Read the essay: Our English Syllabus
I could easily write a whole book on this one essay. Lewis brings up so many issues and ideas that are close to my heart as a Christian, a college student, and someone interested in studying English literature. For example, should I, as a seriously-minded student of literature, commit myself to learning Anglo-Saxon, the “tap root” of my native tongue? What about Old French and Latin? Should I bother taking classes in contemporary literature, poetry, and drama, which Lewis compares to “[asking] a nurse for assistance in blowing [one’s] own nose”? Obviously, since Calvin College doesn’t offer classes in Anglo-Saxon and does offer classes in contemporary literature, thoughts on that subject have changed considerably since Lewis’s time.
Many of the ideas Lewis presents, however, still ring true today. From the start, he makes a distinction between ‘education’ and ‘learning’. ‘Education’ is something that is done to you, a formative process in which a teacher presents ideas and the student accepts them without question. The purpose of education (echoing Plato) is the formation of character. The teacher selects which ideas to present and which not to present, in order to teach the student how to think and act. ‘Learning’ is something different altogether. It is the free pursuit of knowledge which grows out of curiosity and a thirst for truth. No one but the learner decides what will be read and seen and contemplated. Learning can take place precisely because education has given the learner the tools he or she needs for his or her study.
College, Lewis argues, is not a place for education. It is not even a place meant for students, but first and foremost a community of people devoted to continuing to broaden their knowledge of their own particular fields. He attacks the idea of purely vocational training, the goal of which is to prepare people to work. Education prepares people for learning, and, as my philosophy prof said so many times last semester, “to live the sort of life that human beings were meant to live,” a life not of work for work’s sake but of work that results in pleasure, peace, and leisure. College freshman, then, Lewis says, should ask themselves not “What will do me most good?” but “What do I most want to know?”
What do I most want to know? All the wrong answers are the first ones to spring to mind: I want to learn wushu, Chinese language and culture, Asian history, dance! And also Shakespeare and Tolkien, poetry and creative writing, drawing and art history and French, all the answers I was so sure of for the past several years of my life, the ones I’ve told my parents, teachers, and friends. My problem is not that a year ago I wanted most to learn one thing and now another thing has taken its place—that would be easily remedied. Rather, I want most to learn many different things, too many things. The list keeps growing longer.
But why do I want to learn these things? Lewis makes it clear that motive matters. My aim must not be “self-improvement”, or a sort of watered-down general education which serves up bits and pieces of every subject under the sun but doesn’t get to the heart of any of them. Furthermore, I must make sure to learn them in the correct way, by diving in, no holds barred, and probing in every direction until I realize, as Lewis says, that my chosen subject is “infinite and, in its own way, covers the whole field of reality.” Each “tract” of knowledge, when studied properly, encompasses all others.My motive for each subject is a bit different, but a common thread runs through each. I want to learn because I love to learn. I love the elation that I feel when a passage in a novel or a line in a poem speaks to me and I hear; I love the satisfaction that comes from finishing a painting, or performing a concert well; I love to remember, to analyze, to communicate. When I practice wushu, I feel truly alive; I feel the same way when I’m in the throes of writing a short story. I can’t quite explain why my spine tingles when I hear people speaking Chinese, the same way it does (and did, several years ago) when I hear people speaking French. I think, “I want to be able to do that. I want to learn. I’ll do anything.” Someday, I do hope to be able to make a living doing what I love—but the love comes first. Being able to live out of my passion is yet another blessing on top of that.