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January 30, 2024+Patrick J. Casey

Summary of Stewart Goetz's C.S. Lewis on Higher Education

What are institutions of higher learning for? Over the past decade or so, a plethora of purposes have been proposed: truth, intellectual achievement, inquiry, human flourishing, job training, civic engagement, social justice, and more. Yet, with the wide range of opinions on this topic, virtually no one in the conversation talks about the sheer fun of what goes on in universities and colleges (there are a few notable exceptions; see here, here, and here, for example). This is surprising because, in my experience, when I ask faculty members about their work, it’s evident that they enjoy what they do. For all the talk in public of engaging in the dispassionate pursuit of truth, of making the world a better place, and of helping students develop into upstanding citizens as justifications of the academy, the guilty secret of the professoriate is that we think learning is fun.

It is in this lacuna in the conversation that Stewart Goetz squarely places C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) in his new book C.S. Lewis on Higher Education: The Pedagogy of Pleasure. Lewis was an intellectual giant of the 20th century who spent his entire adult life in universities. During this time, he produced works of literary criticism, intellectual history, philosophy, theology, fiction, and much more. Yet, despite his prodigious output, Lewis never produced a comprehensive work on the purpose of higher education. The task of Goetz’s book is threefold: (1) to derive a philosophy of higher education from Lewis’ massive corpus, (2) to show that this view is the right one to attribute to Lewis since it follows from Lewis’ central philosophical commitments (specifically, his hedonism about the nature of happiness), and (3) to put Lewis’ view of the purpose of higher education into conversation with contemporary alternatives. 

For readers of the literature on Lewis, that may be surprising, because Lewis is frequently understood as a eudaimonist — someone who thinks that happiness consists in virtuous activity. However, Goetz demonstrates (in this work and in two others) that Lewis was explicitly and consistently a hedonist in the broad sense that he believed happiness consists in experiences of pleasure. Moreover, Goetz argues on Lewis’ behalf that it is the hedonistic pursuit of pleasure that can be found in intellectual activity that explains the existence of institutions of higher learning in the first place.

"The proper functioning of institutions of higher learning is hindered whenever goals other than providing a haven for those who love learning are treated as primary"

Lewis believed (in Goetz’s words) that “higher education is for individuals who … derive pleasure from intellectual activity,” whether “reading books, writing papers, doing research, devising and conducting experiments, and most generally sharing the life of the mind with others.” Goetz notes that to some, the idea that the purpose of the university is to provide a place for people who take pleasure in the life of the mind is simplistic, perhaps even laughable. But given that professors frequently enjoy intellectual activity so much, one might wonder if that laughter is the kind inspired by the enfant terrible who blurts out the obvious — what everyone knows but is too embarrassed to say. 

At this point one might object: “But surely universities don’t just belong to professors. What about our students? Don’t universities have a responsibility to educate both morally and intellectually? Don’t they aid in the social mobility of their students by providing skills for life and for employment?” 

Goetz acknowledges that, of course, today students come to universities for all sorts of reasons — including those just mentioned. But, drawing from Lewis, Goetz claims that most of these reasons are the wrong ones and are deleterious to the purpose and mission of institutions of higher learning. 

It is here that Goetz shows the ramifications of accepting Lewis’ view about universities in sharpest relief. He points to a paper Lewis wrote titled “Our English Syllabus,” in which Lewis clearly states that colleges like those at Oxford were created not as centers for teaching but rather for the pursuit of knowledge. Lewis writes that while “a school without pupils would cease to be a school; a college without undergraduates would be as much a college as ever, would perhaps be more a college.” Since colleges were originally founded not to educate but as support systems for those who wanted to pursue knowledge, Lewis’ view is that students should be admitted to colleges only insofar as they have a desire for the pleasures that come from sharing in the life of the mind. 

"Making universities responsible for the health (moral or otherwise) of their students leads to an inequality between professor and student that is repugnant to the proper functioning of the university."

Goetz reasons that, in Lewis’ view, the proper functioning of institutions of higher learning is hindered whenever goals other than providing a haven for those who love learning are treated as primary — whether that be the moral improvement of students, social mobility, job training, or any others.

First, universities are not responsible for the moral education of young people. Goetz shows that, in Lewis’ view, it is in part the responsibility (in the United States) of K–12 education. The central goal of K–12 education is to make a child fully human — and that includes the inculcation of moral values and sentiments proper to humanity. Moreover, making universities responsible for the health (moral or otherwise) of their students leads to an inequality between professor and student that is repugnant to the proper functioning of the university. While Lewis says that it is good for professors to care about their students as fellow humans, it ought to be no part of their purview as professors to be caretakers for their students. Rather, students are and ought to be the peers (albeit more junior) of their professors. Undergraduates and professors are fellow students of whatever subject they come together to learn. 

Second, universities should not be used instrumentally for social mobility or job training. Insofar as a student simply desires occupational training, Goetz argues that what they really want is a vocational school, and he invites us to wonder whether they really ought to be pursuing (and spending money on) a college or university education. After all, many people simply are not interested in the advanced intellectual activity that takes place in universities and colleges. This is not a moral failing on their part. Indeed, Goetz is at pains to demonstrate that, for Lewis, one is not made a more moral or more valuable human being by taking pleasure in the life of the mind or by getting a university education any more than one is a better human for preferring baseball to soccer.

To be sure, as both Lewis and Goetz note, partaking of the life of the mind will have all sorts of very beneficial by-products for students, including making them better equipped for all kinds of occupations. But these goods are best obtained when they’re not the student’s or the university’s primary goal, just as the good of earning a high GPA is best accomplished by caring less about grades and more about learning. Treating these by-products as the purpose of universities causes universities to be less able to accomplish its primary goal while simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, diminishing their ability to contribute to these secondary goals. Universities have all sorts of positive benefits for individuals and society, but those benefits can and must remain by-products of giving a home to those who love learning.

Lewis was fond of pointing out that we frequently miss the obvious because it is so close to us — much like a person who is reading forgets the glasses on their own face. In the struggle to justify our existence to the societies we inhabit, one might worry that we’re in danger of forgetting what drew us to want to spend our lives in the academy in the first place. It is to Goetz’s credit that he has seen so clearly what many of us are in danger of overlooking: We’re here for the fun of it.


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