Monday, January 12, 2009

Our English Syllabus

Within “Our English Syllabus” C. S. Lewis explores the essence and meaning of education. He concludes that college is a place to pursue knowledge, real education. For, it is as institutions such colleges and universities that teachers attempt to provide the ingredients for humanity. A man can either work or learn. He may be educated or trained. Education is valued for it leads to leisure. A life of work is given over to boredom, parallel to that of animals, ignorant of knowledge and pursuing only survival.

Perhaps I do not entirely agree with C. S. Lewis when he writes of work and leisure. Who is to say that one is better than the other? Some people greatly enjoy their work, they thrive when given a task to accomplish and in turn experience fulfillment. On the other hand, leisure is appealing because of its very nature (opposed to the connotations associated with work). However, it is the word leisure that we distort in America. Our view is that of apathy, laziness, and couch potatoes. We do not take into account other activities such as reading, discussion, and games that C. S. Lewis most likely is referring to when he writes of leisure. So, Lewis and I may agree, but leisure must be defined correctly and in context.

For education to truly be achieved, we must desire to pursue knowledge ourselves, or at least make ourselves think that is what we desire. We must be willing to absorb ourselves in getting to know some part of reality. This requires self discipline and motivation, asking questions such as “What do I most want to know?” versus “What will do me the most good?” It is a personal decision we must make. Will we pursue knowledge? In light of this there can either be active or passive participation. We can only get out of something what we put in C. S. Lewis writes.

As a result of education and the pursuit of knowledge being a personal decision, I raise the question, “Do we choose whether or not we are human?” Is it not our choice to decide whether or not we will learn? C. S. Lewis writes that to be a human, you must be educated. This is often achieved during college. Perhaps C. S. Lewis is challenging our views of humanity, but if he is to be taken literally, I must disagree on three accounts. The first is that this view of human=educated is based on a time table. A high school pupil and grade school child are not human because they are too young. They are not of college age. Sure, there are exceptions to the typical age range of college students, but to follow C. S. Lewis’s notion literally, a person would most likely become human sometime between the ages of 18-22. The second reason I disagree is that is life and humanity only defined by intellectualism? Is there not more to humanity than a pursuit of knowledge, pages of books, and endless lectures? Could part of humanity be simply experiencing life? Sure, learning does occur then, but not as one would define it in the academic world. Perhaps C. S. Lewis is then also challenging our idea of education with his statement of humanity=education.

The third reason a must disagree is does being human make you more superior to non-humans. Is a college student greater than a middle school boy, a mere child inferior to a graduate? Sure, there are differences in education, perhaps even levels of education to be acknowledged, but I cannot say one is more human than another. The Bible itself contains text stating ideas such as “A little child shall lead them” and “to enter the kingdom of heaven you must become like that of a child.” Do children not have something to teach us themselves?

C. S. Lewis concludes “Our English Syllabus” with an explanation concerning the systematic breakdown of what must be studied in English. I believe that he intends this as an example for all subjects and how the course material is decided. The problem I have with his breakdown of a subject can be found when C. S. Lewis writes: “There is an intrinsic absurdity in making current literature a subject of academic study, and the student who wants a tutor’s assistance in reading the works of his own contemporaries might as well ask for a nurse’s assistance in blowing his own nose.”

I agree this statement is true to an extent. Some things must be common sense. However, I still do not agree entirely. Why is contemporary literature (or any subject material for that matter) any less important than that of the past? Sure, it the prior material may need to be understood for contemporary material to have meaning, but that is not to say that we do not need help in understanding contemporary material. In fact, I may go so far as to say the opposite. Perhaps to an extent it is with contemporary material that we need the most help because we are so submersed in it. Why are there so many pop culture classes? Why are these classes so popular? One may use the analogy of a fish and fishbowl. The fish is us, surrounded by pop culture. We can see things outside the bowl, but not the water that surrounds us. Perhaps we are so submerged in our culture and contemporary material that we miss seeing its meaning and existence. The fish cannot see the water even though it is surrounded by it. It needs help to understand that it is surrounded by water. Thus, maybe we similarly need help in understanding our own culture and contemporary material.

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