I Wonder What They Teach In These Schools?

 

Plato banished the artists. When Peter, Lucy, Susan and Edmund become Kings and Queens of Narnia, they go one stage further and prohibit schools.

What is going on here? Does academic Mr Lewis, who taught in a university all his life think that schools are wicked institutions and hope that a Good and Wise King of England would abolish them? Or is he just asking us to picture Narnian schools under the White Witch as cruel, Dickensian institutions like the one he so luridly describes in Surprised by Joy? It could be that he imagines that Narnian schools were a means by which the Witch disseminated propaganda—but if so, he doesn't say. It is also possible that he regards schools as being necessary institutions in our world, where everyone is fallen and sinful, but unnecessary in Narnia where nearly everyone is more-or-less in a state of pre-lapsarian innocence. But again, if this was his point, one would think he would have explained it more clearly.

In order to see the point of the remark, we need to look at the context of what he said.

A middle-aged Oxford Don is narrating a story. In the story, four English children have become kings and queens of a fairy tale kingdom. The Oxford Don tells us what they did while they are in power. They killed all the monsters, of course, but also:

'...they made good laws and kept the peace and saved good trees from being cut down and liberated young dwarfs and young satyrs from being sent to school and generally stopped busybodies and interferers and encouraged ordinary people who wanted to live and let live.'

We should always be very, very careful, anywhere in Narnia, of 'pressing' an allegory or of attaching too much significance to an off- hand remark. Lewis is not telling us what he thinks of state education or making a case for home-schooling; he is making a little joke based on his assumption that most children don't particularly like school. The main purpose of the sentence is to create an effect in the story; and the effect that it is trying to achieve is 'They made Narnia nicer; they did the sorts of things that you, my dear Lucy, would do if you were made Queen tomorrow.' A worse writer might have said 'They gave all the children free chocolates' or 'They let everyone stay up past their bedtimes.'

That said, I do think that the choice of political manifesto of Peter the Magnificent and Susan the Gentle does tell us a little about the beliefs of Lewis the Writer. But I think that what is important is not the bit about liberating dwarves from school, but the overall point that 'they generally stopped busybodies and interferers.'

Here speaks, not Lewis the affectionate god-father, but Lewis the Old Tory. His tongue is of course, somewhere in his cheek. He expects grown-ups to chuckle at the fact that the children deal with Busybodies right after they are finished with Werewolves and Hags (but before moving onto Fierce Giants). But, as far as it goes, he means it.

Lewis's basic political belief seems to have been that everyone—both individuals and the state—should mind their own business. He thinks that homosexuality is wicked, but the police ought not to be allowed to poke their noses into 'homos' private affairs. The commercialisation of Christmas is regrettable, but

'I see no reason why I should volunteer views on how other people should spend their own money in their own leisure among their own friends; it is highly probably that they want my advice on such matters as little as I want theirs.'

You can't even interfere with people for their own good, because you inevitably end up harming them. Screwtape quotes a clever human (Thurber?) as saying 'She is the kind of woman who lives for others. You can tell the others by their hunted expression.' In The Four Loves, this is expanded into a grotesque, cruel and very funny portrait of Mrs Busy who well-meaningly made her family's life a misery by trying to control everything they did.

'The Vicar says she is at peace now. Let us hope he is right. What is certain is that her family are.'

In politics, Lewis was a sort of cuddly libertarian; the state should jolly well stay out of your way except at times of dire emergency, such as during a war or when local kids have vandalised your shed. In wartime he objected to the way in which National Service and the Home Guard were being used as pretexts to bring about a more regulated society—and misused to force soldiers to go to church. After the war, he objected to the way in which the Welfare State became a pretext for the government to interfere with people's ordinary lives.

'There is nothing left of which we can say to them (the government) 'mind your own business'. Our whole lives are their business.'

And of course, the great Anti-Christ in The Abolition of Man and That Hideous Strength are 'the Conditioners', 'the Straighteners', the people who will use science, eugenics, psychiatry and education to force people to become what they (the conditioners) approve of.

Lewis seems to have associated schools with interferers and busybodies; he seems to have been particularly suspicious of the whole of idea of state education, which was the most obvious method by which government busybodies could interfere in everyone's lives. Who would have the 'freeborn mind'—who would think what they liked, not what the government wanted them to think—if the state became 'everyone's employer and everyone's schoolmaster'? Screwtape Proposes a Toast is among other things a sustained rant against state education in the 1940s; claiming that punitive taxation is being introduced specifically in order to 'liquidate' the middle classes, because they are the class who are 'prepared' to send their children to private schools outside of state control. Much could be said about the word 'prepared'; did Lewis believe that the average factory worker could have afforded to send his children to Eton if he had been 'prepared' to do so? Or is he attributing this manifestly absurd position to Screwtape?

At any rate, education—and men from the ministry, and schools inspectors, and nasty humanist grammar books—are bound up, in Lewis's mind, with 'busybodies', interferers, conditioners and Straighteners. So naturally, Good King Peter gets rid of them.

So where did Narnians go to learn stuff? Maybe, if you had pressed him, Lewis would have said that in a happy land like Narnia, everyone could learn what they needed from their parents, or be apprenticed to village blacksmiths and woodcutters, or go and listen to village story-tellers narrating history; it was only in unhappy, fallen lands, like England and Narnia under the Witch that people had to go to strict, grim learning-factories. But I doubt if he ever gave it a moment's thought. When he is writing about good kings and queens creating a happy society, 'killing the monsters', 'stopping the busybodies' and 'liberating people from going to school' roll out of his pen all together. It tells us much about how he thought; but very little, I suspect, about how he imagined Narnia.

 

 

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