The Aboliton of Men

Cindy is hosting another book club, and the text is conveniently available free online. The first half of the first essay has lots of topics and ideas for discussion. Debunking, (examples of it, what it is, what is not, and how we can do it wrong), is being discussed, and Cindy may get to write further about it. Kelly, Willa, Dawn and Mystie have already posted with much wisdom. If you go to Cindy’s blog clicking in the first link, you can visit the other blogs and posts on the book club. Excuse me for not linking but it’s cumbersome to do so from the laptop.

I wrote several posts mentally and finally I’ve decided to stick to something simple and obvious that may not be that simple or obvious to some. At least, it wasn’t to me until not long from today.

Lewis starts this essay criticizing without assassinating the two writers of a textbook he was given to revise. He changed the authors’ names, and he calls the book The Green Book. This is a book for junior high age students, and it’s intended to be used to study literature. The authors mention Colleridge and the two tourists by a waterfall, one calls it sublime, one pretty. Looking at more on this, I found this by John Richardson. Here is his article in full.

Sublime
Lewis begins innocently enough with the consideration of an English textbook for ‘boys and girls in the upper forms of public schools.’ The Green Book (actually The Control of Language by Alec King and Martin Ketley, published in 1939) purports to teach children about good and bad writing. Thus the authors, referred to by Lewis under the pseudonyms Gaius and Titius, take as an example Samuel Coleridge’s account of a visit to the waterfalls at Cora Linn. A couple (‘neither of whose faces bore much of the stamp of superior intelligence,’ according to Coleridge) commented on the view thus:

‘I say it is very majestic: it is sublime,’ said the gentleman.
‘Ay,’ added the lady, ‘it is the prettiest thing I ever saw’ – on which Coleridge later remarked, ‘I own that I was not a little disconcerted.’
Coleridge, Lewis observes, ‘mentally endorsed the first judgement and rejected the second with disgust’. But Gaius and Titius see things rather differently:
When the man said This is sublime he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word ‘Sublime’, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.
Actually, as Lewis points out, Gaius and Titius have committed an ‘inadvertence,’ for it is strictly untrue to say that the man has ‘sublime feelings,’ only that he has ‘feelings of sublimity.’ But this matters little, for Gaius and Titius have already done immense damage. Thinking he has learned something about English literature, the schoolboy now believes (a) that statements about value are only descriptions of the emotional state of the speaker, and (b) that all such statements are unimportant.

Nature

Yet even this seems a trivial matter until Lewis points out how it unravels our entire understanding of life:
The very power of Gaius and Titius depends on the fact that they are dealing with a boy…who thinks he is ‘doing’ his ‘English prep’ and has no notion that ethics, theology, and politics are all at stake.
What the schoolboy will have learned (which, as Lewis acutely notes, has nothing to do with English composition) is that our emotions about the world around us are merely a projection of our own inner world onto an outward nature. But in fact, nature merits no such irrationality and so the schoolboy will have discovered the truth about the real world – it is just ‘stuff’ and as such is open to our control.
The world of Coleridge and the world of Gaius and Titius could not be more different. Coleridge approved the description of the waterfall as ‘sublime’ because he believed it was true of the waterfall. He and his tourist companions believed that their emotions ought to respond to the material in the way it merited, and part of the purpose of education was to train that response. Gaius and Titius, by contrast, would say that all descriptions of the natural world were only a reflection of the condition of the speaker.
Yet such descriptions are beyond criticism. No one could disagree with the woman’s description of the waterfall as ‘pretty’ if this was indeed how she felt about it. Thus, Lewis observes, a gulf has opened up between ‘the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings, without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice.’ They confront one another ‘and no rapprochement is possible.’

Now I’ll be happy if I just state the obvious, how important it is that we use primary sources to interact with ideas instead of textbooks (and I will leave you to make your own conclusions, since I promise not to mention her in this post at least). The day I read this essay, I had just read to my daughter Bonny’s Big Day, from James Herriot. The nurse who is judging the contest in the category of strange pets calls Bonny MAGNIFICENT. I know the Green Book is aimed to older children, but hopefully the girls would not have hear me or anyone dismantle the validity of value assertions like that of the nurse, and believe it comes from the fact that the horse had a regal look, and it was a magnificent pet despite his age and the strange role of pet for a horse. As for the Green Book used to teach writing in junior high, many of us know that even at those older ages one doesn’t need textbooks to teach or learn writing. Even Lewis suggests that to do so, or to teach any English or literature, to expose children to good or great texts will help much more than just point to a mediocre or poorly written text that we all can criticize and the unconscious bonus of a false philosophy so damaging potentially to many of the children receiving it.

I hope that by my daughters being in touch with the great ideas of great minds through living books and what’s best, their own poetic experiences, will be inoculated against the false philosophies or propaganda of books like this. As Willa said, a liberal education, a true liberal education, should be the antidote. But I believe this is only a dent in the surface of the issue.

It is not the living book versus textbook approach, or how well I manage to provide a liberal education to my daughters what will make them be women of honor. It is if we live and lead a life that by example tells them that certain actions and things in life merit certain values, that it is not all up to us, relative and subjective, to be determined by the context, situation, or those participating in it. Ouch. That is the challenge!

By no means that living books and being the most intentional (not controlling) in our choices will help our endeavor, but it can be the case a young boy or girl in a public school or college, when exposed to a textbook like the Green Book, may discuss these new ideas at home and realize the harmless or intentional false philosophy that lays under those statements the authors make because at home they live a moral life by example, they understand that things merit judgments, and that it is not arbitrary or simply a question of our personal feelings. He may question the way they present emotions, as being all equally valid, since I have mine and you have yours, and since there is no technically right or wrong in the realm of feelings. It is true emotions are not true or false by themselves, but it matters the most what we apply our emotions to, as Lewis says, the heart can (and should) agree with the head. On the other hand, it could be that a homeschooled child, who has never been presented with a book that contradicts the believes the family claims to hold, and always taught with living books and the best materials, can be very vulnerable to those false teachings he can encounter from a novel, to his friends, a college professor, in the news, etc. And since there has not been an atmosphere at home that was coherent with believing in absolute values, he can fall prey of those innocent or not so innocent in many cases philosophies and doctrines.

I fell for those at college. I don’t know how I came to my ‘senses’ later in life, but I suspect that there were some episodes in my childhood that lead me to believe my family or some people in it, held these absolute values. Actually, I don’t suspect, I know so. Now the opposite is a threat to my children. My husband and I claim, not only to understand these grand values, but that we live by them. And though we, or I specially, can get very caught up into the details and logistics of choosing the books, the curriculum, the lessons, and telling them what I expect from them, only our life and the atmosphere we set at home will prove to be of an advantage or an obstacle to the girls when their age of reason comes. We will then see how ready they are, and we pray that, despise of our shortcomings, they will make the right choices for them and their families.

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