Tag Archives: Abolition of Man

“CUTTING DOWN JUNGLES AND IRRIGATING DESERTS”–C. S. LEWIS ON THE TEACHER’S TASK

[As I shared last time, I am on leave until the fall and taking a temporary break from crafting new essays on faith and American history.  In the meantime, I thought I would re-post essays that have either been comparatively popular or personally meaningful.  (Those two categories often don’t overlap, by the way.)  I thought I would start with this piece on one of the ways that C. S. Lewis has taught me about “the task of the modern educator.”  Academic historians are great at cutting down jungles, but we aren’t trained to irrigate deserts, and our students are the poorer for it.  I’ve spent a good part of the last two decades trying to figure out how to bring “the Fountain of living water” into the history classroom.  It’s an ongoing project, but here are my thoughts as of a few years ago.]

C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century, and I have long appreciated many of his better known popular works. As a young adult, I read and re-read classics such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Then when our children came along and they were old enough, my wife recommended that I read The Chronicles of Narnia to them. Soon Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy—not to mention a host of centaurs, dwarves, giants and dufflepuds—were part of our regular bedtime routine. Count me a fan.

Although I never expected it when I first began to read Lewis, he has also helped me immensely in thinking about my calling as a historian and a teacher. I was reminded of this recently in re-reading Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book that I was informally discussing with a small group of Wheaton undergraduates. If you don’t know the book, I highly recommend it, particularly if you are at all interested in the role that education plays in both affecting and reflecting popular values. It’s a short book (most editions come in at under one hundred pages), but it’s also a difficult book, the kind that you have to read slowly, and more than once, to get the maximum benefit. But isn’t that true of most books that change us, rather than merely entertain us?

abolition of manSummarizing broadly, The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality. Above all, it is a powerful indictment of relativism. Although Lewis was writing about seventy years ago, his words are timely today. Indeed, his description of WWII-era England neatly captures the trends that define public education in the contemporary United States. With little sense of irony, we deny the existence of absolute moral values and then are appalled at the epidemic of drug abuse, violence, and sexual promiscuity that plagues our schools. As Lewis put it, “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation” that we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Abolition of Man is a jeremiad, an extended warning. Lewis’s primary concern is to call attention to the disastrous long-term consequences of an educational philosophy that denigrates moral truth. Necessarily, it is mostly critical. Yet embedded in Lewis’s negative assessment are glimpses of a very different approach to education, glimpses that offer positive ideals to strive toward. Let me share a favorite example of what I have in mind.

It comes in the midst of chapter one, provocatively entitled “Men Without Chests.” Lewis has just finished discussing a passage from a high-school literature textbook that undermines the idea of objective moral values. The unsuspecting students who read the book will think that they are only learning grammar. In reality, however, they are also learning philosophy, for the implicit message of the passage is that “all values are subjective and trivial.” Giving the authors of the textbook the benefit of the doubt, Lewis concedes that their intentions might be honorable. Even so, they are sadly misguided, for they have

misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. 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 emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an 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.  The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

I’ve found these two phrases—“cutting down jungles” and “irrigating deserts”—to be wonderfully useful metaphors. They have helped me to think more perceptively about the conventions of academic history, and they have enabled me to see more clearly how those conventions have influenced what I bring to the classroom. “Cutting down jungles,” as I understand that phrase, means helping students with passionate convictions to evaluate critically their world views, to examine what lies beneath the personal beliefs they profess. “Irrigating deserts,” conversely, involves nurturing in apathetic or cynical students the hope that there is meaning and purpose in human existence.

We academic historians are great at cutting down jungles. Read almost any reflection on the historian’s vocation by an academic historian and you will come across statements like the following: “Basically history is destructive.” “The practice of history is not comforting” but “profoundly subversive.” “Honest history” will be “unsettling” and “jarring.” It pushes people “to stand outside their comfortable . . . assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons.” Our “proper role” as historians is to “challenge preconceptions and assumptions,” “critique and reform unreflective modes of civic discourse about the past,” criticize “American cultural and societal failures,” “challeng[e] received wisdom,” “explode national myths.” Yep, we love to wield our machetes.

But we’re a pretty sorry lot when it comes to irrigating deserts. Academic history is too often “all head and no heart,” in the words of distinguished historian Gordon Wood. Taking Lewis’s counsel seriously demands that we correct that imbalance. Historians need to recover a role that not only criticizes but encourages, that not only explodes myths, but also serves as the custodian of forgotten dreams for a better world. Yes, we must challenge the self-serving assumptions of the culture, but we must also boldly identify, in the words of David Harlan, “what is good” in our past, “what is worth insisting on and saving.” Figuring out how to do that is a challenge, but it is a goal worthy of our best efforts.

ERIC METAXAS ON OUR NEED FOR HEROES

Let’s talk about heroes.

I have heroes on my mind because I’m still thinking about Eric Metaxas’s new book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty.  As I’ve already observed, If You Can Keep It is seriously flawed.  Metaxas frequently gets his history wrong, and the theological implications of his argument should trouble any Christian unwilling to equate Christ’s church with the United States of America.  And yet, as I noted, If You Can Keep It still offers some valuable food for thought.  Metaxas’ observations about heroes is a prime example.  Boiled down, Metaxas says that we need heroes but don’t believe in them anymore, and that this is detrimental to liberty.  Let’s think about this.

MetaxasMetaxas’ discussion of heroes fits logically into his larger argument.  He correctly reminds us that the Founding Fathers believed that one of the prerequisites for liberty to survive is virtue, which the eighteenth century defined as self-denial for the common good.  (Today we might use the term “civic virtue” with the same meaning in mind.)  Metaxas reasons, persuasively I think, that one important way that a society promotes virtue is by honoring heroic figures who have modeled that quality.  The bad news for lovers of liberty, however, is that Americans “have abandoned the vital tradition of venerating heroes.”  Sometime during the 1960s we “decided that it made more sense to be suspicious of heroes than to venerate them.”  Such skepticism, he warns, “is deeply destructive to any culture but especially to a free society like ours, where aspiring to be like the heroes who have gone before us is a large part of what makes citizens want to behave admirably.”

I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on this.  For the moment, I’ll share a quibble, a question, and a concern.  The quibble involves Metaxas’ sweeping generalization that Americans no longer celebrate heroes.  What he really means, without saying so precisely, is that the heroes we choose to venerate rarely model the qualities that the Founders thought were critical to the survival of the republic.  But “heroes” of a different sort abound.  If we define a “hero” as anyone we look up to and wish to emulate, then contemporary American culture is awash with them, it’s just that their character is all but irrelevant.  Our heroes are typically young, attractive, sexy, and thin.  Their contribution to society lies mostly in their ability to perform for us as “stars” on the movie screen, the concert stage, or the playing field.  Put differently, they are more or less the kind of role models we would expect of a materialistic, superficial, soul-starved society.

metaxas2Next the question: IF it is true that, on the whole, contemporary American society is suspicious of “virtuous” heroes—the kinds of figures who would inspire us to acts of self-sacrifice in service of a noble cause or a greater good—why is this the case?  This is an enormous question beyond our power to answer fully.  Surely numerous variables are at work, some of them spiritual.  But Metaxas chooses to answer the question historically, and as a historian I think his explanation is probably too simple.  For Metaxas, everything changed during the 1960s.  The heart-wrenching episodes of that turbulent decade—the Civil Rights movement, campus unrest, urban riots, the war in Vietnam—followed in the early 1970s by the Watergate scandal and the resignation of Richard Nixon combined to create a massive crisis of confidence among the American people.  We became skeptical of our leaders, and gradually broadened that skepticism to include the panoply of “heroes” from our past that previous generations had honored.

First off, let me say that there’s definitely some truth to Metaxas’ explanation.  As I noted in a recent post, the proportion of Americans who trusted government to do the right thing most or all of the time was a staggering 77 percent as late as 1964, roughly four times as high as in 2015.  There’s no doubt that our willingness to believe those who claim to be devoted to the public good has taken a nosedive, and there’s no doubt that the 1960s were an important milestone in that trend.

But I’ve discovered that most major historical trends have deep roots that may not be readily apparent at first glance.  My suspicion is that there are aspects of American culture that considerably predate the 1960s that are also important to the trend Metaxas observes.  For example, writing during World War Two, C. S. Lewis already found a theme in popular western education that would encourage a skeptical posture toward any and all purported heroes.  His classic The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality and, above all, a powerful indictment of relativism. Lewis described a cultural context that denied the existence of absolute moral values while descrying increasing immorality.  As Lewis put it seventy years ago, we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

Other writers have found a declining belief in heroes to be one of the bitter fruits of World War One and the widespread death of innocence that fell across the killing fields of France.  Going even further back in time, after visiting the United States in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville concluded that there were aspects of democratic culture in general that might well discourage the “veneration of heroes.”  While popular culture tended to praise the wisdom and virtue of the majority in a collective sense, it chafed against the exaltation of extraordinary individuals.  “The nearer men are to a common level of uniformity,” Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America, “the less are they inclined to believe blindly in any man.”

In sum, I suspect the explanation for our suspicion of heroes is more complex than Metaxas imagines.  Whether this invalidates his recommended solution is something I’m still thinking through.

Finally, my concern: In our fallenness, when we do discover heroes from the past worthy of our veneration, it’s often not long before we turn them into idols.  Many of the Christians I have encountered who are interested in the past are unimpressed by the popular heroes of contemporary America and are looking for alternatives.  They see in history a storehouse of authentic Christian heroes to encourage them and their families as they strive to live faithful lives in a fallen world, and I say, “God bless them!”  And yet, there is danger in the quest.  As John Calvin observed centuries ago, the human mind is “a perpetual forge of idols.”

The most common way that we make idols of historical figures is by implying that we are morally bound to follow their example.  This imputes authority where God has not granted it, and Christians fall into this trap all the time.  To give but one example, we strain to prove that the founders were predominantly Christians, as if establishing that would somehow obligate our own generation.

One of the reasons that I admire Os Guinness’s book A Free People’s Suicide is that Guinness avoids this trap.  (I review it here.)  He repeatedly observes that the Founders were fallible human beings with their own inconsistencies and flaws.  Guinness appeals to the past not as moral authority but as mirror.  By showing us how far we have strayed from their values, Guinness helps us to examine our behavior and belief with new eyes, and he challenges us to think through and defend why it is that we now behave and believe differently.  He puts us in conversation with the past, without suggesting that its moral superiority is self-evident.

This is not Metaxas’ approach, unfortunately.  The heroes that he features in If You Can Keep It are uncomplicated, unflawed, and infallible.  Metaxas’ job is to explain to us their “secret formula,” and our job is simply to go forth and live in the light of its truth.  The result is an American patriotic version of Charles Sheldon’s famous In His Steps and its central question, “What Would Jesus Do?”  Just replace “Jesus” with “the Founders” and you’re ready to go.

WHY I LOVE WHEATON COLLEGE—PART ONE

Wheaton College's Blanchard Hall

Wheaton College’s Blanchard Hall

These are difficult days at Wheaton College, dark, discouraging days. A storm broke over our heads last December. It erupted when our colleague, Dr. Larycia Hawkins, posted comments online that some readers interpreted as equating Islam and Christianity. It intensified when the college’s administration first suspended Dr. Hawkins, then announced that it would seek to dismiss her from the faculty. Perhaps an end is now in sight. Over the weekend the administration announced that it was withdrawing its request to terminate Dr. Hawkins and then disclosed that Hawkins and the administration had mutually agreed to “part ways.” How these steps will be received—what they will mean to faculty, staff, students, alumni, and the larger world—is an open question.

What is certain is that the controversy has exacted a heavy toll. For the past two months we’ve been besieged left and right. Liberal detractors have denounced Wheaton’s fundamentalism and Islamophobia, even as conservative critics lamented the school’s surrender to theological liberalism and political correctness. “Woe to you when all men think well of you,” Jesus said. At least we don’t have to worry about that.

Just as sloshing a coffee cup reveals what’s inside it, the stress and strain of the controversy has shown the world the truth behind our admissions brochures. We’re a fallen institution staffed by fallen men and women. More precisely, we’re sinners—to use an unpopular term—and I’m the chief of them. As a recent speaker on our campus put it, it’s wholly fallacious to think that we’re in the business of receiving innocent Christian teenagers (they’re not) with the goal of preserving their innocence (we can’t). Instead, we’re a community committed to joining a two-thousand-year-old conversation about the meaning of the claim that “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Together, we explore the implications of that declaration, both for our innermost selves and for the way that we engage the world. Yes, we are fallen, but our calling is high and wonderful, and the opportunity to pursue it is unspeakably precious.

That is why I love Wheaton College.

I don’t love it because it’s perfect. (See above.) And I’m not saying that I love it at this moment in order to make a point about who’s been right in the current controversy. I’m making this declaration—I feel compelled to make it—because I’m sick at heart and I’ll burst if I stay silent. Too much recent criticism of the college goes beyond the matter at hand to call into question Christian education more generally. In reply, I want to follow the example of generations of evangelicals before me and share my testimony. I use the term advisedly. What follows isn’t a systematic argument about the pros and cons of Christian education. I’m just going to testify to my experience. You can make of it what you will.

You should know that my perceptions of Wheaton College are inseparable from the twenty-two years that I spent at the University of Washington before coming here. William Faulkner is famous for observing that “the past is never dead. It’s not even past.” More poetically, in Intruder in the Dust, one of Faulkner’s characters explains, “It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began ten thousand years ago.” Faulkner meant that we never meet the present in pristine purity. The past is ever with us, shaping who we are, what we notice, how we see. Surely my story bears this out. Every day that I come to work, I see and feel and experience Wheaton in the light of my time in the secular Academy. How could it be otherwise? It was in the secular Academy that I first learned to think, to research, to teach and to write. It was there that my sense of vocation was originally conceived and nurtured. And it was there, above all, that I developed a longing for a kind of education that the secular Academy could never deliver.

The University of Washington's "Cathedral of Learning," Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library's fifth floor.

The University of Washington’s “Cathedral of Learning,” Suzallo Library. I had a private study on the library’s fifth floor.

As I reflect on it, my time at the University of Washington divides neatly into two periods. The first was the tenure-track years, when my highest priority was not to think about my job but to keep my job. If you’re not familiar with the process, most colleges and universities give their new full-time faculty six years or so to earn tenure, and if they fall short of the institution’s standards, they’re sent packing. You’ll probably think that’s more than generous if you earn your living in the business world, where employees are regularly fired or laid off with short notice. The difference is that in the academic world—in large part because of the tenure system—job turnover and new job creation is minimal. Professors who are denied tenure rarely find other academic positions. You don’t start over at another school. You start over in another line of work. And if you’ve already spent six to eight years (or more) toiling on a Ph.D. and another six years of 60-70-hour work weeks as an assistant professor, you can understandably conclude that you’ve just wasted a good part of your life. The stakes are enormous, and that has a way of keeping you focused.

At the time, I would have described these years primarily in terms of their intensity. Now, I remember them more as a period of sleepwalking and inertia. With little self-awareness, I jumped onto the academic treadmill and did what the Academy asked of me. It wasn’t unpleasant. I benefited from UW’s exceptional resources, worked with bright students, and learned from supportive colleagues. And if you had asked me during those years, I would have said that I was being faithful to my calling as a Christian university professor. I was teaching a college Sunday School class, occasionally witnessing to unbelieving students, and (as a good Southern Baptist) saying “no” to wine at faculty parties. Above all, I was pursuing excellence in my field, loving God with my mind by pressing toward the prize of tenure, promotion, and professional recognition.

Or so I thought. And then I got tenure.

Isn’t it funny how God can expose the emptiness of our ambitions by fulfilling them? In the spring of 1994 I received two momentous pieces of mail almost simultaneously, and in tandem they changed the direction of my life. First, I received an advance copy of my first book, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. It was pretty typical of first books that begin life as doctoral dissertations. It was deeply researched but narrowly focused. Specialists praised it—it won two professional book prizes—but almost no one else could understand it or desired to. Worse, there were no eternal issues in its pages, no engagement with Permanent Things, no grappling with questions of importance to my local church or to the broader community of faith. It was of the Academy, to the Academy, and for the Academy.

And the Academy, for its part, said “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your lord.” That same week I received formal notification from the UW trustees that I had been promoted and granted tenure. The real decision on my tenure application had been made much earlier—once Cambridge had offered me a book contract the outcome was certain—but there was still something symbolically jarring about receiving the book and the promotion letter in the same week. I weighed these two “successes,” figuratively holding one in each hand and reflecting on what my university chose to value and reward. What I felt wasn’t elation, or affirmation or gratification, but a profound sense of emptiness. I was thirty-three years old, at the salary I was earning I knew I would have to work until I died, and I couldn’t imagine being able to continue for much longer.

Humanly speaking, I was experiencing what academics know as the post-tenure letdown. It’s so common that it’s become a cliché, so I don’t pretend for a moment that my experience was unique. But I believe that God used this time of discouragement and searching to help me think critically and deeply—really for the first time—about the pluralistic multiversity of which I was a part. I began to read—more enthusiastically than systematically—about the relationship between the love of God, the life of the mind, and the nature of true education. And as I did so, I began to see the university with new eyes. Then I began to see myself with new eyes, as I realized how effectively the Academy had shaped me into its mold.

Peter Kreeft writes that our culture wants us to be “well-adjusted citizens of the Kingdom of This World.” Through years of osmosis, I had come to be a well-adjusted citizen of the Academy. It didn’t strike me as odd that the university had no cohering vision, that it denied the unity of truth, that it sought to expand knowledge while ignoring wisdom. I swallowed the Academy’s claim that it was ideologically neutral. Most troubling, I accepted as natural its compartmentalization of religious belief, with the attendant assumption that we can understand vast domains of human experience without reference to God.

I began to see these things, little by little, in the years following my promotion and tenure. This wasn’t a Damascus Road experience—no scales suddenly fell from eyes. It was more like coming out of anesthesia, a gradual awakening to reality. And like a patient just out of surgery, my discomfort increased as the anesthesia wore off.  As I began to see my surroundings differently, I also began to experience what Harry Blamires called “the loneliness of the thinking Christian.”

My Christian friends in Seattle regularly assumed that life was hard for a Christian professor in a place like the University of Washington, and they were right, but not for the reasons they supposed. They imagined that the environment was openly hostile to believers and figured that I must be the target of ostracism or even persecution. That was never my experience. Oh, there were continual reminders that I wasn’t in church: the student government association distributing “condom grams” in honor of Valentine’s Day, drag queens performing in the library courtyard (for course credit, no less), the school newspaper proclaiming “Jesus Should Have Been Aborted,” the department colleague who was a transvestite, to mention a few.

Such things were disturbing, but it’s not like I’d been unaware of them earlier. What distressed me far more were the limitations that I faced in the classroom. I hadn’t felt them when I first arrived at UW fresh from grad school. My primary goal was to help students understand the past on its own terms and largely for its own sake. And because they typically came to the university with pretty simplistic historical views, I would inevitably explode many myths that they harbored and complicate their understanding both of the past itself and of the craft of the historian. In the process, I was quick to assure them, I would also teach them critical thinking skills that would help them land good-paying jobs at Boeing or Microsoft or Amazon.

And then my sense of vocation began to change, in large part because of the reading I was doing about the nature of true education. I came to believe that my highest goal was not to help my students make a better living, but to help them wrestle with what it means to live well. I came to believe that authentic education is not the same thing as vocational training (important though that is), that it is a transformative experience that changes who we are. And as I began to take that goal seriously, I began to struggle with an ever increasing sense of futility.

In his 1947 meditation The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis wrote that “the pressing educational need of the moment” was not primarily to debunk our students’ unsubstantiated convictions. “The task of the modern educator,” Lewis maintained, “is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” Lewis’s challenge both inspired and depressed me. Every day I taught students who had learned at the university that it was not necessary to have a consistent philosophy of life, that rationality was a “western construction,” that ideas were merely “convenient perceptions” and moral claims only rationalizations for self-interest. And because of the authoritative rules of the secular Academy, when those students came into my classes, I was free to pose religious questions to them but never answer them authoritatively. I was allowed to introduce religious perspectives to them but never endorse one above the rest. I could demonstrate the contradictions of particular belief systems but never proclaim the good news of a consistent alternative. In sum, if I was going to irrigate deserts at UW, I would have to do so without ever testifying to the “the fountain of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13).

This was frustrating, as well as profoundly alienating. I never really felt alone as a Christian in the secular university until I began to try to think like one. As I did, I came to see myself, as Blamires put it, as “caught up, entangled, in the lumbering day-to-day operations of a machinery working in many respects in the service of ends that I rejected.” And so, by the year 2000, I had begun to pray for an opportunity to teach in a different setting built on a firmer foundation. A decade later, God answered that prayer.

I’ll be back with Part Two in a few days.

Wheaton I

C. S. LEWIS ON “CUTTING DOWN JUNGLES” AND “IRRIGATING DESERTS”

Lewis IIC. S. Lewis was one of the greatest Christian apologists of the twentieth century, and I have long appreciated many of his better known popular works. As a young adult, I read and re-read classics such as Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain. Then when our children came along and they were old enough, my wife recommended that I read The Chronicles of Narnia to them. Soon Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy—not to mention a host of centaurs, dwarves, giants and dufflepuds—were part of our regular bedtime routine. Count me a fan.

Although I never expected it when I first began to read Lewis, he has also helped me immensely in thinking about my calling as a historian and a teacher. I was reminded of this recently in re-reading Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book that I was informally discussing with a small group of Wheaton undergraduates. If you don’t know the book, I highly recommend it, particularly if you are at all interested in the role that education plays in both affecting and reflecting popular values. It’s a short book (most editions come in at under one hundred pages), but it’s also a difficult book, the kind that you have to read slowly, and more than once, to get the maximum benefit. But isn’t that true of most books that change us, rather than merely entertain us?

abolition of manSummarizing broadly, The Abolition of Man is a meditation on the ways that education shapes our sense of morality. Above all, it is a powerful indictment of relativism. Although Lewis was writing about seventy years ago, his words are timely today. Indeed, his description of WWII-era England neatly captures the trends that define public education in the contemporary United States. With little sense of irony, we deny the existence of absolute moral values and then are appalled at the epidemic of drug abuse, violence, and sexual promiscuity that plagues our schools. As Lewis put it, “such is the tragi-comedy of our situation” that we “clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. . . . We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate, and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

The Abolition of Man is a jeremiad, an extended warning. Lewis’s primary concern is to call attention to the disastrous long-term consequences of an educational philosophy that denigrates moral truth. Necessarily, it is mostly critical. Yet embedded in Lewis’s negative assessment are glimpses of a very different approach to education, glimpses that offer positive ideals to strive toward. Let me share a favorite example of what I have in mind.

It comes in the midst of chapter one, provocatively entitled “Men Without Chests.” Lewis has just finished discussing a passage from a high-school literature textbook that undermines the idea of objective moral values. The unsuspecting students who read the book will think that they are only learning grammar. In reality, however, they are also learning philosophy, for the implicit message of the passage is that “all values are subjective and trivial.” Giving the authors of the textbook the benefit of the doubt, Lewis concedes that their intentions might be honorable. Even so, they are sadly misguided, for they have

misunderstood the pressing educational need of the moment. 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 emotion. My own experience as a teacher tells an 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.  The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.

I’ve found these two phrases—“cutting down jungles” and “irrigating deserts”—to be wonderfully useful metaphors. They have helped me to think more perceptively about the conventions of academic history, and they have enabled me to see more clearly how those conventions have influenced what I bring to the classroom. “Cutting down jungles,” as I understand that phrase, means helping students with passionate convictions to evaluate critically their world views, to examine what lies beneath the personal beliefs they profess. “Irrigating deserts,” conversely, involves nurturing in apathetic or cynical students the hope that there is meaning and purpose in human existence.

We academic historians are great at cutting down jungles. Read almost any reflection on the historian’s vocation by an academic historian and you will come across statements like the following: “Basically history is destructive.” “The practice of history is not comforting” but “profoundly subversive.” “Honest history” will be “unsettling” and “jarring.” It pushes people “to stand outside their comfortable . . . assumptions and to learn unpleasant lessons.” Our “proper role” as historians is to “challenge preconceptions and assumptions,” “critique and reform unreflective modes of civic discourse about the past,” criticize “American cultural and societal failures,” “challeng[e] received wisdom,” “explode national myths.” Yep, we love to wield our machetes.

But we’re a pretty sorry lot when it comes to irrigating deserts. Academic history is too often “all head and no heart,” in the words of distinguished historian Gordon Wood. Taking Lewis’s counsel seriously demands that we correct that imbalance. Historians need to recover a role that not only criticizes but encourages, that not only explodes myths, but also serves as the custodian of forgotten dreams for a better world. Yes, we must challenge the self-serving assumptions of the culture, but we must also boldly identify, in the words of David Harlan, “what is good” in our past, “what is worth insisting on and saving.” Figuring out how to do that is a challenge, but it is a goal worthy of our best efforts.

(To read my previous reflections on what Lewis can teach us about studying history, see here, here, and here.)