How an English Textbook Performs Mass Lobotomies Without a Scalpel
Eighty years ago, C. S. Lewis delivered the 15th annual Riddell Memorial Lectures. It was a series of three lectures, with the objective being to discuss the relationship between religion and contemporary thought. Lewis’s chosen subject was, “The Abolition of Man or Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of Schools.”
He titled the first lecture “Men Without Chests.” Lewis was taking to task a certain book being used in British schools, but he did not name either the book or its two authors. Instead, he referred to the book as The Green Book and to the authors as “Gaius and Titius.” He found that, instead of teaching grammar or literary criticism to the students, through The Green Book, Gaius and Titius were indoctrinating students with a novel kind of “ethics, theology, and politics.”
Men Without Chests
Gaius and Titius described Coleridge’s experience at a waterfall, where he overheard two tourists talking. One described the waterfall as “sublime,” the other, as “pretty.” Coleridge lauded the first but rejected the second description. Gaius and Titius did not content themselves with explaining why Coleridge may have rejected one in favor of the other description. Instead, they explained that both tourists were “only” talking about their emotions, their feelings about the waterfall. As Gaius and Titius cast it, one of the tourists “felt sublime” while the other experienced “pretty feelings.” In so doing, Lewis explained, instead of educating students in the English language or literature, the authors of The Green Book were debunking the very concept of objective sublimity—trivializing it in such a way that the students were unaware of what was being done to them.
Lewis dissected the damage done to the unwitting students:
The schoolboy who reads this passage in The Green Book will believe two propositions: firstly, that all sentences containing a predicate of value are statements about the emotional state of the speaker, and secondly, that all such statements are unimportant.
Here, Lewis explained, Gaius and Titius claimed to be “cutting away the parasitic growth of emotion [and] religious sanction,” but in so doing, they trivialized emotion while also trivializing objective values.
In “Men Without Chests,” Lewis analyzed the effect of this trivialization using a three-part model of human anthropology comprised of the intellect, or seat of reason; the heart, or seat of rightly ordered sentiment; and the stomach, the locus of appetite. Our appetites, or desires, said Lewis, are disordered. The heart is the seat of emotion, but the sentiments must be trained to be properly ordered. We must be taught which things are to be enjoyed and which should be avoided. Relying on Aristotle and Augustine, Lewis said that in order for the sentiments to be rightly ordered, the intellect should rule the appetites through the heart (which Aristotle called the “spirited element”).
Lewis decried the use of the term “intellectual” for such men as those who would be formed by The Green Book, because they would lack a proper ordering of their sentiments. If we do not teach the younger generation to properly order their affections, he wrote, we are forming “men without chests.” It is our hearts that make us human, he pointed out. If we were only intellect, we would be “mere spirit”; if only appetites, “mere animal.” With his penchant for vivid clarity, Lewis characterized the results of such instruction as Gaius and Titius provide:
[W]e remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.
What Is an Argument?
Several years ago, I purchased a copy of the text used in my son’s college English class. It was a book used in many American colleges and universities. I wanted to know what he was being taught, and I also had another interest. It was unclear to me why papers I received from some of the upper-level college or newly minted graduate students I taught seemed so utterly lacking in understanding what constitutes an argument. What were these students learning in their English classes?
It would be easy enough to begin with a definition. This one is from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
An argument is a set of two or more sentences or beliefs. . . One of the sentences or beliefs is the conclusion, the rest are premises. The premises of a good argument provide justification, warrant, evidence, or support for its conclusion.1
But that is not how the college textbook discussed the making of an argument. Following Lewis’s lead, I will call it The Red Book.2 I read the first third of The Red Book, but I could have stopped on page 10. By that point, I had read enough to be more than concerned. The authors write:
Often, writers argue to inform others, to give information, much like a bumper sticker that simply provides an organization’s name and Web address: R & L’s House of Ribs: www.R&L.com.
While it is true that writers often argue to inform others, the authors of The Red Book teach that virtually every conceivable expression of a point of view is an argument:
The clothes you wear, the foods you eat, and the groups you join make nuanced, sometimes unspoken arguments about who you are and what you value. So an argument can be any text—written, spoken, aural, or visual—that expresses a point of view. In fact, some theorists claim that language is inherently persuasive. When you say, “Hi, how’s it going?” in one sense you’re arguing that your hello deserves a response.
. . . We have many reasons to argue, then, and not all of them are about winning. In addition to convincing and persuading others, we use arguments to inform, to explore, to make decisions, and even to meditate or pray.3
What Is an Assertion?
The authors of The Red Book conflate many things with arguments, but I will focus on only one of them—the assertion. An assertion, according to the Free Dictionary, is “a positive statement or declaration, often without support or reason; allegation.”4
The 2013 edition of the book opens with a description of “women driving day” in Saudi Arabia, along with tweets and social media postings from Middle Eastern countries during the 2011 “Arab Spring.” The authors write, “anyone, anywhere, with access to a smart phone, can mount an argument that can circle the globe in seconds.” Indeed, “arguments are all around us.”
Had the authors used the word “assertion” in those last two sentences, they would have been correct. But “Everything is an argument” is a specious claim. To assert that “Everything is an argument” nullifies the definitional requirement that an argument consist of premises and a conclusion—the very elements of a bona fide philosophical argument. Note that the statement, “Everything is an argument” is, itself, nothing more than an assertion. Thus, the Red Book authors have enlarged, even transmuted the meaning of the term argument by merely making an assertion.
Furthermore, if everything is an argument, that would include values, our moral obligations to one another. If honesty, generosity, and kindness are only arguments, then presumably so are lying, selfishness, or generalized nastiness. If this is so, then what do we teach our children? How do we rightly order our own lives, morally, if there is no objective moral truth? The Red Book would have us believe that these competing values would merely be competing arguments.
Men Without Chests . . . or Heads
Returning to Lewis, if there is no objective moral truth, then what hope does a person have of ruling his or her appetites? Lewis wrote of the head (the intellect) ruling the appetite (the belly) through the chest (rightly ordered sentiments). The Green Book, Lewis argued, produced people without chests.
Now, The Red Book muddles the intellect with a definition of argument that includes “everything.” But a definition inclusive of “everything” is restricted by nothing. This makes it virtually meaningless, and rightly ordered thinking is thereby a casualty. Students’ intellects are not being developed properly if they internalize the fallacy that everything is an argument. Using the Lewisian anthropology, we are forming “men without heads.”
The result is even worse than we might imagine. If Gaius and Titius through The Green Book formed “men without chests,” and we through The Red Book are forming “men without heads,” then the new generation is above all to be pitied—and perhaps feared. Without heads or chests, we end up with only bellies: appetites.
Rule by Appetite?
The word “appetite” derives from the Latin for “longing” or “desire.” Appetite is not related only to hunger for food. Whatever the desire—food, land, love, money, power, sex, or “x”—there is an appetite for that.
Suppose I have an appetite for sweets. In order for me to live well, my food intake needs to be informed by knowledge of the need for proper nutrition for a human body, as well as the realities of body habitus, blood glucose levels, and even family history. Ignoring these data points (for whatever reason) and taking in a diet of unchecked sweets will likely result in one or more maladies, such as tooth decay, malnutrition, obesity, and possibly type 2 diabetes. Real results will follow, even if I choose to ignore them for a time. Similarly, striving to satiate any overpowering appetite will produce a myriad of results for the one with the appetite and likely for many others.
If a man or woman has neither intellect nor rightly ordered heart through which to rule the appetites, he or she can only have desires. Lacking both intellect and heart, the desires will be disordered, but they will be accompanied by the drive to have the appetite satiated, for that drive is in itself a desire. Fulfilling these disordered appetites will require power, perhaps an arsenal.
If the will to power is not the kind of world in which we wish to live, then some changes are in order. Perhaps we could begin by replacing The Green Book and The Red Book with curricula that teach what an argument really is, and how to properly order emotions. After all, appetites we already have—aplenty.
2. Lunsford, Andrea A., and John J. Ruszkiewicz. Everything’s An Argument. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2013.
3. Ibid., pp 5-6
4. The Free Dictionary, 2010. https://www.thefreedictionary.com/assertion