About Me

"Humans are amphibians - half spirit and half animal. As spirits they belong to the eternal world, but as animals they inhabit time." -- CS Lewis

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Redesigning Our Syllabus

Many of us probably came to Calvin College to “get a good education.” CS Lewis would have scoffed at us if he heard those words uttered. In the introductory message to his English course at Oxford University, titled “Our English Syllabus,” Lewis explores the way in which we ought to approach studying in university, and how to make the subtle distinction between “learning” and “education.” Education, Lewis quotes from Milton, serves the purpose of equipping an individual “to perform justly, skilfully, and magnanimously all the offices both private and public, of war and peace”; in other words, it bestows upon us the tools with which to make our living, in the career/life path of our choosing. From the rest of the Syllabus, it becomes obvious that Lewis, interestingly, has great contempt for an institution in which “education” is the goal.

This seems contradictory at first; are we not enrolled in an institution of higher education here at college? Indeed we are, and education is an essential part of what we should seek here: It ultimately makes us into a “human,” as Lewis puts it, by giving us the tools to dissect and decipher reality. In speaking of “humanity,” Lewis is speaking not of “kindness” or charity, as the word often denotes, but rather “the realization of the human idea,” in which we seek edification and competence. Furthermore, it allows us to “actualiz[e] that potentiality for leisure” in our lives, since we can work hard with the skills we have acquired and subsequently play hard afterwards, “which is man’s prerogative.”

However, beyond our desire for making a good living with leisure and repose tied into it, there is something more edifying, more compelling than simply acquiring skills for your trade. That something, as Lewis defines it, is learning: the act we commit when we truly are interested in what we study and pursue knowledge like a wolf ravenously pursuing his dinner. Lewis clearly states that, in his view of higher education, universities are “homes not for teaching but for the pursuit of knowledge,” where the instruction should be of much higher importance than the instructor. This pursuit is part of what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, since the others are natural born “professionals” of their trade. We have the capacity, potential, and thirst to become more than aspiring professionals: we have an urge towards our humanity. Lewis believes that “knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who specially pursue it are being specially human.” Therefore, the roles of students and professors alike must be put into question, as both sides pursue knowledge and wisdom to the best of their ability.

The ideal role of the educator is, if we adopt Lewis’ view of learning, a delicate one. Lewis writes to his English students that “we [at Oxford] are not going to try to improve you; we have fulfilled our purpose if we help you to see some given tract of reality.” In other words, educators need to recognize that they should not be teaching for the purpose of molding students according to their own view of a “good man,” but should be a resource that the students use in their learning. They can impart their knowledge and experience to their students, but be viewed by the class as (and I mean this in no demeaning way) a living textbook. Just as we discern what the author of the book wrote, checking it for bias and making an accurate judgment as to its reliability, so too we should understand our professors’ personal paradigms and leanings in order to take their teaching with a pinch of salt and check their validity against our own experience and research in the subject. Ultimately, the professor is there as a doorway into the subject they are teaching. As Lewis says, we ought to be thinking more “about the subject” and less about the instructor, if we truly are interested in pursuing knowledge.

On the other side, Lewis declares that “the proper question for a freshman is not ‘What will do me the most good,’ but ‘What do I most want to know?’” We must recognize that we are now “human,” as we have all been educated, and that we must now stand on our own feet and really want to learn, as opposed to what we think we ought to learn. According to Lewis, “nothing that we have to offer will do him good unless he can be persuaded to forget all about self-improvement for three or four years, and to absorb himself in getting to know some part of reality, as it is in itself.” The drive to learn should supersede the desire to be presentable in the job interview, and we should take full advantage of the privilege of being in an institution devoted to the continuation of our pursuit of learning.


  1. Good comments!
    now go and enjoy learning!

  2. Nate, I like that you pointed out that professors are both a very valuable resource to students and an imperfect one. We are all human, and professors certainly have their own biases and views which come across, even unconsciously, in their teaching. That is part of why it is so important to dive into learning on our own as college students, and not simply go on being educated. Good observation!