Foundations of Democratic Reform


When we know how to produce humanity, what kind of humanity will we produce? Lewis asks the question of how humanity can determine what humanity ‘should’ be while at the same time being bound within the constraints of what humanity ‘is.’ Those who presume to declare that they have discovered what humanity should look like claim to “have been emancipated from all that” (p. 74). They are not subject to that aspect of humanity which they are about to attempt to transform.

Those who presume to shape the future of humanity must have some foundational premise regarding what elements of humanity are worth saving. This premise either rests within their own opinions, or within an appeal to something greater. Lewis argues that if they appeal only to their opinions, they have no basis on which to judge the change they propose to be good or worth pursuing. Why should their opinions carry any more weight than others? Whose imaginations get to become reality? There must be an appeal to some external source for which direction to go.

Perhaps it is possible to suggest that our current system does not produce the needed results. However, this requires some common understanding of what the ‘needed results’ look like. If a foundational argument is made for a different set of needed results, then this argument might challenge the previous system. However, there is still an underlying assumption that education has some ‘needed result.’ There is a commonly understood purpose to what we are trying to accomplish that insures a profitable discussion.

On the other hand, if we are to assume that there is no point to education except that we have decided for some reason it is necessary, it will be difficult to argue for one model or method over another. Lewis critiques certain proponents of education reform for their attempt to reform education around an assumption that there is no universal standard.
He notes that they run into a problem with suggesting such a change because it requires them to assume that this move is beneficial without being able to make an argument for it.

If those who have been trained by logic call into question the value of this art using the tools of logic, we can only assume that they are hypocrites and not worth listening to. If logic is not a valuable tool for determining what should be done, they should make the argument using some other basis. If the skill of writing has no value, then some other means must be used to communicate this idea than putting words on a screen. On the other hand, if they propose some alternative system of value on which they base their arguments, they might have some consistency. Now they are pitting two systems of value against one another for a fair analysis.

The proposal of education reform can only be made by those who do not entirely break away from the system itself. They must use the products of that system (the ability to read, to find resources, to use technology, to speak with proper grammar etc…) to suggest what changes might be made. What other basis does one have for making such an argument in a way that others can engage? The alternative that most frequently emerges is a resort to ad-hominem attacks that do little more than discredit those who make them.

Suggesting a change in education is important, but it must be made from the assumption that education is about something and has a result that it should reach. Those who see no ultimate value for education [see https://humancenteredlearning.wordpress.com/2016/11/18/how-a-value-for-education-vanished-from-modern-schools/] will create a system that is ineffective. In contrast, if there is some ultimate value to the process of education, then every person should understand what this is to some extent. It does not require an expert in gravity to recognize that pennies fall toward the earth instead of away from it. Likewise, it does not take an expert to recognize that the current products of our education system do not seem to be prepared for whatever it is that education is meant to prepare them for.

Thus, a call for the transformation of education must be one that is based on something more than a speculative opinion by one person or group. Rather, the merits of what is proposed can, and should, be judged to some extent by every participant that lays claim to the experience of being human. If a new tool appears through which the value of the system can be judged, it must present its own fundamental assumption of what the outcome should look like in order to be consistent.

The appeal by Lewis to a transcendent universal standard creates the space required for a democratic approach to education reform. If the standard is universal, every person has some idea of what it might look like and can participate in the process of building a new system. On the other hand, if the standard is arbitrary, then only those with power, authority, and credentials have the ability to propose changes for reasons only they can understand.


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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