I was reading a Tucker Tuesday blog today that commented on the Apollo landing, and the state of today’s education system and societal attitudes about this type of scientific excellence.
It struck a chord with me, as science was always my favorite subject. I was a Biomedical Engineering student for the first part of my college experience, later changing to Zoology, so to say my coursework was full of Chemistry, Physics, and Biology would be an understatement.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of a little gem written by CS Lewis in 1959 called “Screwtape Proposes a Toast”. It was a follow up to the Screwtape Letters, a novel he wrote. For those unfamiliar, the book is a set of letters written by Screwtape, a demon who is corresponding with his nephew, a “tempter” on earth charged with leading a man’s soul to hell. It’s a rather chilling piece actually, worth a spin, even if you are not religiously inclined.
So CS Lewis extended that persona when he wrote “Screwtape Proposes a Toast” for the Saturday Evening Post and leveled a blow at what happens when we take the principles of equality too far, to enforcing equality through education, as opposed to giving people equal rights and then recognizing that individuals have unique talents that should be encouraged to grow to their limits. . .
Read the excerpt and tell me what you think, or if it’s too long, read the portions in red. :)
“My own experience, as I have said, was mainly on the English sector, and I still get more news from it than from any other. It may be said that what I am now going to say will not apply so fully to the sectors in which some of you may be operating. But you can make the necessary adjustments when you get there. Some application it will almost certainly have. If it has too little, you must labor to make the country you are dealing with more like what England already is.
In that promising land the spirit of I’m as good as you has already begun something more than a generally social influence. It begins to work itself into their educational system. How far its operations there have gone at the present moment, I should not like to say with certainty. Nor does it matter. Once you have grasped the tendency, you can easily predict its future developments; especially as we ourselves will play our part in the developing. The basic principle of the new education is to be that dunces and idlers must not be made to feel inferior to intelligent and industrious pupils. That would be “undemocratic.” These differences between pupils – for they are obviously and nakedly individual differences – must be disguised. This can be done at various levels. At universities, examinations must be framed so that nearly all the students get good marks. Entrance examinations must be framed so that all, or nearly all, citizens can go to universities, whether they have any power (or wish) to profit by higher education or not. At schools, the children who are too stupid or lazy to learn languages and mathematics and elementary science can be set to doing things that children used to do in their spare time. Let, them, for example, make mud pies and call it modelling. But all the time there must be no faintest hint that they are inferior to the children who are at work. Whatever nonsense they are engaged in must have – I believe the English already use the phrase – “parity of esteem.” An even more drastic scheme is not possible. Children who are fit to proceed to a higher class may be artificially kept back, because the others would get a trauma — Beelzebub, what a useful word! – by being left behind. The bright pupil thus remains democratically fettered to his own age group throughout his school career, and a boy who would be capable of tackling Aeschylus or Dante sits listening to his coeval’s attempts to spell out A CAT SAT ON A MAT.
In a word, we may reasonably hope for the virtual abolition of education when I’m as good as you has fully had its way. All incentives to learn and all penalties for not learning will be prevented; who are they to overtop their fellows? And anyway the teachers – or should I say, nurses? – will be far too busy reassuring the dunces and patting them on the back to waste any time on real teaching. We shall no longer have to plan and toil to spread imperturbable conceit and incurable ignorance among men. The little vermin themselves will do it for us.
Of course, this would not follow unless all education became state education. But it will. That is part of the same movement. Penal taxes, designed for that purpose, are liquidating the Middle Class, the class who were prepared to save and spend and make sacrifices in order to have their children privately educated. The removal of this class, besides linking up with the abolition of education, is, fortunately, an inevitable effect of the spirit that says I’m as good as you. This was, after all, the social group which gave to the humans the overwhelming majority of their scientists, physicians, philosophers, theologians, poets, artists, composers, architects, jurists, and administrators. If ever there were a bunch of stalks that needed their tops knocked off, it was surely they. As an English politician remarked not long ago, “A democracy does not want great men.”
It would be idle to ask of such a creature whether by want it meant “need” or “like.” But you had better be clear. For here Aristotle’s question comes up again.
We, in Hell, would welcome the disappearance of democracy in the strict sense of that word, the political arrangement so called. Like all forms of government, it often works to our advantage, but on the whole less often than other forms. And what we must realize is that “democracy” in the diabolical sense (I’m as good as you, Being Like Folks, Togetherness) is the fittest instrument we could possibly have for extirpating political democracies from the face of the earth.
For “democracy” or the “democratic spirit” (diabolical sense) leads to a nation without great men, a nation mainly of subliterates, full of the cocksureness which flattery breeds on ignorance, and quick to snarl or whimper at the first sign of criticism. And that is what Hell wishes every democratic people to be. For when such a nation meets in conflict a nation where children have been made to work at school, where talent is placed in high posts, and where the ignorant mass are allowed no say at all in public affairs, only one result is possible.
The democracies were surprised lately when they found that Russia had got ahead of them in science. What a delicious specimen of human blindness! If the whole tendency of their society is opposed to every sort of excellence, why did they expect their scientists to excel?
It is our function to encourage the behaviour, the manners, the whole attitude of mind, which democracies naturally like and enjoy, because these are the very things which, if unchecked, will destroy democracy. You would almost wonder that even humans don’t see it themselves. Even if they don’t read Aristotle (that would be undemocratic) you would have thought the French Revolution would have taught them that the behaviour aristocrats naturally like is not the behaviour that preserves aristocracy. They might then have applied the same principle to all forms of government.”