C.S. Lewis on The Liberal Arts

If education is beaten by training, civilization dies.

–C.S. Lewis

Gregory Dunn–The first reason we study the liberal arts has to do with freedom. That freedom is an integral part of the liberal arts is borne out of Lewis’s observation that “liberal comes of course from the Latin, liber, and means free.” Such an education makes one free, according to Lewis, because it transforms the pupil from “an unregenerate little bundle of appetites” into “the good man and the good citizen.” We act most human when we are reasonable, both in thought and deed. Animals, on the other hand, act wholly out of appetite. When hungry, they eat; when tired, they rest. Man is different. Rather than follow our appetites blindly we can be deliberate about what we do and when we do it. The ability to rule ourselves frees us from the tyranny of our appetites, and the liberal arts disciplines this self-rule. In other words, this sort of education teaches us to be most fully human and thereby, to fulfill our human duties, both public and private.

Lewis contrasts liberal arts education with what he calls “vocational training,” the sort that prepares one for employment. Such training, he writes, “aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician… or a good surgeon.” Lewis does admit the importance of such training—for we cannot do without bankers and electricians and surgeons—but the danger, as he sees it, is the pursuit of training at the expense of education. “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies,” he writes, for the “lesson of history” is that “civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost.” It is the liberal arts, not vocational training, that preserves civilization by producing reasonable men and responsible citizens….

A third reason we study the liberal arts is because it is simply our nature and duty. Man has a natural thirst for knowledge of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and men and women of the past have made great sacrifices to pursue it in spite of the fact that, as Lewis puts it, “human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice.” In his words, “they propound mathematical theorems in beleaguered cities, conduct metaphysical arguments in condemned cells, make jokes on scaffolds.” So, finding in the soul an appetite for such things, and knowing no appetite is made by God in vain, Lewis concludes that the pursuit of the liberal arts is pleasing to God and is possibly, for some, a God-given vocation…. Truly, we ignore the liberal arts only at our peril. Without them we will find ourselves increasingly unable to preserve a civilized society, to escape from the errors and prejudices of our day, and to struggle in the arena of ideas to the glory of God.

On Principle from the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs (April 1999, Vol. VII, No. 2).