How A Value for Education Vanished from Modern Schools

broken sculpture

“Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought”

(‘Ethics’ as cited in Lewis, C.S., 1947)

Although their philosophies often diverged on ethical matters, both Plato and Aristotle considered the function of education to be the formation of the individual toward a proper way of seeing and interacting with the world. Sentiments of justice and morality must be trained or society will be filled with an absence of virtue.

In the Abolition of Man, CS Lewis presents an argument on the nature of observation (explored previously) that is fundamental to the value of education. If it is impossible to say that a certain observation aligns with the way things are (or some kind of truth), then the function of education cannot be to inform students about the nature of reality. We are left with little option besides using the early years of a child’s life for indoctrination toward participation in a system of economics that denies any proposition of value.

“Education must be purely functional,” says the counter-argument to Lewis. Students must be taught “the facts” of mathematics, history, biology etc. without being given a reason why. Learning takes place in an objective bubble that avoids the hazards of moral argument and emotional connection. After all, if these are simply an expression of the individuality of the human being, then there is no point in letting them hang around the classroom. They simply cloud the facts.

A choice must be made by professors, trainers, and educational policy whether the first proposal (that espoused by the great philosophers of moral and religious traditions ranging from Confucianism to Christianity) will be rejected in favor of a more modern view of truth. According to Lewis, those who embrace the Tao (or an assumption that there is a way of nature) believe that education has value in guiding and developing the minds of those who do not yet know it. On the other hand, if there is no right or proper way of thinking to be taught, then all sentiments are non-rational and must be removed from the educational context. The result of such a removal will be that whatever “facts” are taught are simply taught because they have been arbitrarily selected for some unknown and insignificant reason.

Principles of instructional design recognize the importance of helping individuals to make as many personal connections to the information as possible if they want to remember it. Facts need to be significant or the human brain will not pay them any attention.Thus we are left with a contradiction. In an attempt not to teach any values, the value of facts also disappears leaving students with no incentive to learn – except perhaps the fear of bad grades. It seems like we must either embrace some standard of value (or angle of truth) in order to make the learning experience have any significance for the student. Perhaps we would be better off teaching students how to navigate the tangle of moral philosophies than pretending like none exist at all. Thoughts?


All references from “The Abolition of Man: How Education Informs Man’s Sense of Morality” by C S Lewis. For more blog posts in this series, click here.

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3 thoughts on “How A Value for Education Vanished from Modern Schools

  1. Kevin, your post aligns closely with some of the ideas explored in the book I recently reviewed, The Power of Mindful Learning, by Ellen J. Langer. I think you’d really enjoy it. One of the things Langer explores is the value of uncertainty and the importance of learning things conditionally, with much consideration of context and perspective. Langer explains that learning that “facts” MIGHT be true encourages us to consider, explore, and be more mindful of contexts in which they also MIGHT NOT be true. This mindfulness approach seems like it would jive well with Lewis’s concept of the Tao. What do you think?

    For more on Langer’s book, check out my blog–particularly my most recent post–at http://katehale.weebly.com/blog/full-circle.

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    1. Thank you for the recommendation. I will definitely check it out! From what you mention here, it seems that there are two possible dangers which the “tao” avoids. First, it avoids the danger of assuming there are no facts to be learned, thus ripping the value from education. On the other hand, it should keep individuals humble enough to recognize that ‘the facts’ are much greater than their ability to understand them. Being certain that there are facts to be discovered and yet remaining uncertain about the level of our understanding together motivate a deeper level exploration and perhaps a more mindful learning experience.

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