How C. S. Lewis Predicted Today’s College Campus Craziness—in 1944
How Did We Get Here?
In addition to helping conservatives understand campus morality, Lewis’s book also explains how an education in subjective values can create this lopsided system. The Abolition of Man discusses two very different kinds of education -- one closely connected to objective morality and one which considers itself superior to a morality which it considers subjective.
“In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by [conscience] -- a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart,” Lewis explains. “They did not cut men to some pattern they have chosen,” but rather “they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike.” It was merely “old birds teaching young birds to fly.”
The newer system, by contrast, regards morality as flexible and unnatural. According to this understanding, “judgements of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning.” The new teachers -- whom Lewis calls the Conditioners -- “know how to produce conscience and decide what kind of conscience they will produce.”
The recent history of higher education follows a similar trajectory. As Ross Douthat explained in the New York Times, collegiate education rejected traditional morality to embrace scientific efficiency, and then fell prey to a new, more destructive, form of morality.
“Between the 19th century and the 1950s, the American university was gradually transformed from an institution intended to transmit knowledge into an institution designed to serve technocracy,” Douthat explained. Religious foundations were stripped away, classical curriculums replaced by specialized majors, and professors transitioned from instruction to research. As a result, the university lost “the traditional sense of community, mission, and moral purpose.”
The student radicalism of the 1960s aimed to destroy the traditional moral footing of the university, but it also sought a “kind of remoralization.” The new morality focused on the anti-war and civil rights movements, feminism, environmentalism, LGBTQ activism, and a laundry list of “social justice” causes.
When “political correctness” emerged in the 1990s, “left-wing pieties dominated official discourse, but the university’s deeper spirit remained technocratic, careerist and basically amoral.” Today, however, students are revolting against the imbalance -- demanding full institutionalization of liberal values at the expense of the university’s technical and scientific expertise.
In response to what Douthat calls “a strange blend of [being] pampered and exploited,” college students present the twisted morality of “vindictive protectiveness” as a way to fill the moral gap in the university. They lash out against perceived injustices, but with a morality that perpetuates injustice and destroys freedom of inquiry.
As David French explained in National Review, “the same secular-progressive movement that fought for free speech in the Sixties wrote the first speech codes in the late Eighties and then raised the Millennial social-justice warriors who are now turning on their parents’ generation as insufficiently faithful to the cause.”
Lewis warned that, for the Conditioners, “their skepticism about values is on the surface: it is for use on other people’s values; about the values current in their own set they are not nearly skeptical enough.” This double standard has come to college campuses. As French explains, “freedom is useful to put the right people in power -- after that, it’s a threat.”
Next Page: Persons without chests.