This semester, I have the pleasure of teaching a course on the works of C.S. Lewis. His insights for the integration of liberal and civic education deeply harmonize with my academic unit at Arizona State University, the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership (SCETL). Offering its first courses in 2017, SCETL now has its own faculty and degree programs. The School is committed to civil discourse and to blending the study of great works of politics, philosophy, history, economics, and literature, with an emphasis on the examination of American principles, institutions, debates, and history. Experiential learning opportunities and frequent speaker events round out our distinctive approach to educating citizens and future leaders. This model, broadly construed, has begun to spread to other institutions of higher education. But what is the case for such an academic project?
In the introduction to a collection of Lewis’s writings titled Present Concerns, Walter Hooper recounts a humorous but thought-provoking exchange with Lewis. Hooper explains that Lewis “recommended that if I absolutely ‘must’ read newspapers I have a frequent ‘mouthwash’ with The Lord of the Rings or some other great book.” Lewis passed away in 1963, so we can only speculate about what he would say to 24-hour cable news, clickbait, and social media. But this anecdote about Lewis indicates his suspicion that our media consumption may be corrosive, at least when it is not supplemented with a different, deeper, more edifying kind of reading and reflection.
If James Madison is right in Federalist No. 51 that “a dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government,” then it matters, of course, that the American people know what is going on in their government, in their nation, and in the world. Thus, awareness of the news and discernment about news sources and claims are both important. But this story about Lewis invites us to contemplate what else we should be reading and thinking about in order to be thoughtful human beings and citizens.
In an essay retitled by Hooper as “On the Reading of Old Books” in God in the Dock, Lewis makes the case for reading not only great books, but specifically old ones. One of his reasons is that “every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes.” Old books bring to light and challenge our contemporary intellectual and cultural assumptions, including our errors. The best old books contain wisdom and spark questions that we are less likely to stumble upon if we immerse ourselves merely in the atmosphere of the present. We need what Lewis calls “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” sweeping away our unexamined assumptions and our unreflective opinions.
This matters for civic life because politics is not solely about power and preferences. It is and should be about principles, about convictions: How should we arrange our political life, and how should we live and act, individually and together? What should we preserve, and what should we change? These are inquiries about “objective value,” to use Lewis’s term from The Abolition of Man. While we may be tempted to cool the passions of our overheated politics through debunking moral commitments as merely subjective, Lewis warns that we would do so at our own peril. In such an effort to dampen misguided zeal, he cautions that we will end up with preferences unconstrained by moral limits, or we will wind up with misguided zeal in any case – or both. “By starving the sensibility of our pupils,” Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man, “we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes.” Thus, an education for citizenship and leadership should encourage students, not to be dismissive of the normative claims embedded in politics, but to think carefully and deeply about them. We should urge students to take seriously the meaning and significance of concepts like justice, liberty, equality, and virtue.
Since citizenship refers to being a member of a particular political community, with its own history, culture, institutions, and principles, citizens should also seek knowledge about their own country and government, in order to be both effective and reflective. Students in the United States should learn about American constitutionalism and examine the ideas, traditions, and aspirations that have been central to the American experiment. Consequently, SCETL has a focus on civic education in these topics, in addition to a broader liberal education, as a means for forming thoughtful citizens.
One of the daunting aspects of improving civic education in the United States is the sheer scale of the endeavor. Yet we should not despise our ability to contribute on the grounds that our capacity is limited. I am glad that I get to play a part in this task, and that I get to spend this semester reading and discussing Lewis with my students.
Zachary K. German is an assistant professor in the School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership at Arizona State University, where he has taught since 2017.