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Contemplative Pedagogy: Notes on Educating Screen-Addled Students

March 8th, 2021 | 21 min read

By Mike St. Thomas

Not long ago I taught a summer class in creative writing to middle schoolers. On one sun-drenched day, I took the class outside to wander through our campus and down to our stretch of shoreline on Narragansett Bay. Their task was to find a natural object that drew their attention—a tree, a stone, a shell—and write a descriptive poem about it. Several students took to the task earnestly, finding something sitting with it meditatively, jotting ideas in their notebooks for ten or twenty minutes at a stretch. Others absent-mindedly grabbed a leaf or rock, wrote a few words about it, and spent the rest of the period asking me when we would be finished. No doubt they resented me for making them leave their phones in the classroom.

Other teachers have had similar experiences with their students in their own subject areas. Our attempts to introduce them to things we know to be good, true, and beautiful—a novel, a painting, a mathematical concept—are often met with apathy more than engagement, with vacant expressions more than rapt attention. Objective reality and subjective experience are dissonant; they often seem “out of tune” with the world, as Wordsworth put it more than two centuries ago.

Yet to blame our students would be to miss the mark. What part of their screen-addled childhood has trained them to listen carefully, look closely, and think deeply? In recent years it’s gotten harder even for bookworms like me to sit still and read for an extended period of time, and I can only imagine the effect our culture has had on the still-malleable minds of my students, who can barely recall a time before the invention of the iPhone.

As Christians we believe that God created the world, and we also believe that he created us in his image, so that we are made to know and love reality. What, then, is the role of Christian educators in “re-tuning” our students to that world, and ultimately, to God?

C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man addresses the same problem, albeit in a slightly different garment. In his influential book, a collection of lectures given at the University of Durham in 1943, Lewis takes issue not with technology but with education itself. He laments that modern education assumes there to be a gulf between the world and us, between facts and opinions, objective reality and subjective values. Lewis criticizes educators for prioritizing the former over the latter, thereby dismissing the intangibles—our ethics, ideals, senses of the sacred—because their truth or falsity cannot be measured.

Lewis’ argument is well known among Christian educators, and especially so among those, like myself, who consider studying the liberal arts as integral to the health of civilization and religious faith. Indeed, in many ways, Lewis’ reflections appear prophetic. As my opening example makes clear, nearly eighty years on, we educators are still wrestling with problems of objectivity and subjectivity.

Yet a lament is not a way forward. Though Lewis’s critique of education is both accurate and prescient, he offers little in the way of helping educators bridge the gap between reality and the modern student. In a well-intentioned attempt to correct the errors of modern instruction, The Abolition of Man gestures towards a pedagogy that misguidedly aims to fill students with specific ideas and sentiments rather than helping them seek wisdom by teaching them to ask questions.

Lewis begins by examining an episode recounted in a high school English textbook that contained a particularly egregious example of placing a firewall between objectivity and subjectivity. The Green Book (in reality, The Control of Language, written by Alex King and Martin Ketley, published in 1939) describes an occasion on which Coleridge and two tourists were gazing at a waterfall during a walking tour of the Lake District. One tourist calls the falls “pretty”; the other calls it “sublime.” Coleridge condemns the former interpretation and praises the latter, as a sublime natural scene should invoke in us sublime feelings.[1] Yet the authors of The Green Book take issue with Coleridge’s judgment, as one’s private sentiment, in their minds, can be neither correct nor incorrect: “We appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.”

Lewis can barely conceal his disgust with such a judgment about the nature of our relationship to the world:

Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it…The reason why Coleridge agreed with the tourist who called the cataract sublime and disagreed with the one who called it pretty was of course that he believed inanimate nature to be such that certain responses could be more ‘just’ or ‘ordinate’ or ‘appropriate’ to it than others.

Lewis devotes much of The Abolition of Man to explaining the contemporary error of dissociating our feelings from reality, and severing facts from opinions. If all values are considered “subjective and trivial,” he claims, we void any claim to truth. Worried that we no longer hold a common set of beliefs about the world, Lewis sketches out the principles of natural law (in a nod to its universality, he calls it “the Tao”). The Tao consists of basic tenets of kindness, justice, truthfulness, mercy, and so on, which he supports with examples from a wide range of texts in Western and non-Western cultures. For those educators “within the Tao,” (that is, who would lament this state of affairs), the task is clear: To “train in the pupil those responses which are in themselves appropriate, whether anyone is making them or not, and in making which the very nature of man consists.”

Lewis distinguishes between the old education and the new. Previously, students were “initiated” into the “mystery of humanity” by their teachers. In the old method, sentiments like “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” (“sweet and lovely it is to die for one’s country”) were not analyzed as value-neutral sentiments but presented as descriptors of the nature of our relationship to the world. Now, teachers are propagandists, teaching students to debunk long-held ideas, all the while fostering in them a kind of readiness to accept their own values (teachers themselves may be unaware that this is what they are doing). The student, a “neophyte,” had not lived long enough and did not know enough to properly assess the merit of such an idea; therefore, he must first be initiated into the tradition. Lewis puts it succinctly: “the old was a kind of propagation—men transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.”

Surprisingly, Lewis, who fought and was wounded in the trenches in the First World War, does not seem to consider the possibility that Dulce et decorum est might itself have been a bit of propaganda, too. Consider Wilfred Owen, whose well known poem “Dulce et Decorum Est,” written immediately after the war, after describing its horrors, concludes thus:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

While Lewis wants to train students to hold specific sentiments like the nobility of a patriotic death, Owen’s poem urges us to pay closer attention to reality itself. If only we would not turn away from the terrors of war and its destruction of innocent youth, we would see that what we thought was a timeless truth actually turns out to be not just a misunderstanding but a purposely told falsehood, a lie. Proper sentiment will follow proper attention.

Here, and throughout, The Abolition of Man suffers from a knee-jerk defensiveness of the tradition not readily found in Lewis’ other works. In responding to the challenge to the values of the Tao made by the authors of The Green Book, he comes close to dismissing out of hand any attempt to question it. Because any attempt at making a value judgement involves an appeal to some link between fact and opinion, something beyond the material, Lewis claims that if one rejects the Tao, one rejects all value. Whenever someone challenges the Tao he or she threatens to chip away the glue that holds society together: “if the Tao falls, all his own conceptions of value fall with it.” The principles of the Tao are “to the world of action what axioms are to the world of theory,” he argues. Unless you accept them, “you can have no practical principles whatever. You cannot reach them as conclusions: they are premises.”

If by the Tao Lewis means the existence of a necessary connection between self and world—that we are made to understand the world, and the world made to be understood by us— then he is correct to call the Tao premise rather than a conclusion. After all, how can we make any truth claim without implicitly acknowledging the existence of such a possibility? And to be fair to Lewis, this general recognition of the possibility of truth claims is partly what he has in mind when he talks about the Tao.

But it is clear that he also means something else, a list of discrete values, supported by the specific intercultural examples provided as an appendix to the book (and one of which insists on the duty to die for one’s country). For Lewis, those who seek to challenge the Tao have no right to pick and choose among these specific principles: “The question therefore arises what title [the challenger] has to select bits of it for acceptance and to reject others. For if the bits he rejects have no authority, neither have those he retains.”

One can easily see the problem with this argument, as it seeks to reject challenges to specific instances via a kind of categorical defense, similar to the objection to integration on the grounds that it would disrupt the peaceful ordering of society. Perhaps aware of the rigid nature of his claims, Lewis eventually softens, claiming that he will admit questions or challenges to the Tao, but only “organic” ones, which come from those already initiated into it, rather than “surgical” ones from those outside, whose intent, in his mind, is to destroy all notions of value itself. More than anything else, Lewis claims, he objects to “challenging traditional morality to produce its credentials.”

How then, according to The Abolition of Man, does an educator begin to repair this breach between self and world, and ensure that the Tao remains the glue that holds civilization together for generations to come? Lewis claims that the answer lies in fostering the right kinds of sentiments about the world, ones that have been tested and proven and handed down by tradition. To apply this method to the example presented in The Green Book, the man who called the waterfall “pretty” would be in need of training of the emotions to be able to correctly identify sublimity when he sees it.

Lewis’ language in The Abolition of Man suggests that individuals in need of repairing their connection with the world are empty vessels in need of filling. He argues that the job of an educator is to “irrigate deserts,” a metaphor that implies the act of pouring wisdom into a lifeless void. He rightly decries modern educators for “conditioning” students and desiring to “produce” certain kinds of individuals, but, as in the case of dulce decorum est, he fails to consider that perhaps the traditional way also involved a kind of conditioning, albeit under a different banner:

In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao — a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike.

In passages like these, one can be forgiven for wondering whether following the Tao, as Lewis describes it, involves participation in a community or allegiance to a cult. Those who are within the Tao are initiated into it, trained in proper emotion and response. Because its principles are deductive, rather than inductive (“premises,” not “conclusions”), one must accept them on faith and authority, at least at first. If Lewis were talking about grade schoolers, one might not make too much of this description of an educational community.

But The Green Book was written for high schoolers—those who, according to the delineation of the classical trivium, are in the rhetorical stage. At this point in their intellectual development they should be exercising their independence, forming their own arguments and developing their own voices. Lewis, it seems, would still have them imitating their teachers, whom he describes as “old birds teaching young birds to fly.”

In his attempt to show that modern society is hopelessly relativistic, The Abolition of Man focuses on the objective instead of subjective experience. This may be appropriate for a cultural critique, but it is not a sound basis for a pedagogy. Any philosophy of education that does not ground itself in an understanding of the student as a human subject ends up treating him or her as an object to be shaped by the teacher or the curriculum. It encourages teacher-student relationships rooted in power rather than love. Though it may produce “right thinking” students for the time being, it does so through coercion and the easy but half-hearted assent of groupthink. In this system the student neither possesses freedom nor is prepared to exercise it in the future.

Unfortunately, such a pedagogy has taken root in many quarters of conservative Christianity. Some years ago I witnessed it first-hand when tutoring a homeschooled high school senior in English. His family used a pre-made curriculum popular among Catholic homeschoolers. When the time came to write his required senior thesis, I discovered that the curriculum had already prescribed his topic and his thesis statement for him. That’s correct—his actual argument, word-for-word, was pre-written by the homeschool curriculum. His task was to choose and analyze sources that would support that foregone conclusion. That conclusion, perhaps not surprisingly, concerned the merits of the Roe v. Wade decision.

It’s no matter that I more or less agreed with the argument the curriculum made. The coercion they used to get him to make it bothered me greatly, and still does to this day. Did they not trust him enough to allow him to think for himself? Would they have failed him if he reached a different conclusion than they did?

Just as Lewis argues that the principles of the Tao are premises, not conclusions, the homeschool curriculum treated the illegality of Roe v. Wade as something that must be argued from, not to. They hand-delivered the premise to their student to insert into his own writing, as if he were a second-grader rather than a senior in high school.

Education does not work that way. In the academic world, at least, one argues from observation to conclusion, not the other way around. A high school thesis paper, the culmination of twelve years of thinking and learning, should be the capstone of the student’s progress in inductive reasoning, not deductive. The Socratic Method is grounded in this process; dialogue must begin with sense observation and logic, which are accessible to all. Student questions are the driving force of the educational experience. Conclusions, never foregone, must always be open to examination and to further questioning. Otherwise, how would students ever come to know and understand them in the first place?

If you have spent any time in Christian education, as I have, you know that treating students as empty vessels into which tradition needs to be poured often results in deeply unhealthy classroom environments. Following this logic, the job of an education is to fill students with correct information and right opinions, which are possessed by the teachers or curricula. Arguments are not to be presented as arguments—since then they are open to questioning—but rather as bedrock truths. Often students are discouraged from speaking—and in some cases I’ve seen, prohibited from doing so—if they aim to challenge the opinion of the teacher, curriculum, or dogma of the Church. In my experience, one of two things happens in these situations. Either certain like-minded students form a cult-like following around certain teachers (since they alone possess the truth) or students grow disinterested and seethe quietly in their seats, as they realize they are being infantilized. Both scenarios expose the unhealthy fruit of an unhealthy pedagogy.

My intention is not to “cancel” Lewis or make him out to be an arch-villain. First and foremost, The Abolition of Man responds to a real and pressing problem within the study of English. And his larger oeuvre helps contextualize these strains of The Abolition of Man. The Screwtape Letters makes it clear that Lewis did not believe that ends can ever justify means, and Mere Christianity begins with an argument to natural law before making an argument from it. But the Abolition of Man alone concerns education, and its pedagogy must be addressed on its own terms.

At the end of Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” Socrates and Glaucon discuss the meaning of the well-known tale of the prisoners’ journey from darkness to light. More than anything else, Socrates insists, the allegory is about education. He explains how education works:

Education isn’t what some people declare it to be, namely, putting knowledge into souls that lack it, like putting sight into blind eyes… Education takes for granted that sight is there but that it isn’t turned the right way or looking where it ought to look, and it tries to redirect it appropriately.

In the Socratic understanding, education, as its root word suggests, doesn’t try to fill the student with knowledge or wisdom, but rather it attempts to bring out or lead forth (educere) that which is already within the student. It “redirects” the student’s gaze to rest upon things that, as in the allegory, are not shadows but real and substantial. It trusts that humans were made to understand the world, and the world was made to be understood by us.

The Socratic method follows suit. Socrates meets an individual, and asks him a series of questions that have the effect of revealing the individual’s assumptions about the world. Socrates points out apparent contradictions in those assumptions, causing the individual to reconsider and search for answers that both correspond to observation and do not violate the law of non-contradiction. Importantly, Socrates does not insert his beliefs into his pupil—he coaxes the pupil’s ideas forth and draws his or her attention to certain aspects of those beliefs.

At the heart of this Socratic understanding of education lies the student’s experience of the world. The progression from darkness to light, from confusion to truth, starts with what the student knows and moves outward. It proceeds from subjective experience to objective reality, without ever claiming to leave the former entirely behind.

Let me return, for a moment, to my opening example of the summer school students by the shore. Some were captivated by natural beauty, but others were bored. If I am inclined to follow the insights of Socrates and Plato, I must not dismiss out of hand their initial response to natural beauty, even if it is the “wrong” response. Of course, I can’t engage responses not offered in good faith, but if it is clear that some of my students are truly unmoved by the natural world, my work as a teacher begins there. Why do they have that reaction? What do they notice? What do they not notice? The students’ subjective feelings are not a reason to dismiss them as irredeemable victims of the modern world, but rather the starting point for their journey out of the cave.

Socrates’s definition of education makes it clear that the student is neither a desert nor an empty vessel; rather, he or she is more like garden in which seeds have lain dormant. That which enables the student to grow is already contained within. The poet W.H. Auden holds a similar position. In a lecture given at Swarthmore College in 1943 entitled “Vocation and Society,” he urges teachers, instead of inculcating in students certain ideas or feelings, to cultivate in them desire.

… we [should] be able to restrain our natural lust for power and approval, to exhibit in our relation to our pupils that careful indifference, that conscious refusal to help (which is, of course, only genuine in the degree to which we wish to help, in the degree to which refusal causes us suffering), which is, I believe, the proper educational obstacle to arouse subjective passion.

Auden claims, perhaps counterintuitively, that a certain amount of distance between teacher and student is necessary to allow the student to approach the truth freely. He posits this as a third way between the “traditional birch” and the “progressive lollipop,” both of which place the teacher’s will at the center of the pedagogy. “The gifts of the Spirit are not to be had second hand,” he claims, “and until the child has discovered his vocation…we should offer him…a vacuum. Once he finds it, he is no longer a pupil but a colleague…” Auden draws his metaphors in striking terms here, but his point is clear: a sound educational philosophy must treat the students as free human subjects, and orient itself around their growth.

But why is granting such freedom necessary, we might ask, if this leaves the door open to students getting things wrong? What if students, in their freedom, come to conclude that nature in boring, that God is not real, or that abortion-on-demand has liberated the human race?

The answer, I would argue, is two-fold. First, and foremost, God does not coerce us, and Christ refused to coerce his followers; therefore, we should reject any and all coercion in the name of evangelism. Assent to truth must be given freely.

Secondly, if we are made in God’s image, then this implies that we are already oriented towards God and everything good, true, and beautiful. Something like this is what Socrates implies when claiming that education can’t implant sight—instead, it proceeds from the assumption that sight is already present. We are not blank slates. Any pedagogy that does not give freedom to its students does not trust in the correspondence between ourselves and the world; in essence it denies that we were made in the image of God.

If the Tao is in fact what Lewis claims it to be, its principles must be conclusions before they can be considered premises. They must be argued to before they can be argued from. We must be able to arrive at them through observation and logic, and if they are timeless and universal, every generation should be able to observe the world around them and argue for the Tao afresh. Once we begin insisting, as Lewis does at points in The Abolition of Man, that this natural law must be accepted before it can be challenged, we are taking it out of the realm of education, indicating, perhaps, that we think it too fragile to endure honest questioning. Such a pedagogy considers reality itself to be but another screen in the cave with shadows thrown upon it. If teachers do not show students these particular shadows upon this particular screen, the thinking goes, they will turn out defective; all will be lost.

But of course, all is not lost.

The Christian contemplative tradition, albeit largely unexplored in its relationship to education, has much wisdom to offer those searching for a genuinely Christian pedagogy.[2] This tradition has many strains, but in general, contemplative prayer attempts to draw us closer to God by teaching us to detach ourselves from things that separate us from reality. These include our will, which desires self-preservation above all else, our imagination, which is constantly lured by distractions, and our emotions, which are inclined to react to every perceived bump in the road. Though interior stillness is not the goal of contemplation—union with God is—it is usually a desirable byproduct of it, as is attentiveness.

In 1942 the French philosopher Simone Weil, an adherent of the contemplative tradition, shared her reflections on Christian education in a letter to her friend Fr. Joseph-Marie Perrin, a Dominican in charge of a Catholic school. Written just a year before her death at age 34, the letter connects contemplation with education by way of cultivating the faculty of attention. Attention, in the contemplative sense, is not, as Weil points out, a furrowing of the brow or clenching of the muscles. Rather, it is a letting go of everything that is not the object of our study at the moment:

Attention consists of suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty, and ready to be penetrated by the object… All wrong translations, all absurdities in geometry problems, all clumsiness of style, and all faulty connection of ideas in compositions and essays, all such things are due to the fact that thought has seized upon some idea too hastily, and being thus prematurely blocked, is not open to the truth.

Put more succinctly, attention consists of a “negative effort.” Weil is talking in very practical terms here about very practical things. Any subject—Math, Science, Theology, Literature—if studied in this way, brings us closer to God. Her pedagogy remains entirely focused on means, not ends. If our method is correct, she implies, it will unfailingly lead us to the truth, since we are built for reality.

Though she has similar goals to Lewis, notice how much her prescription differs from his. Nowhere do we hear of the role of the teacher in “irrigating deserts” or “initiating the young neophyte into the mystery.” Weil starts with subjectivity and instructs us to train our students in how to respond to the world, not what to respond. Like Auden, the teacher pays an almost-invisible role, hinting, gesturing, and stepping aside. In this light, the job of teachers is to help students pay attention, to notice things properly. If reality is what we claim it to be, then it will shape students in the same way that sun and water nourish a growing plant.

Emotions are where Lewis begins his treatment of the subject of education—he wants to instill proper feelings, congruent with reality. In the contemplative tradition, however, the individual seeks to grow detached from feelings, and appropriately, nowhere does Weil in her letter appeal to them. Being moved in a particular way by reality is not a concern for Weil. Contemplation aims to take the soul through lush gardens and bone-dry deserts, through periods of consolation and desolation alike. St. John of the Cross identifies the Dark Night of the Senses and of the Spirit as particularly important (and inevitable) trials of purification for those seeking union with God.

Whether we are talking about a waterfall or the notion of dying for one’s country (to use Lewis’ examples), the way things make us feel is of secondary importance, in the contemplative view. Of primary importance is the disposition of the searcher—open to truth in whatever form it may take. Weil equates this with self-emptying, an essential act if we ever hope to understand the world, and each other: “The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth. Only he who is capable of attention can do this.”

The contemplative tradition would measure a Christian pedagogy by its ability to teach students to pay attention to reality, not to produce certain sentiments or hold certain ideas. To go back to The Green Book, contemplation would train the “incorrect” tourist in how to pay attention to the waterfall with greater sensitivity. Whether or not he has the right sentiment about it is a secondary concern—perhaps in his attentiveness he might find a term even more appropriate to describing it than “sublime.” Similarly, a student of a contemplative education would not be trained to think that it is necessarily sweet and lovely to die for one’s country, but rather to look closely at the reality of war, as at all things, and respond freely to what he or she notices. Perhaps Wilfred Owen was such a student.

Socrates, Auden, and Weil[3] are not concerned with students having the right opinions, but only the right vision. Socrates aims to “redirect” the sight of his pupils; Auden stresses the ultimate freedom of the student; Weil insists that learning, ultimately, can be a form of prayer: “The key to a Christian conception of studies is the realization that prayer consists of attention.” Each, in his or her own manner, makes it clear that the role of the teacher is to point the student in a certain direction, and then get out of the way.

At a time when secular and religious authorities alike lament the rise of the distraction economy, the contemplative emphasis on attention offers religious educators a path forward with the potential for a broad appeal. It also offers us a chance to bear witness to our belief that God created us uniquely in his image. A Christian education believes that we were built for reality, and in coming to know that reality, our students come to know God. Our trust in this relationship—or lack thereof—is manifest in everything we do. “There lives the dearest freshness deep down things,” Gerard Manley Hopkins said of the natural world, and the same may be said of us. The job of Christian educators is to coax this freshness to the surface, to help students unlock the image of God that is already within.

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  1. The actual story, recounted by Dorothy Wordsworth, differs in significant ways. See
  2. Contemplation means many things to many people; here I am referring to the tradition of silent prayer found in the earliest Church fathers, and taught by such figures as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and Thomas Merton.
  3. Here and more broadly in this essay, I am indebted to Alan Jacobs’ superb book The Year of Our Lord 1943 for placing Weil, Auden, and Lewis into context with each other and with Christian education. For more of my thoughts on the book’s relevance to education, see my review in Marginalia: