C. S. Lewis: On Education as Opposed to Training

In an essay entitled Our English Syllabus – which can be found in Rehabilitations (1939) – C. S. Lewis discusses the difference between education and vocational training, as well as the more subtle difference between education and learning. He begins by reflecting upon the assessment of the late medieval/early modern mind (via Milton) and the corresponding assessment of the classical mind (via Aristotle), which is that the primary purpose of education is to produce the ‘good man and the good citizen…the man of good taste and good feeling, the interesting and interested man, and almost the happy man’ – the task of the educator is to awaken and sharpen the logical and moral faculties latent in mankind, by exposing them to all the wisdom that culture has to offer; it is not primarily geared towards setting the student up to perform a particular duty or becoming well skilled in a specific area of expertise.

The duty of the trainer however is precisely this, and so the trainer’s brief is essentially utilitarian and narrow. This is not said to disparage vocational training or vocational trainers, but merely to make an important distinction – vocational training has a very different end in mind to education (or at least what was considered to be the essence of education until fairly recently). Lewis’ essay is designed to alert the reader to the fact that education has become not only conflated with training, but to a great extent subsumed by it – when we think of education nowadays, it is usual to see it as a stepping stone on the way to getting a job. Now, this is to a certain extent inevitable, as the prior concept of education was based on societies where hierarchical inequality was assumed and where education was therefore limited to those with enough free time to devote to it. In our own time though, we must aim to find a balance between the two ways:

When societies became, in effort if not in achievement, egalitarian, we are presented with a difficulty. To give everyone education and to give no one vocational training is impossible, for electricians and surgeons we must have and they must be trained. Our ideal must be to find time for both education and training: our danger is that equality may mean training for all and education for none-that everyone will learn commercial French instead of Latin, book-keeping instead of geometry, and ‘knowledge of the world we live in’ instead of great literature. It is against this danger that schoolmasters have to fight, for if education is beaten by training, civilization dies. That is a thing very likely to happen. One of the most dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century progressive optimism is the idea that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost…

…And if you press to know what I mean by civilization, I reply ‘Humanity’, by which I do not mean kindness so much as the realization of the human idea. Human life means to me the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, conversation are the end,’ and the preservation and propagation of life merely the means. That is why education seems to me so important: it actualizes that potentiality for leisure, if you like for amateurishness, which is man’s prerogative.

taken from Our English Syllabus

                Whilst it is true that equal opportunity for social betterment must be afforded to all, we are making a grave mistake if we conceive of this opportunity only in terms of making available more means to earn money by storing up ‘useful’ techniques and bits of information. For it is precisely the useless things in life that make us most human, that make civilisation civilised. The ‘dangerous errors instilled into us by nineteenth-century optimism’ do not though, even after the horrors of their full-scale implementation in various twentieth-century regimes and the similarly horrific warning signs to their contrary in that same century’s great wars, seem to have lost any of their hold over us – we are still of the mind that secular, materialist progressivism will save the day, and continue to pour all our efforts into perpetuating that vision of things, particularly in our schools.

The results of these efforts are not only that people in the West are increasingly alienated from the riches of their own cultural heritage, but that they are also becoming less skilled in the utilitarian arts as well – each year we read that numeracy and literacy levels are decreasing and that we are producing fewer engineers and scientists with the skills necessary to compete in the global market. There seems to be something analogous to Matthew 6:33 here – that if we seek first the path of virtue and wisdom (i.e.; of education), all the skills needed for meeting vocational standards will be added to us, but if we aim for training alone, we lose out on both fronts. The goal of education is to produce someone who, by being steeped in the wisdom of the ages, has had their critical faculties honed so well that they can turn their mind to any task – thus it acts as a foundation for engagement with vocations of any kind.

The goal of training however, is to deliver a limited set of information and/or skills to the student in order to perform a task or set of tasks – thus, when meeting said tasks, and encountering the range of difficulties that most jobs present (and this is particularly so in today’s world, when so many disciplines overlap) there is not always present in the actor the depth of insight and range of critical faculties required to meet those difficulties satisfactorily. In summary, you could say that training equips the student to meet this task, to fit this role, whereas education provides the student with the aptitude and powers of judgement to meet any task or fit any role. This ties in to what Lewis has to say about the difference between education and learning, where he contends that the latter presupposes that the student has already had his appetite for knowledge shaped by the former. On those who have been so shaped and thus desire to know more, he writes:

Now it might have happened that such people were left in civil societies to gratify their taste as best they could without assistance or interference from their fellows. It has not happened. Such societies have usually held a belief-and it is a belief of a quite transcendental nature-that knowledge is the natural food of the human mind: that those who’ specially pursue it are being specially human; and that their activity is good in itself besides being always honourable and sometimes useful to the whole society. Hence we come to have such associations as universities-institutions for the support and encouragement of men devoted to learning…

…The schoolmaster must think about the pupil: everything he says is said to improve the boy’s character or open his mind-the schoolmaster is there to make the pupil a ‘good’ man. And the pupil must think about the master. Obedience is one of the virtues he has come to him to learn; his motive for reading one book and neglecting another must constantly be that he was told to. But the elder student has no such duties ex officio to the younger. His business is to pursue knowledge. If hi pursuit happens to be helpful to the junior partner, he is welcome to be present; if not, he is welcome to stay at home. No doubt the elder, of his charity, may go a little out of his course to help the younger; but he is then acting as a man, not as a student.


                The ‘elder student’ Lewis speaks of is of course the university tutor, as he considers that at this point both professor and undergraduate are, having both been formed by education, embarked together upon the journey of learning – of pursuing knowledge in order to deepen understanding. Thus, whilst the tutor may (and no doubt ordinarily will) aid and accompany the undergraduate on this journey, they are in it together – it is the case of a more experienced traveller giving advice to someone just starting out on the trail, and assumes that the novice has already had their mind and will educated in order to respond to and learn from what the journey will present along the way. Lewis goes on to point out that in his own time Oxford had already become a place of continuing education, not primarily of learning. He also notes that this is not completely a bad thing, if it occurs as a by-product of Oxford’s primary occupation as a place of learning:

What do these changes mean? They mean, I think, that a temporary immersion in the life of learning has been found to have an educational value. Learning is not education; but it can be used educationally by those who do not propose to pursue learning all their lives. There is nothing odd in the existence of such a by-product. Games are essentially for pleasure, but they happen to produce health. They are not likely, however, to produce health if they are played for the sake of it. Play to win and you will find yourself taking violent exercise; play because it is good for you and you will not. In the same way, though you may have come here only to be educated, you will never receive that precise educational gift which a university has to give you unless you can at least pretend, so long as you are with us, that you are concerned not with education but with knowledge for its own sake. And we, on our part, can do very little for you if we aim directly at your education.


                Again, there is something of Matthew 6:33 here; that we have become a society which aims to achieve the useful or immediately desirable without aiming for what makes for wisdom and virtue – i.e.; the Good, the True and the Beautiful. The story of our reforming education in terms of training and of learning in terms of continuing education (which, in our own time, has more often than not become continual training instead) is connected to the wider narrative in which we seek to frame our culture – that of eschewing the permanent things in order to chase after short-term, material satisfaction. The great irony of this is that in doing so, in trying to reframe the pursuit of happiness in terms of the immediate and the contingent, we are cutting ourselves off from all that has made our culture what it is and are thus corroding our civilisation from within.

As Lewis’ essay notes at the outset, ‘if education is beaten by training, civilization dies.’ The great tragedy of our age is that we, on the whole, still have not noticed the cultural suicide that we are effecting – we have so much stuff to keep us both sated and occupied, and so much trivia to keep us distracted, that it is all too easy to ignore the slipping away of all that made the West what it is in the first place. We are, in effect, fiddling while Rome burns, and it seems gleefully so. Most attempts to sound the alarm on any aspect of our decline are written off as obscurantism – people find it hard to believe that anyone would see anything wrong in such a time of plenty as ours. ‘Just embrace it,’ we are told. Well, time will tell I suppose; but Lewis’ words on education certainly ring true with a lot of what is already observable in our schools, and chime with a great deal else that is wrong with our age. We would be unwise to ignore such warnings, and it is not yet too late to turn the ship around – there is plenty at harbour that would make for our revitalisation.