And now I am a blogger.  I’m not sure why, except it seems to be a logical next step for someone addicted to e-mail.

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