Essay / Education

Staying at Big Hotels: C.S. Lewis vs. The Great Books

Once upon a time, somebody asked C. S. Lewis to choose a list of the best books ever written, and he declined.

He said he wasn’t qualified. He also said it was a bad idea to make a list of greatest books. And finally, he insisted that if you did make such a list, you certainly shouldn’t try to use it to educate anybody.

For those of us who teach and study in a great books program heavily influenced by C.S. Lewis, this is unsettling news. So let us dig in a bit deeper to see what Lewis said, and what he meant by it.

The refusal to draw up a list of great books occurs in a letter to Robert M. Metcalf Jr, dated August 25, 1959. Lewis says:

Dear Mr. Metcalf,

I don’t feel at all qualified to contribute to a ‘master’ list of writings. The languages I don’t know are of course very much more numerous than those I know; and even in the languages I do know there are a great many books I have not read. And I rather doubt whether a list of masterpieces picked from all over the world –mostly, I presume to be read in translations?- is a v. useful thing.

I would rather see young men beginning from where they are and being led on from one thing to another: e.g. that Milton shd. lead them either to Virgil and Homer (and therefore to a really serious study of Latin or Greek) or to Dante (and therefore to a whole course of Medieval and Italian studies). That, after all, is how every educated person’s development has actually come about.

The sort of culture one can get from the 100 or 1000 Best Books read in isolation from the societies and literatures that begot them seems to me like the sort of knowledge of Europe I shd. get from staying at big hotels in Paris, Berlin, Rome, etc. It wd. be far better to know intimately one little district, going from village to village, getting to know the local politics, jokes, wines, and cheeses. Or so it seems to me.

But here I go offering you advice, which you didn’t ask for, and refusing that which you did! Forgive me, and believe me

Yours sincerely,
C.S. Lewis

(The letter can be found in The Collected Letters of CS Lewis, volume III: Narnia, Cambridge, and Joy 1950-1963 (Harper San Francisco, 2007), pp. 1082-1083.)

When Lewis says the hilarious sentence, “The languages I don’t know are of course very much more numerous than those I know,” this should tip you off to the fact that he is bringing impossibly high standards to the conversation.

American Businessman: Please, sir, what are the best books in the world?
British Professor: I don’t know; there are more languages that I don’t know than there are languages that I do know.

And then he adds, apparently without tongue in cheek: “even in the languages I do know there are a great many books I have not read.”

But Lewis’ objection is not just based on his own Olympian achievements as an omnivorous reader. His objection to “the 100 or 1000 Best Books read in isolation” is based on a distinction he drew among three levels of education: Vocational training, teaching, and learning. Vocational training is clear enough, and we obviously need it (unless you want philosophers fixing your car and poets arguing your case in court). “Teaching,” in Lewis’ way of speaking, is the next level up, but it is still something that adults do to children in schools (“schools” in the British sense, which excludes university and graduate work). But “learning,” in Lewis’ usage, is the real life of the mind for its own sake. It’s the good stuff. It’s what the professors (and fellows and tutors, to keep speaking British) would be talking about amongst themselves, even if students weren’t around to be taught. Lewis describes all of this in his essay “Our English Syllabus,” which covers a subject we would probably call something like “What Books Should English Majors Read?”

Lewis’ dream, already becoming impossible in the Oxford of the 1930s, is a place where a few good men have nothing to do but think and talk. But he was willing to admit that there was great social benefit to keeping such places going, and admitting normal people to a few formative years in them. That is, in Lewis’ vision, you establish a place where the life of the mind (“learning”) is going on, and then you admit as students people who are going to be there for a few years, and then go out into the world and do something besides just sit around being learners. But for as long as they’re in that magical place of learning, they pretend they’re never leaving. At this point, Lewis begins to prescribe what course of study will work best:

The proper question for a freshman is not ‘What will do me most good?’ but ‘What do I most want to know?’ For nothing that we have to offer will do him good unless he can be persuaded to forget all about self-improvement for three or four years, and to absorb himself into getting know some part of reality, as it is in itself.

And it is only at this point, when a young person is investing three or four years in learning about something “as it is in itself,” that Lewis’ opinion about the range of the curriculum comes in.

The qualification ‘as it is in itself’ is here important. At first sight it might seem that since the student cannot study everything he should at least study a bit of everything; that the best Final Honour School would have a composite syllabus—a little philosophy, a little politics, a little economics, a little science, a little literature. There are many objections to such a discipline, but I will mention that one only which is central to my argument. The composite school, as its very name implies, has been composed by some one. Those little bits of various subjects are not found lying together in those quantities and in that order which the syllabus shows. They have been put together in that way artificially by a committee of professors. That committee cannot have been following the grain and joint of reality as reality discovers itself to those actually engaged in the pursuit of learning. For the life of learning knows nothing of this nicely arranged encyclopaedic arrangement. Every one of the suggested subjects is infinite and, in its own way, covers the whole field of reality. The committee would in fact be guided by their idea of what would do the students good—that is, by a purely educational idea. In reading such a school, therefore, you would not be turned loose on some tract of reality as it is, to make what you could of it; you would be getting selections of reality selected by your elders—something cooked, expurgated, filtered, and generally toned down for your edification. You would still be in the leading strings and might as well have stayed at school. Your whole reading in its scope and proportions would bear the impress neither of reality nor of your own mind but of the mind of the committee. The educational ideals of a particular age, class, and philosophy of life would be stamped on your whole career.

Interpreting and applying this for our own situation (American university education in the 21st century), what does Lewis’ principle require? It requires that the teachers find a way to stop acting as a filter for reality, and put the students in touch with the subject matter itself. So C.S. Lewis would hate textbooks especially, the kind of anthologies that offer a dozen pages of this and a dozen pages of that, resulting in more than a thousand pages of what the editors want you to see, arranged as they want you to see it. But for the same reason, he rejects the “great books” approach which presupposes that a Great Books Selection Committee has chosen the right works for students to experience in an artificial arrangement called the curriculum. He considers the case of literature:

The objection will naturally be clearest to us if we consider how the subject we know best would fare in such a school. There would be a little bit of literature. What would it consist of? Obviously, of great works, for we should have to make up in quality what we lacked in quantity. Perhaps a few great ‘classics’ each from French, German, and English. As a curriculum for a schoolboy, nothing could be more liberal and edifying. But you see at once that it has very little to do with a knowledge of literature as it really grows and works, with all its ups and downs, in any actual country. It may train your mind and make you in the Aristotelian sense a better man; but are you not old enough now to cease being trained? Is it not time for you to venture to look on reality in the raw?

Here is the basis of Lewis’ rejection of great books education: It’s too selective, and doesn’t put the learner in touch with the reality of literature “as it is in itself.” Well, what would Lewis have us do, read everything? Not quite. He wants his students to study all of English literature, but is willing to lop off the most recent couple of centuries. “On recent and contemporary literature their need is least and our help least. They ought to understand it better than we, and if they do not then there is something radically wrong either with them or with the literature.”

He is also willing to ignore the “social, economic, and intellectual” history of the English people, which he admits is the soil that produced English literature. But he is willing to ignore the soil and begin studying the roots of the tree of English lit. Those roots are language, and the three biggest roots are Old Germanic (developing into Old English), Old French, and then Latin. If the student cannot master all three, Lewis advises Old English: “The tap-root, Anglo-Saxon, can never be abandoned. The man who does not know it remains all his life a child among real English students.” Of course if we want to read English lit, we should also read Greek, Spanish, Italian, French, and German. But we can’t do it all, so let’s just take French.

With this linguistic preparation, students can then venture out into the great, wild world of English literature as it really is in itself. They don’t have to take the tutor’s word for it; they can just explore.

Return now to Lewis’ letter refusing to help draw up a list of the greatest books. When he said he didn’t know every language, and hadn’t read every book in all the languages he did know, he had in mind this vast territory, and what it would take to become expert in each of these regions. And when he said that reading only the greatest books would be like imagining you’d seen Europe after staying at large hotels in a few big countries, he had a very concrete idea of what it would be like to be a naturalized citizen of the literature of at least one of the countries, completely at home there and able to move about freely.

I think Lewis had the standards of “Our English Syllabus” in mind when he rejected the great books. We could clear the air a bit by taking up the lament over how far our educational standards have fallen since he wrote, or the lament about American sloppiness, or (in my context) the lament about Los Angeles and southern California in general as a desert of the intellect. But none of these laments are new or helpful, and I think Lewis’ attitude toward the possibility of great books education is more stimulating.

To learn from Lewis’ caution, great books educators like the Torrey Honors Institute should do the following things:

1. Use great books at an appropriate educational level. Somewhere between high school and grad school. Somewhere outside a major. Somewhere like the general education element of an American university.

2. Cultivate in students the awareness that they are only pretending, for a few years, to be permanent members of this society of the perpetually and professionally learned.

3. Guard the curriculum jealously, and seek as much outside confirmation as possible that these books are worthwhile. “Outside” means a lot of things (institutional, cultural, etc), but it especially means outside our temporal limitations, listening to the voice of tradition. This will deliver us from becoming a small filter between students and the reality of the subject matter.

4. But hold the canon of great books loosely, knowing you might be wrong at any particular point. After all, C.S. Lewis wasn’t qualified to make a definitive list. Maybe you’re omitting something greater than what you’re including.

5. Admit that this great books technique is only one of several possible tools, and that it is not equally suited to all tasks. It works for undergrad gen ed. It would be unreasonable to try to make it fit elementary math and graduate school.

6. Read them as well as we can. Jacques Barzun says about great books education, “It’s never about what students should get out of the books, it’s about what they can get out of the books.”

There are no doubt many other lessons to draw from Lewis’ caution about the great books. But the caution itself is just worth noting.

Share this essay [social_share/]