C.S. Lewis is ubiquitous. He routinely turns up in conversation. Students know his work and refer to it. Our faculty and staff trace his influence in our lives, sometimes incorporating his books or essays into courses. Alumni and donors frequently bring up Lewis when I see them, calling attention to his accessibility and relevance for ordinary people. Just last week, I spoke with a magnificently generous couple about their love of Lewis. In him they recognize a kindred spirit, a person whose faith and mind work together and whose writing edifies and elevates them.
Our conversation turned to That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis’s “modern fairy-tale for grown-ups.” It portrays the foibles of Mark Studdock, a sociologist in the fictive University of Edgestow. Mark’s college has been invited to sell property to the National Institute for Co-Ordinated Research, or N.I.C.E., and to join up with this ostensibly omnicompetent organization that manages human life, resources, time, and even death for an imagined greater good. Mark feels the allure of what Lewis elsewhere calls “the inner ring.” He’s easily drawn into N.I.C.E. The narrator attributes his susceptibility largely to a weak education:
[It] had been neither scientific nor classical—merely “Modern.” The severities both of abstraction and of high human tradition had passed him by: and he had neither pleasant shrewdness nor aristocratic honor to help him. He was a man of straw, a glib examinee in subjects that require no exact knowledge.
Let no such thing ever be said of our students! Lewis’s novel reminds us that for a university to be a Christian university, it first has to be a university, an institution in which all the branches of knowledge are rightly understood and rigorously taught. Thereby, competent judgment, if not greatness, is fostered in students.
Late in Lewis’s novel, when everything at Edgestow has come apart, we learn of another scholar, an “old dear” named Churchwood who is complicit in a trahison des clercs.
All his lectures were devoted to proving the impossibility of ethics, though . . . he’d have walked ten miles rather than leave a penny debt unpaid. But . . . was there a single doctrine practised at [N.I.C.E.] which hadn’t been preached by some lecturer at Edgestow? Oh, of course, they never thought anyone would act on their theories! No one was more astonished than they when what they’d been talking of for years suddenly took on reality. But it was their own child coming back to them: grown up and unrecognizable, but their own.
Let no such thing ever be said of us! It is our duty to ask difficult questions and to consider criticism of cherished positions. Challenging ideas should be entertained in classrooms open to free inquiry. We also have a duty to help our students look for stable ground upon which to stand, and seek lives of character oriented toward virtue. When we professors “profess” the grace we see in Christ’s gospel and God’s world, uniting faith and intellect, and marrying disciplinary wisdom to artful pedagogy, we have reason to hope for students one day returning to us abounding in excellence, fully recognizable, and sources of sheer thanksgiving and pride.
Here are other items bearing on our shared work in the Honors College: