Archives For Education

The halls of academia are a curious place. Dark wooden walls and well-worn stairways hearken back to legions of students and professors who have invested portions of their lives in the academies’ life. Some of us are drawn to the air of knowledge and residue of research that made them what they are.

At the same time, however, many universities have become parodies of what they once were. Some self-important leaders and faculty cry out for satire and parody. As one liberal American journalist, a defender of academic elitism, admitted: “academics can be condescending and arrogant.”

Through the years I’ve known many brilliant men and women who retained their humility. Sadly, I’ve also encountered many whose view of themselves was so exaggerated that one could only respond with disbelief. Do they really believe no one sees through the façade?

Rather than write a longer column here, I want to provide a link to an unusual article I recently wrote related to this subject. If you have a sense of humor, and are not afflicted with academic grandiosity, please check it out. It appeared this past week in the latest issue of CSL: The Bulletin of the New York C.S. Lewis Society.

CSL is a small but mighty (think Reepicheep) publication. It’s worth subscribing to, even for those of us thousands of miles from their regular meetings in the Empire State.

My article is brief, but it includes “the Mere Oxford Inkling Erudition Chart,” which promises countless hours of educational entertainment.

The people my satire seeks to unmask are the type of academics who attempted to make Oxford and Cambridge Universities so inhospitable to C.S. Lewis. Read this interview with one of his former student who critiques the opinions of lesser minds.

The BBC [invited him to broadcast the] talks that ultimately became Mere Christianity. The BBC was astounded by the response to these talks. As you know, Mere Christianity has never been out of print since.

He then became very unpopular with the senior faculty at Magdalen College. Magdalen was a godless college and a very famous college, very atheistical. . . . So [Lewis] got a rough ride there. He never made professor at Oxford.

So much for the civility one would expect in such environs.

You can read my modest article, “Mastering Inkling Erudition,” at this link today.

Academic Expenses

December 13, 2022 — 4 Comments

Rich people don’t need to worry about the cost of college educations. The rest of us do (or, at least, we should). C.S. Lewis could not rely on family wealth to pursue his academic dreams, and we can learn from his example.

My wife and I were the first members of our respective families to attend college. Without assistance from our parents, we did chose the most fiscally responsible path. We opted for a public university (in my own case, via “community college”) and worked as many hours a week as we could while maintaining our grades.

Even this would have been far more difficult without receiving student loans, which we diligently repaid following our graduations.

Years later, we were in a position to help our own children pursue their higher educational aspirations. Still, graduate degrees are not inexpensive, and all three of them received government-backed loans to get them to the finish line.

They have been diligently repaying that borrowed money since graduation and never complained about the debt, since no one coerced them to accept it.

Our daughter, in fact, made significant sacrifices to pay off her student loans as quickly as possible, and accomplished that goal far earlier than we imagined she would.

Here at Mere Inkling, we go to great lengths to avoid political partisanship. In addition to that, I’ve made it quite clear I have no illusions about understanding economics.

Nevertheless, it requires no genius intellect to imagine how people who sacrificed to pay off their personal debts feel about now having to (thorough their taxes) also pay off the sometimes-delinquent debts of their peers. Our middle class family is only one of presumably millions who are experiencing this personally today.

Who Paid for C.S. Lewis’ Collegiate Studies?

The world has changed much since C.S. Lewis left home for boarding school and ultimately, for the university. It was unsurprising that when his father was widowed while his sons were young, he entrusted them to schools where he assumed they would be safe, and well prepared for their future professions.

Once the boys were old enough to choose career paths, Warnie (1895-1973) pursued a military profession. Following graduation from the U.K.’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, he served in both World Wars. However, as one writer accurately notes, “perhaps Warnie could have accomplished far more, but his lifelong struggles with alcoholism kept him from doing so. Some have speculated Warnie’s alcoholism resulted in an earlier retirement from the military than he would have wished.”

As for the younger Lewis scion, Clive would eventually make major contributions on the faculties of both Oxford and Cambridge Universities.

Getting there took some time, and was interrupted by the First World War. After his recuperation as a seriously wounded veteran of the trenches, Lewis renewed his academic studies. Discovery Institute has an excellent article describing “C.S. Lewis and the Ceremonies at Oxford University (1917-1925).” I particularly enjoy Kathryn Lindskoog’s understatement that “Oxford University, in Lewis’s time and since, is not the best place to learn Christian humility . . .”

As a student, Lewis was reliant on continuing support from his father. Only after graduating and beginning to receive a stipend as a Fellow of Magdalen College in 1925, did Lewis consider himself financially independent. (The year prior he had received a modest salary from the college, as an employee of the College, but it was inadequate to meet his needs.)

During his college studies, despite a scholarship, he relied on his father’s generosity. His opening in a 1919 letter to his father illustrates this relationship.

Many thanks for your letter and also for the enclosed cheque for £19.12.8. That amount includes all the charges both for tuition and college expenses and may serve as a base for future calculation, tho’ of course there may be slight differences from term to term.

Still, even in the best of families, financial considerations may become a matter of concern. Five years later, as he was at the end of his life as a student, his father was wondering when he would become satisfactorily employed. (That’s a conversation replayed around the globe on a daily basis.) The first two paragraphs illustrate the theme, but you won’t be disappointed if you have the time to read the entire passage.

And now to business. The Univ. Fellowship has not been filled up. You may have read in the papers that a new ‘Chaplain Fellow’ has been elected, but that of course is a different job. If I don’t mention it, it is because there is nothing new to say about it. Just at present a new and very good vacancy at Trinity (I mean Trinity, Oxford of course) has appeared, for which an election is to be held in the summer, and I shall certainly go in for it.

As to money: I had rather you had explained in detail what you ‘don’t follow’ in my arithmetic, but I trust there is nothing seriously wrong with the figures I gave you and will proceed accordingly. What is more serious is your reference to £30 extras last year. The only part of this which I can at present identify are the extra tuition and the book bill. The former of course was purely abnormal and will not occur again. The book bill was naturally increased by my turning to a new subject.

I try to use the libraries as much as possible: but when one is reading for a particular exam there are over a hundred other people taking the same books out of the libraries – and of course there are some things one must have at command. My expenditure on books will be less in future. I have a book bill due to be paid some time soon which is under five pounds: if you will pay that I think I can undertake to find myself for books in the future – tho’ since you tell me to be frank, I will say that this may not always be easy.

The rest of the £30 you mention is, I suppose, made up by items of clothing. I presume it does not include my two suits? As to clothing, I’m afraid that even if you increase my allowance as you suggest, I cannot undertake to find myself.

I mean that my loss of the scholarship and my outlay on clothes would not be balanced by an addition of £40 or £50. I cannot see how to cut down my expenses on clothing. You know I think that it does not go to fancy waistcoats or kid gloves. And I have some ties that date from before the war!

Flannel trousers are an item that I have to repeat pretty often: they ARE ill wearing things, but if I didn’t wear them I should need suits more often than I do. On shoes I admit that I am hard and have to get a good deal of ‘soling’ done: but I am afraid this reads rather as if I were defending myself against a charge of extravagance, which you will justly reply you never made: but you must not think that. I am only trying to put down the facts of the question as they actually occur to me from day to day in order to make my conclusion more reasonable and intelligible to you.

And the conclusion is this. You ask me where £85 a term to ‘cover everything’ would be sufficient. If by ‘covering everything’ you mean covering my books, shoes, shirts, socks and other items that I have hitherto sent you, I am afraid it would not. As I said, if you wish it, I will try to undertake my own books in the future, and, at any rate to cut them down.

I will also abandon the new dinner jacket suit that was mooted, and you must not imagine that I would feel that sort of curtailment as any hardship. As for a new overcoat, the one you gave me when I left home suits and fits me so well that the question need not be considered. But I do not think that I can manage to keep myself in minor articles of clothing.

I’m afraid this may seem to you but a charter of indefinite expenses for the future. Well then, to say all, if it is too much, you must tell me so. You have done all and more than all I can expect of you, and if you tell me that these extra years are too heavy, I assure you that I shall never, even in my secret thought, criticise such a decision.

If on the other hand, you see fit to lodge £85 a year and to pay for such extras in the way of clothing, etc. as may occur, I will try to make them as little as I can. I must point out however that it is much easier to save on the big items I have mentioned – the dress suit and overcoat – than on those necessary articles which have so often to be replaced.

If you will give me a dress suit when I get a job, I ought to be able to tide over these years without any more ‘suitings’ from you at all. If, till they are over, you can lodge £85 a term and make it retrospective for the present year, while paying for my smaller articles of clothing, I think I can manage. And whether you can do this or not, I have nothing but deepest gratitude for the past.

So, once again we see that C.S. Lewis’ experiences were not all that different from our own. Most people who have accepted their parents’ financial aid during their adulthood, can identify with Lewis’ mixture of sincere gratitude and muted frustration.

Perhaps it is a very good thing that today we have so many different assistance programs for potential students. Good things, I believe, as long as they are not abused – and borrowers pay them back, as they promised.

I clearly remember my mother preparing to attend her fortieth high school reunion. I was struck by the thought wow, my mom is really old!

A few days ago, I attended my own fiftieth reunion. Needless to say, the milestone was sobering.

Read on and I’ll share two insights – the first of which is widely recognized, the second thought is a personal insight to the emotional trauma that can accompany these gatherings.

As the decades advance, most such events add a moment where the names of classmates who are deceased are read. Naturally, the list continues to grow. From my class of 220, 38 are no longer alive. One can only imagine how many of the 74 graduates the steering committee couldn’t reach belong on that list as well.

Seeing the names of people you remember as energetic teenagers, who have already perished, reminds us of our own mortality. Not a single person can be sure their own name won’t appear on that memorial roster, when next the class of 1972 gathers.

Death is rarely a welcome specter, but as a Christian who is confident of the resurrection, reading those names does not elicit fear. True, I do feel some sadness, knowing that each of their families and friends have suffered deep personal loss. But I am resigned to the brevity of life in this world.

I’ve arrived at peace with the fact that we “do not know what tomorrow will bring . . . for [we] are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4).

King David declared our utter dependence on God for everything, and the short duration of our earthly life.

O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am! Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before you. Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! (Psalm 39).

Fortunately, however, as most people have at least heard, if not (yet) believed: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3).

This aspect of class reunions is self-evident. The next, less so.

The Legacy of Isolation

Why is it that so many of my classmates opted to skip the reunion – when I know for a fact that a number of them still live in the local area? I suppose the cost may have discouraged some. But I recognize the most significant reason for the majority who were absent.

They felt they were never part of “the In Crowd.” They watched other people standing in the limelight, getting all of the attention, and pretending to be happy and carefree.

The truth is that adolescence is a challenge for everyone. And it’s quite possible that the most “popular” kids are actually the most angst-ridden. The people we considered safely nestled in the popular cliques were frequently stressed by their insecurities about continuing to be perceived as winners.

In many cases, the years after high school are great equalizers. And, it’s not uncommon for the people who appeared to have the easiest social paths during their teens to be the least equipped to live successful adult lives.

So far, what I’ve said is not too surprising. But here I am going to take a bit of a leap. I make no claims to being a psychologist, but as a dedicated student of humanity, and a pastor who has heard many private, personal stories, I believe this observation to be true.

While we were teenagers attending school, nearly all of us felt like we were on the fringe of our school’s social core. And the handful who didn’t could well have been nascent narcissists. Trust me, the few who experienced actual delusions of grandeur at that time, were destined to take the greatest falls as they left that insulated environment.

So, this is what I think. Most of those who choose not to attend their class reunions, lacked a feeling of truly belonging. But, on the other side of the very same coin, most of those who choose to attend those very same gatherings also felt like they were insignificant people on the periphery of what was “happening.”

The Lord of this world (Lucifer) invests a great deal of energy trying to destroy the self-image of women and men who were created in the very image of God. My prayer is that if you have read this far, you consider what I’ve written. You are precious. You have always been precious, even when you considered yourself most ugly.

Attending your next class reunion may not be something you desire to do. But, don’t allow a false perception that you are unimportant be the reason you skip the event.

C.S. Lewis wrote a superb essay on the subject of “The Inner Ring,” and the temptation people have to compromise their integrity trying to fit in. He presented it as a lecture at King’s College, University of London, in 1944. In his words, “Of all the passions, the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

If you read the essay, which I heartily recommend, recognize that he was speaking to a student audience which consisted only of men. The truths he describes are applicable, of course, to both genders. Lewis’ observations certainly ring true with me.

I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods, and in many men’s lives at all periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.

Humorous Examinations

September 21, 2021 — 15 Comments

Could you pass this examination?

Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought.

In contrast to the serious tone of the last two posts, today I am offering some edifying entertainment. As a gift to you, I have edited a perennial favorite of internet humorists. I recently came across my copy of this comprehensive knowledge examination, which motivated me to tweak it for Mere Inkling’s erudite audience.

You have probably seen versions of this exam in the past. The basic questions have remained surprisingly stable despite its age. I encountered it in the University of Washington campus paper in 1973. One writer claims “the Graduation Exam—Authentic Assessment has been in circulation since at least the 1950’s.”

The exam certainly makes the rounds, as this Navy veteran described.

The pressures of comprehensive exams were apparent to many, which resulted in one of the few officially sanctioned jokes in Naval Nuclear Power. In one of the official publications of Naval Reactors, someone inserted a sample “final exam” from Nuclear Power School.

In 2012 elements of the examination created confusion in the People’s Republic of China. It was included in an article about how Chinese nationals could prepare for an American State Department exam required for positions at the United States embassy in Beijing. According to China’s Global Times, “US embassy spokesman Richard Buangan made clear on his Sina microblog Sunday that an alleged ‘recruitment test for expatriate employees at the US embassy’ is fake.”

A June 2008 issue of Foreign Service Journal carried a story, which includes an English version of the [exam stating] the questions are from the US State Department’s entrance exam, in a bid to “measure the stability of perspective Foreign Service officers and to weed out the dummies.”

The Function of Examinations

Testing and documenting competence is obviously important. This is especially true for people in critical roles, such as prescribing drugs, designing aircraft engines, and manufacturing ice cream.

Of course, not everyone is able to pass every test. Which is precisely how things should be.

C.S. Lewis noted how educators truly familiar with their students readily recognize when it is a waste of time for them to continue repeating an exam they obviously cannot pass. He said an academic “master often knows, when boys and parents do not, that it is really useless to send a boy in for a certain examination again” (The Problem of Pain).

I have met very few people who enjoy being tested. Yet, for many faculty members (C.S. Lewis included), being on the “other side” of exams is not particularly enjoyable either. This delightful passage comes from a 1927 letter to his brother, Warnie.

My period of examining passed over with its usual accompaniment of neuralgia and oaths, relieved by the one excellent boy who defined ‘a genie’ correctly, yet more than correctly, as ‘an eastern spirit inhabiting bottles and buttons and rings.’ Pretty good for a boy.

I was also pleased with a youth who, being asked to write a letter to a friend recommending Guy Mannering,* wrote to his brother recommending it and saying ‘I think you would be interested in the character of Colonel Mannering, he is so like our father’: and then later in a paper on Guy Mannering in which I had set the question ‘Would you have liked Colonel Mannering as a father?’—illustrate your answer etc.—began decisively ‘I would not have liked Colonel Mannering as a father in the least.’

Well, it’s time now to offer you the opportunity to prove your worthiness. If you wish to evidence the breadth and depth of your knowledge, proceed now to the exam. (Astute readers will note I’ve added a personal twist to a couple of the exam questions.)

Comprehensive Knowledge Exam

HISTORY: Describe the history of the papacy from its origins to the present day, concentrating especially, but not exclusively, on its social, political, economic, religious, and philosophical impact on Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Africa. Be brief, concise, and specific. Now do the same for the Zoroastrian priesthood. [Bonus credit for including Antarctica in your response.]

MEDICINE: You have been provided with a razor blade, a piece of gauze and a bottle of scotch. Remove your appendix. Do not suture until your work has been inspected. You have fifteen minutes. [Option: if you feel the scotch would impair your responses to the remaining questions, you may defer this portion of the exam to the end of the exam.]

PUBLIC SPEAKING: Two thousand riot-crazed anarchists are storming the campus. Calm them. You may use any ancient language except Latin, Greek or Sanskrit. [Pig Latin is allowed.]

BIOLOGY: Postulate the 500 million year progression of a life form based on silicon, ranking its likely preference for form of government Enumerate the pros and cons it would associate with democracy, monarchy, socialism, theocracy, and totalitarianism. [Caution: any references to the Horta of Janus VI will result in disqualification of your answer, since Star Trek is a fictional resource.]

MUSIC: Write a piano concerto. Orchestrate and perform it with flute and digeridoo. You will find a piano under your seat. The wind instruments, of course, were among the items you were directed to bring with you to the examination.

PSYCHOLOGY: Based on your knowledge of their works, evaluate the emotional stability, degree of adjustment, and repressed frustrations of each of the following: Alexander of Aphrodisias, Hildegard of Bingen, Rābi’a bint Ka’b al-Quzdārī and Simeon the Stylite. Support your evaluation with quotations from each individual’s work, citing original sources. It is not necessary to translate.

SOCIOLOGY: Using the pretext of Planet of the Apes, where homo sapiens have been subordinated to various primate species, assess the prospects for achieving mutual toleration and equilibrium before one group is driven to extinction. [Caution: confusion of apes (which lack tails) and monkeys (which lack an appendix) will result in disqualification of your response.]

CHEMISTRY: Transform lead into gold. You will find a beaker, a three hundred count box of matches and five lead sinkers under your seat. Show all work including Feynman diagrams and quantum functions for all steps. [Transformation into silver will provide half credit.]

ENGINEERING: The disassembled parts of a high-powered rifle have been placed on your desk. You will also find an instruction manual, printed in Swahili. In 10 minutes a hungry Bengal tiger will be admitted to the room. [Special Consideration: Satisfactorily explain the differences between Fahrenheit and Celsius to the tiger, and it will be replaced by a rabid ferret.]

ECONOMICS: Develop a realistic plan for refinancing global debt, without hypothesizing a benevolent intergalactic alliance with unlimited resources coming to the planet’s aid. Trace the possible effects of your plan in the following areas: Cubism, the Donatist controversy, and the 1913 foundation of Hôpital Albert Schweitzer in Gabon.

POLITICAL SCIENCE: Devise an infallible, seven-step plan to transform the United Nations into an organization that will successfully foster peace and goodwill in all international relationships. [Bonus credit for providing a major role for two of the following nations: Dominica, Liechtenstein, Tuvalu.]

AGRICULTURAL SCIENCE: Outline the steps involved in breeding your own super high yield, all weather hybrid strain of wheat. Describe its chemical and physical properties and estimate its impact on world food supplies. Construct a model for dealing with world-wide surpluses. Draft your Nobel Prize acceptance speech.

PHYSICS: Explain the nature of matter. Include in your answer an evaluation of the impact of the development of mathematics on astronomy, botany and numismatics. [Bonus Credit: write today’s date in metric.]

PHILOSOPHY: Sketch the development of human thought, estimate its significance. Compare with the development of any other kind of thought. Be sure to include an analysis of the influence exerted on philosophy by Diogenes the Cynic.

CREATIVE WRITING: Compose an epic poem based on the events of your own life in which you see and footnote allusions from T.S. Eliot, Titus Lucretius Carus, Miguel de Cervantes, Dante Alighieri, Þorbjörn Hornklofi, Gilgamesh and Stephen King. Critique your poem with a full discussion of its syntax and metrics. [Bonus Credit for writing alternating stanzas between free and rhyming verse.]

EDUCATION: Formulate an examination which accurately measures an individual’s comprehensive knowledge base without cultural or linguistic prejudice. Limit the question parameters to what can reasonably be covered during a four hour testing block.

LITERATURE: Discuss in detail at least three major literary figures from each of the following civilizations: the Xia Dynasty, the Akkadian Empire, the Mayan Empire, the Aksumite Empire, the Polynesian Tuʻi Tonga Empire, and nineteenth century United Kingdom. [Caution: failure to include J.R.R. Tolkien and/or C.S. Lewis will result in disqualification of your answer to this question.]

Congratulations on finishing the exam. You are encouraged to use any remaining time to review your answers in light of the fact that grammatical errors and misspellings will significantly impact your final grade.


* You can download a personal copy of Guy Mannering, one of Sir Walter Scott’s Waverly novels, at Internet Archive.

If you should question the distinctions I noted between apes and monkeys, please know that the facts are genuine. However, for future examinations, you should be aware that not all monkeys have tails.

How should Christians relate to modern culture? Should they try to identify with culture so they are indistinguishable from their secular peers? Or, would it be better for them to stand aloof from a society espousing a worldview diametrically opposed to their own?

C.S. Lewis would recommend a different course. He would be saddened by Christians who felt compelled to pander to the ideals of contemporary culture. At the same time, he would be offended by disciples of Jesus who deemed themselves too enlightened—or, God forbid, holy—to stoop to engage with modern civilization.

In his essay “Christianity and Culture,”* Lewis begins by pointing out that the omnipresence of culture makes us unconscious of its independence from our religious worldview.

At an early age I came to believe that the life of culture (that is, of intellectual and aesthetic activity) was very good for its own sake, or even that it was good for man. After my conversion, which occurred in my later twenties, I continued to hold this belief without consciously asking how it could be reconciled with my new belief that the end of human life was salvation in Christ and the glorifying of God.

After this epiphany, Lewis began to consciously explore the proper relationship a believer should have with culture. And, his conclusion rejected both of the aforementioned extremes.

Culture has been on my mind since reading the 2019-20 schedule of the Fellowship of Performing Arts. I have written about two of the Lewis-related plays presented by this wonderful theatrical community in the past. The Great Divorce and C.S. Lewis Onstage: The Most Reluctant Convert were both superb. I’m hoping that The Screwtape Letters will return to Seattle soon. All of their work is deeply inspiring.

The founder of FPA, Max McLean, affirms how their mission—producing quality “theatre from a Christian worldview meant to engage a diverse audience”—continues to guide their efforts. This includes a new rendition of Paradise Lost which will debut on Theater Row in New York in January. You won’t get to see the new play outside of New York City, but check this site for a list of their touring casts to see what wondrous performances may be available near you.

McLean writes, “In the arts world, Christians are seen as cultural critics, not culture makers. Mainstream opinion is that Christianity is a regressive idea that has nothing to add to the cultural conversation.”

McLean, like C.S. Lewis, encourages us to challenge this misinterpretation. After all, even if some Christian communions have retreated from the modern Areopagus, most of the great cultural accomplishments of the Western world owe a great deal to Christianity. And that is a debt of gratitude we can increase when we choose.

Culture is Not Our Enemy

Lewis posed an interesting contrast in “Christianity and Culture.” Speaking of the positive aspects of culture (for there are assuredly many shortcomings), he writes:

Culture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values. They will save no man. They resemble the regenerate life only as affection resembles charity, or honour resembles virtue, or the moon the sun.

But though “like is not the same,” it is better than unlike. Imitation may pass into initiation. For some it is a good beginning. For others it is not; culture is not everyone’s road into Jerusalem, and for some it is a road out.

This final observation—that immersion in culture can lead one on a path away from Life—is profound. I have witnessed this in the action of some who make cultural sophistication an end in itself.

In a far different essay, “Learning in War-Time,” C.S. Lewis elucidates how culture is a given. Even the most earnest prayers of the eremites can dispel it. No cloister has walls so impenetrable that they make culture irrelevant.

In the context, then, of education, Lewis describes the necessity of Christians engaging deeply with culture.

If all the world were Christian, it might not matter if all the world were uneducated. But, as it is, a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not. To be ignorant and simple now—not to be able to meet enemies on their own ground—would be to throw down our weapons, and to betray our uneducated brethren who have, under God, no defence but us against the intellectual attacks of the heathen.

Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered. The cool intellect must work not only against cool intellect on the other side, but against the muddy heathen mysticisms which deny intellect altogether.

Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion.

A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. The learned life then is, for some, a duty.

And so, just as the “learned life” is a duty for some, so too is an “artistic life.” It is a good thing, perhaps even an excellent thing, when Christians excel at the arts and talents esteemed by one’s local culture.

What might change if Christians decided to forego their identity as mere cultural critics and strove to become cultural leaders? Now that’s a question worth pondering.


* T.S. Eliot wrote a book with the same title. Published seventy years ago, he assessed a cultural conflict that has only grown more acute.

The problem of leading a Christian life in a non-Christian society is now very present to us, and it is a very different problem from that of the accommodation between an Established Church and dissenters. It is not merely the problem of a minority in a society of individuals holding an alien belief.

It is the problem constituted by our implication in a network of institutions from which we cannot dissociate ourselves: institutions the operation of which appears no longer neutral, but non-Christian. And as for the Christian who is not conscious of his dilemma—and he is in the majority—he is becoming more and more de-Christianized by all sorts of unconscious pressure: paganism holds all the most valuable advertising space.

dog author

Wouldn’t it be amazing to read about the adventures, struggles, triumphs, thoughts, and dreams of real animals? C.S. Lewis thought so.

Admittedly, referring to the thoughts and dreams of a squirrel or a hummingbird is a bit fanciful. But isn’t it feasible to imagine that a pregnant doe is hoping to find a lush meadow, or that a beaver who’s just finished a fine meal is gratefully contented as he snuggles down for the night in his lodge?

In one of his thought-provoking books—which I enthusiastically recommend to everyone who likes to read—Lewis describes exactly how reading is vital to expanding our world. “Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors” (An Experiment in Criticism).

In this volume, Lewis argues that books are better measured by how they are read,  than by how they are written. In other words, Lewis is making the case that the true value of a book is not determined by the skill the author applied to its creation. Instead, Lewis writes, “so far as I can see . . . the specific value or good of literature [is that] it admits us to experiences other than our own.”

Lewis continues, with a fascinating discussion of his “experiment,” which flips traditional literary criticism on its head. Don’t rush through the following excerpt from the argument. It’s well worth taking your time to ponder his words and see if you agree.

[The experiences of others] are not, any more than our personal experiences, all equally worth having. Some, as we say, ‘interest’ us more than others. The causes of this interest are naturally extremely various and differ from one man to another; it may be the typical (and we say ‘How true!’) or the abnormal (and we say ‘How strange !’); it may be the beautiful, the terrible, the awe-inspiring, the exhilarating, the pathetic , the comic, or the merely piquant. Literature gives the entrée to them all.

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison.

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough.

At this point we arrive at the utterly Lewisian notion that even animals (e.g. uncivilized “brutes”) would be capable of broadening the horizons of our own thinking.

I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality.

But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do” (An Experiment in Criticism).

On the Subject of Reading & Rereading

If you need any more encouragement to seek out a copy of this wonderful book, allow me to share with you two profound points Lewis makes in support of his distinction between “literary” and “unliterary” people. (Lewis, of course, does not demean the latter. On the contrary, he grieves for the “tiny world” they choose to inhabit.)

The majority [of unliterary people], though they are sometimes frequent readers, do not set much store by reading. They turn to it as a last resource. They abandon it with alacrity as soon as any alternative pastime turns up. It is kept for railway journeys, illnesses, odd moments of enforced solitude, or for the process called ‘reading oneself to sleep.’

They sometimes combine it with desultory conversation; often, with listening to the radio. But literary people are always looking for leisure and silence in which to read and do so with their whole attention (An Experiment in Criticism).

In terms of rereading, Lewis was a fervent advocate of reading good books more than once. Most of us would say lack of time is the greatest deterrent to rereading classics, but most of us do have some favorites that we have returned to more than once.

The majority never read anything twice. The sure mark of an unliterary man is that he considers ‘I’ve read it already’ to be a conclusive argument against reading a work. We have all known women who remembered a novel so dimly that they had to stand for half an hour in the library skimming through it before they were certain they had once read it.

But the moment they became certain, they rejected it immediately. It was for them dead, like a burnt-out match, an old railway ticket, or yesterday’s paper; they had already used it (An Experiment in Criticism).

In contrast, Lewis describes how “those who read great works, on the other hand, will read the same work ten, twenty or thirty times during the course of their life.” Many of us would initially think our rereading frequency falls short of those specific tallies, perhaps we should reconsider. After all, most readers of Mere Inkling reread with great frequency portions of a particular library of sixty-six books,* gathered together in a book called the Bible.


* More books in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox collection of the Scriptures, which include seven Deuterocanonical books. Fewer, of course, for our Jewish friends who follow the teachings of twenty-four books, which are also included in the Christian Bible.

CSL China

If C.S. Lewis had desired to teach English in China he would probably have succeeded. However, due to some rather peculiar requirements, he may not have passed muster.

In that Asian nation, you need four years of college to become a teacher. At 山西师范大学 (Shaanxi Normal University) they include another odd requirement. Shaanxi has a minimal height standard. Men must be at least 5-foot-1 and women must be no shorter than 4-foot-7.

C.S. Lewis would have passed this mandate; he was just shy of 5-foot-11. But who knows what other arbitrary dictates may have barred him from sharing his brilliant mind.

The university’s policy came to international attention when the plight of a young student who completed her studies only to be informed that she was four inches too short to receive her diploma. As the BBC reports, there is a waiver for those who wish to teach the very young.

Those wanting to teach at nursery are able to apply for special accreditation if they are five centimetres shorter.

The school’s, albeit flimsy, rationale is that teachers may need to reach high on blackboards when they are teaching their students. (So much for using modern technology to compensate.)*

It would be bad enough if they failed to admit such candidates to their program, but obviously some are not informed of the standard until they have completed their university studies. One can hardly imagine how that unfortunate graduate felt.

C.S. Lewis spent his academic life at Oxford and Cambridge. Although he lectured in a variety of venues, no international university was blessed to have him serve as a visiting scholar.

Fortunately, however, his words reached far beyond the campuses of Oxbridge. And, even though Lewis never taught in China (or in Chinese), his words are available today via translation. At Wheaton College, the Marion E. Wade Center preserves a great deal of information about the Inklings, including some original material.

The Wade’s translation collection has a diverse amount of languages represented, even if only by one book. The languages at the Wade include: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech,  Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Finnish, French, Gaelic, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hungarian, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Welsh.

A Two-Way Street

Those of us who have taught realize better than others that teachers often learn as much from their students as they offer to them. Preparing to teach demands that we study to know the subject matter as intimately as we can, so we might convey it effectively to others.

Although he was a brilliant teacher, C.S. Lewis was also a diligent lifelong learner.

Lewis held great respect for Chinese civilization. He was interested in the Chinese philosophical concept of the Tao. I’ve written about his thoughts on this subject before.

Lewis viewed the Tao as being similar to what Christian theologians traditionally refer to as Natural Law.

The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments.

If it is rejected, all value is rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained. The effort to refute it and raise a new system of value in its place is self-contradictory. There has never been, and never will be, a radically new judgment of value in the history of the world.

What purport to be new systems or . . . ideologies . . . all consist of fragments from the Tao itself, arbitrarily wrenched from their context in the whole and then swollen to madness in their isolation, yet still owing to the Tao and to it alone such validity as they possess. (The Abolition of Man)

Lewis was an advocate of what some refer to as Classical Education. It involves loftier goals than simply communicating data. In his essay “Our English Syllabus,” Lewis “propagated education’s end, rather than as the filling of students’ heads with information or their muscles with habits, as the inculcation of virtue.”

Lewis treasured the essence of knowledge rather than its trappings. He was patient with those genuinely hungry for knowledge. But you could also readily apply to him the maxim that he did not suffer fools gladly.

It does not take a genius to discern what C.S. Lewis would have thought about this Chinese height requirement. To prevent a motivated and capable educator from pursuing her vocation simply because she may lack the reach of someone taller, does not pass the test of common sense.


* “The first interactive whiteboard was released in 1991,” and I assume The People’s Republic “magically” secured that very technology no later than 1992.

 

csl forgetica

Do you have trouble remembering what you read? Read on for a solution to your problem.

C.S. Lewis possessed an amazing memory of what he had read. While eidetic memory remains theoretical, many attributed a “photographic memory” to the Oxford don. Owen Barfield, Lewis’ close friend, described this gift.

He had that very pictorial imagination. I know when we used to go on walks, I used to envy him that. . . . He had what I think is called by some people an “eidetic memory,” when your imaginative pictures are almost photographic. (Owen Barfield on C.S. Lewis edited by G.B. Tennyson)

Describing Lewis’ earnest patience with others, however “ignorant or naïve” (Barfield’s opinion) the person, Barfield describes how readily Lewis recalled pertinent facts.

First he would speak as one simple man exchanging experiences with another, and only afterward (if the occasion seemed to call for it and always without the least nuance of didacticism) would he bring to bear, out of his wide reading and phenomenal memory, some pithy utterance—it might be from Aristotle’s Ethics, it might be from an Icelandic saga, it might be from George MacDonald—that contained the very substance of what the two of them had just discovered they had in common.

There appears to be hope on the horizon for those of us who are not blessed with Lewis’ talent for recalling what we read. RMIT University (formerly the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) has devised a new font that uses a psychological principle called “desirable difficulty” to help readers retain more.

Take a look at Sans Forgetica in its own font. forgetica

 

 

The “difficult” part is evident in the lacunae that force one’s mind to fill in the gaps and make sense of each letter and word. The “desirability” comes with the way that our brains are able to decipher with just enough effort to imprint the material more deeply in our minds.

This principle reminded me of something written by Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline. He describes the importance of concentration on our spiritual growth, as we seriously examine and process whatever is worthy of thinking upon. (Philippians 4:8)

I have mentioned the disciplines of service and worship. There are many others. Inward disciplines, like meditation, prayer, fasting, and study, cultivate our heart and mind toward the way of Christ. Meditation is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.

Prayer is ongoing dialogue with the Father about what God and we are doing together. Fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.

Study is the process through which we bring the mind to conform to the order of whatever we are concentrating upon. (Becoming Like Christ)

On the Elegance of Fonts

Longtime readers of Mere Inkling are well aware of my personal fascination with fonts. This link will reveal posts I’ve tagged with the subject. It reveals that different fonts exist for more than aesthetic reasons.

While some are simply created for decorative or mood-setting purposes—such as typefaces that mimic monastic scripts or the text created for the first Narnia film—others are devised for more practical purposes. The latter collection includes one created to aid those who suffer from dyslexia (Dyslexie). The intentionally useful category will now include Sans Forgetica.

Sans Forgetica is available for free. As evidence of either its merit or the promotional skills of its creators, they have already created an extension for the Chrome browser. It allows users to convert internet text on their screens to the memorable font.

I would suggest that such an application be used sparingly. Most of what we read on the internet is not worth recalling, much less clogging our brains with trivia and worse. Still, if applied selectively, it could be useful. After all, if it only moves us a centimeter in the direction of retaining information like C.S. Lewis, that’s a move in the right direction!

 

Teaching Kids to Write

November 20, 2018 — 13 Comments

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My grandkids have stunned me with their enthusiasm for writing. And all it took to inspire them was a very simple activity.

I invited our ten youngest grandchildren (aged 4 to 12) to write their own family newspaper. Although I devised our family publication myself, I’ve since learned that there are abundant resources—albeit of vastly different qualities—available online. You’ll find some links below.

The first challenge was to explain to them what a newspaper is. The irony is not lost on me that none of our four families currently subscribe to daily papers. It was more difficult than I anticipated to explain to all of the novice journalists precisely what newspapers are. I use the present tense, because the medium is not quite obsolete, despite the downward trajectory of most local papers. As an editorial in the Washington Post said this year, “newspapers have been dying in slow motion for two decades now.” And it seems to many the process is accelerating.

Nevertheless, as the proud veteran of high school and college newspaper staffs, and a former contributor to my hometown weekly, I believe such publications are ideal for developing writing skills. The passion overflowing from my writing bullpen has vastly exceeded my expectations, confirming my impression.

While it took a while to gather enough submissions for the first issue, they rushed to fill the second. When each was “published,” all of the kids immediately sat down and read their personal issues from proverbial cover to cover.

My endorsement of family newspapers does not carry over to the commercial press. Sadly, too much of what is presented as “objective reporting,” is patently subjective. I debated my journalism profs about that matter forty years ago, and the evidence has only grown more visible. I also agree with C.S. Lewis’ opinion that the majority of what passes for “news,” is superfluous or sensationalistic.

Even in peacetime I think those are very wrong who say that schoolboys should be encouraged to read the newspapers. Nearly all that a boy reads there in his teens will be seen before he is twenty to have been false in emphasis and interpretation, if not in fact as well, and most of it will have lost all importance.

Most of what he remembers he will therefore have to unlearn; and he will probably have acquired an incurable taste for vulgarity and sensationalism and the fatal habit of fluttering from paragraph to paragraph to learn how an actress has been divorced in California, a train derailed in France, and quadruplets born in New Zealand. (Surprised by Joy)

Perhaps ironically, Lewis did not hesitate to publish his own writings in worthy newspapers. Most notably, The Guardian (an Anglican newspaper printed between 1846 and 1951) published several of his essays. In addition, they presented to the world (in serial form) both The Screwtape Letters and The Great Divorce.

For an interesting discussion about C.S. Lewis’ opinion that newspapers are inadequate tools for assessing truth, check out this article. The author draws a valid distinction between Lewis’ example and the current state of affairs where “we judge too quickly and offer grace much too slowly.”

Elements of Our Family’s Publishing Experiment

After describing to the kids what newspapers are, I provided them with a list of potential subject matter. In addition to “standard” sorts of news and reviews, I added things like “sermon notes,” fiction, and comics.

I encourage them to illustrate their own articles, and the first two issues have been graced with images of dogs, horses, King Tut, and a Turtle Bear (who served as a weather forecaster). Each child contributes at their own level, and the cousins commend each other on their efforts.

We’re early in the stages of teaching the kids about rewriting and self-editing. Depending on the situation, either their parents or the editorial staff (grandma and grandpa) assist them with learning to revise their own work.

I must confess that one of the most fun aspects of Curious Cousins Courier is my ability, as the editor, to creatively engage in a bit of editorial privilege. The primary example comes in a “Family Heritage” feature that I write for each issue.

In the first, we considered the life of the cousins’ great-great-grandfather who immigrated from Norway in 1912. Julius Olaissen Næsbø unsuccessfully attempted to travel on the RMS Titanic, but the steerage class was full, and he had to settle for a departure several weeks later. The fringe benefit of reading about “Grandpa Nesby” came in learning that other languages include letters in their alphabet that are foreign to us in the States.

In the second issue, I pointed the children to one of their ancestors who helped establish our country itself, during the Revolutionary War. Joseph Johnston was born in Ireland, and was a sergeant in the Fifth Virginia Regiment.

The importance of cementing family bonds—and instilling a healthy awareness of our family’s legacy—is extremely important to me. I suppose that is due in large part to spending the first third of my life as a nomadic military kid. Yet that sense of disconnectedness from my extended family did not prevent me from inflicting the same itinerant military lifestyle on my own children. But that’s a story for another day.

If you help to establish a newspaper or journal for members of your own family, I trust you will find it as rewarding as I do.

A Few Online Resources

Get the Scoop: Create a Family Newspaper,” from Education.com

How to Make a Family Newspaper,” from wikiHow.

The 5 Ws are noted on ImaginationSoup. (In case you’ve forgotten, they’re who, what, where, when and why.)

More developed thoughts, with an eye toward the classroom, are available at The CurriculumCorner.

C.S. Lewis at Belsen

July 26, 2018 — 4 Comments

belsen school

Boarding schools are somewhat rare in the United States. And that is a good thing.

C.S. Lewis attended three, and he considered two of them to be torturous. The first he came to refer to as Belsen, in reference to the deadly Nazi concentration camp. His older brother, Warnie, had moved to the same school when he too was nine, three years earlier.

The headmaster of Wynyard School in Hertfordshire was an Anglican priest named Robert Capron who was quite unhinged. In fact,

The school that [his father] Albert Lewis, after careful study and deep reflection, chose for his sons was run quite autocratically by a man who had already been prosecuted for cruelty to his students and who, within a very few years, would be certified as insane. (The Narnian)

Honestly, there is a proper place for boarding schools—as long as they are not operated by lunatics.

As I finished seminary, a window opened for my wife and me to serve on the “mission field.” After serious prayer, we told the missions agency that “we will happily serve in any nation, discharging any type of ministry duties . . . so long as our children can remain with us.”

Some people are willing to make even that sacrifice. And they not limited to those in ministry. When I was stationed in the United Kingdom, the United Stated Department of Defense operated its own boarding school for military dependents at RAF High Wycombe. (Canadians attended as well.)

Leaving a Mark

It’s no surprise boarding schools left a deep imprint on Lewis’ psyche. For seven-plus months of the year, they controlled nearly every aspect of his life, from “reveille” to slumber.

He wrote about the repercussions in a variety of places, most notably his autobiography,  Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. During a recent rereading of the collection of essays in Present Concerns, I enjoyed “My First School.”

The essence of the essay is anticipation—anticipation of good events, such as holidays, and ominous occasions (in this case, the return to the schoolhouse). Before exploring that subject, Lewis sets the stage by briefly describing the grim environment at Belsen.

The Head [Rev. Capron] had, indeed, a grown-up son, a smooth-faced carpet-slipper sort of creature . . . a privileged Demi-god who ate the same food as his father though his sisters shared the food of the boys.

But we ourselves were . . . Beaten, cheated, scared, ill-fed . . .

Later, as a Christian adult, Lewis was able to glean some good even from these demoralizing days.

Life at a vile boarding school is, in this way, a good preparation for the Christian Life, that it teaches one to live by hope. Even, in a sense, by faith; for at the beginning of each term, home and holidays are so far off that it is as hard to realize them as to realize heaven. (Surprised by Joy)

It teaches one to live by hope.

In 1911 Lewis would be sent to a far better school, Cherbourg House in England. It was a prep school for Malvern College where he would follow his brother as a student. Although this school was healthier, it possessed its own shortcomings.

Cherbourg House was the tragic place where Lewis lost his childhood faith.

The chronology of this disaster is a little vague, but I know for certain that it had not begun when I went there and that the process was complete very shortly after I left. I will try to set down what I know of the conscious causes and what I suspect of the unconscious.

Most reluctantly, venturing no blame, and as tenderly as I would at need reveal some error in my own mother, I must begin with dear Miss C., the Matron. No school ever had a better Matron, more skilled and comforting to boys in sickness, or more cheery and companionable to boys in health. She was one of the most selfless people I have ever known. We all loved her; I, the orphan, especially.

Now it so happened that Miss C., who seemed old to me, was still in her spiritual immaturity, still hunting, with the eagerness of a soul that had a touch of angelic quality in it, for a truth and a way of life. Guides were even rarer then than now.

She was (as I should now put it) floundering in the mazes of Theosophy, Rosicrucianism, Spiritualism; the whole Anglo-American Occultist tradition. Nothing was further from her intention than to destroy my faith; she could not tell that the room into which she brought this candle was full of gunpowder.

I had never heard of such things before; never, except in a nightmare or a fairy tale, conceived of spirits other than God and men. I had loved to read of strange sights and other worlds and unknown modes of being, but never with the slightest belief . . .

But now, for the first time, there burst upon me the idea that there might be real marvels all about us, that the visible world might be only a curtain to conceal huge realms uncharted by my very simple theology. And that started in me something with which, on and off, I have had plenty of trouble since—the desire for the preternatural . . . (Surprised by Joy)

In closing with Lewis’ sad slide into atheism, this brief look at his experience in boarding schools affords us a sobering reminder.

Christian parents (indeed, all parents) are quite wise to be cautious about where they have their children schooled. After all, educators also expose their students to their particular worldviews.


I have written previously about education in the column “Were All Valedictorians!

For a brief consideration of Belsen’s influence on the Chronicles of Narnia, turn here.