C.S. Lewis and John Taylor Gatto: Intellectual giants who foretold today’s crises in education

Although C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) and John Taylor Gatto (1935-2018) lived at different times and places, both found many of the same flaws in the education systems of their day.

Lewis was an Oxford don while Gatto was an American schoolteacher. The former fought in World War I while the latter served in the U.S. Army medical corps. Both were prolific authors, but Lewis is known more for his work on Christian apologetics while Gatto focused primarily on school reform.

Both emphasized the importance of teaching students how to think for themselves, as opposed to simply mimicking their teachers’ opinions or working to pass tests. And both predicted that unless people addressed the underlying thought processes behind educational institutions, the system would eventually fail in its mission to prepare students for the real world.

Identifying the problems

Gatto drew on his own experiences as a teacher to argue that U.S. public schools are failing the very children it aims to teach. 

“The children I teach have almost no curiosity and what they do have is transitory; they cannot concentrate for very long, even on things they choose to do,” he said in his 1990 speech accepting the New York City Teacher of the Year Award. “The children I teach have a poor sense of the future, of how tomorrow is inextricably linked to today.”

Gatto also pointed out how the children he taught had no sense of historical context in weighing present-day decisions and consequences. “They have no sense of how the past has predestined their own present, limiting their choices, shaping their values and lives,” he said.

Finally, Gatto said, he saw serious repercussions in how the school system fails to address students’ behavioral issues. “The children I teach are cruel to each other, they lack compassion for misfortune, they laugh at weakness, and they have contempt for people whose need for help shows too plainly,” he said.

“The children I teach are dependent, passive, and timid in the presence of new challenges. This is frequently masked by surface bravado, or by anger or aggressiveness but underneath is a vacuum without fortitude.”

Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, challenged intellectuals in their assumption that more “news literacy” will solve the underlying problem.

 “They see the world around them swayed by emotional propaganda – they have learned from tradition that youth is sentimental – and they conclude that the best thing they can do is to fortify the minds of young people against emotions,” he wrote. 

“My own experience as a teacher tells the opposite tale. For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity.”

He concluded, “The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.” 

How the ‘new’ education differs from ‘old’ education

Lewis believed that modern education had reached this impasse because of its humanistic philosophy to avoid teaching any standard of objective value to students. 

“Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it – believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt,” he wrote.

“It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”

Gatto did not attribute the crises in modern education to its rejection of objective values. However, he argued that architects of today’s school system – such as Horace Mann, Barnard Sears, and others – had designed it to produce a mass population “whose behavior can be predicted and controlled.” 

“Schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet,” Gatto said. “No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.”

Gatto was careful to distinguish between the educators caught up in the education system as opposed to the education system itself.

“Although teachers do care and do work very hard,” he said, “the institution is psychopathic – it has no conscience.” 

This idea of a conscience in education mirrors Lewis’ argument as to the difference in the old, or classical, teaching as opposed to modern-day teaching.

“When a Roman father told his son that it was a sweet and seemly thing to die for his country, he believed what he said,” Lewis wrote, wryly noting that modern educators cannot agree that dying in battle is “sweet and seemly” in a literal or even figurative sense.

“Either they must go the whole way and debunk this sentiment like any other, or must set themselves to work to produce, from outside, a sentiment which they believe to be of no value to the pupil and which may cost him his life, because it is useful to us (the survivors) that our young men should feel it,” he wrote.

Lewis concluded that the modern-day fixation with helping students combat propaganda fails to replace it with anything different.

“The old was a kind of propagation,” Lewis wrote, “men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.”

Possible solutions to the system

While Gatto spoke frankly of the problems he saw in schools, he also had many practical suggestions for reforming them. 

“Right now we are taking all the time from our children that they need to develop self-knowledge,” he said. “That has to stop. We have to invent school experiences that give a lot of that time back, we need to trust children from a very early age with independent study, perhaps arranged in school but which takes place away from the institutional setting.”

An example of school experiences that Gatto recommended involved community service. He ran a school program for five years where every student needed to supply 320 hours a year of community service.

“Dozens of those kids came back to me years later, grown up, and told me that one experience of helping someone else changed their lives,” he said. “It taught them to see in new ways, to rethink goals and values.”

However, the school district eventually closed the program.

“It was too successful with a wildly mixed group of kids, at too small of a cost, to be allowed to continue,” Gatto said. “We made the expensive elite programs look bad.”

Other solutions Gatto proposed included apprenticeships, one-day schools, and revamped curriculum. He especially championed the role of the family in education as well.

“Family is the main engine of education,” he said.

“The way to sanity in education is for our schools to take the lead in releasing the stranglehold of institutions on family life, to promote during school time confluences of parent and child that will strengthen family bonds.”

 While Lewis did not dive as deeply into school reform as Gatto did, he supported the return of education to inculcating “just sentiments” in its students. 

“We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Ultimately, Lewis believed, the school system needed to define and uphold a standard of objective values – because without them, the whole idea of education could not successfully operate.

“It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles,” he wrote. “If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see.”