Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Moral Relativism & Education

Like several others C.S. Lewis’s books, The Abolition of Man is a collection of lectures delivered in 1943. These dealt mainly with what Lewis perceived to be the dangers of moral relativism, a destructive modern worldview. He believed that our universe existed in such a way “that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it… that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, or reverence, or our contempt.”  This idea has profound implications for teachers.

The importance of education lies in cultivating the right attitude towards this a universal law, which Lewis called the Tao.  For some, the term is an unfortunate choice.  However, by choosing this word, Lewis was simply naming a universal moral law, which previous generations of all cultures had recognized to one degree or another. Until our age, societies typically lived and functioned within the limits of the moral law. What distinguishes our present generation is the denial of the Tao, thereby cutting itself off from its moral heritage. Educators share in the blame. Lewis particularly noticed this trend in student textbooks, the very means of handing off moral and cultural heritage from one generation to another.  He feared that the new thinkers writing these books would wield the power to “condition” succeeding generations.

Progressive education sounds innocuous and maybe even beneficial.  After all, who wants to resist progress? However, the progress that Lewis identified represented power:  power over nature, even human nature. “Each new power won by man,” he warned, “is a power over man as well.” He knew that those with the power to condition others’ thoughts, too, even to alter societal values.

The only remedy is to embrace objective standards and to apply these with emotional and intellectual conviction. Students must learn proper responses, “to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likable, disgusting, and hateful,” says Lewis. He goes on to demonstrate that when properly trained in the Tao, students have a means to shaping Christian behavior, but that’s another book, or rather Book 3 of his Mere Christianity.

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