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Teaching Objective Values in an Age of Gurus
As C.S. Lewis noted in ‘The Abolition of Man,’ moral relativism leaves young people particularly vulnerable to propaganda and manipulation
By Samantha Hedges
We are living in a golden age of gurus. TikTok, Instagram and YouTube have given rise to influencers who make a living sharing life hacks, tips for success, ideas about how the world works (whether rooted in reality or not) and claims about what their followers should value. We have greater access to celebrities than ever before, and their lifestyles and opinions guide the lives of many. Meanwhile, relativism—the view that truth and falsehood, right and wrong are not universal but products of differing conventions—is a prominent framework many use to understand the world. If we peer through this lens, we can easily slip into subjectivism, believing that judgments about truth and morality are simply expressions of our own feelings.
Without a recognition that some things are true and some false, some actions right and others wrong, young people in particular are at risk of conforming their opinions to the opinions of those they look up to and follow, whether internet influencers, celebrities or friends. This is not a new problem. Famed British writer, scholar and philosopher C.S. Lewis warns of the danger in his 1943 work “The Abolition of Man”: Without a framework through which to evaluate claims about the world, the young become prey for propagandists.
Emotions and Reality
In “The Abolition of Man,” Lewis notes that in World War II-era Europe, some educators were concerned that sentimental individuals were being easily swayed by emotional propaganda. This concern resulted in pedagogical efforts to “fortify the minds of young people against emotions.” But Lewis saw the true problem as the opposite: In his view, many young people were led astray by their lack of sentiment, along with their acceptance of the prevailing cultural message that emotions are just subjective feelings standing in opposition to rational intellect.
Contrary to that message, Lewis argues that emotions are not divorced from objective reality; rather, they are appropriate (or not) to the extent that they conform to reality. Lewis examines this idea through the lens of an elementary school grammar textbook that he’d been sent for review. The book recounted a well-known story from Coleridge about a tourist who called a certain waterfall “sublime.” The textbook’s authors claimed that the tourist was merely commenting on how he felt about the waterfall, but Lewis argues that the tourist was making a statement that conformed to reality. Some waterfalls really are sublime; therefore, the tourist’s emotions were appropriate or, as Lewis puts it, “ordinate to reality.”
Lewis points to patriotism as another example, one particularly resonant in wartime: A person’s love for his or her country and willingness to die for it also conforms to reality, because humans’ natural inclination is to feel a sense of attachment or connection to where they were born and raised. The sentiment is not only subjective but also reasonable.
Today the emotional responses of young people are either dismissed as unscientific, subjective feelings divorced from reality or celebrated as noteworthy products of their lived experience and therefore above critique. In both scenarios, no one considers whether the emotional dispositions of the young are rooted in a set of objective values. Without being rooted in such a framework, young people are more likely to fall prey to the gurus: the influencers who set out to shape their worldview. When the young lack first principles—a core set of values according to which they operate—what they value will be determined by the propagandists, whom Lewis calls “conditioners.”
Going back to the patriotism example, if people value their heritage and truly love their country, their homeland, then they take seriously the necessity to both defend it and improve it. They cannot be swayed by influencers who say they ought to hate it and everything about it, nor by those who decry any criticism as treasonous.
Lewis points to one of his own flaws to provide another example. He admits to not “enjoying the society of small children,” but he recognizes that this is a personal failing, not a properly ordered sentiment. Therefore, he could not be convinced by a guru that disliking the company of children is an acceptable human reaction simply because it’s his lived experience.
Teaching the Tao
To avoid allowing the young to become prey for propagandists, Lewis argues for inculcating in them a doctrine of objective moral values—first principles—which he calls the Tao or the Way. He claims that most worldviews throughout history, including the Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian and Eastern traditions, teach this doctrine of objective value: “[t]he belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false.” Attitudes or emotional responses, according to Lewis, are alogical, but they can either conform to reason or not. Objective values are what guide us as we determine whether our emotional response to some claim an internet guru has made is appropriate or inappropriate.
Essentially, Lewis advocates for educating the young using a framework that acknowledges the existence of truth and falsehood, recognizing that emotional responses can, and ought to, conform to reality. When young people follow the Tao, Lewis explains, their agreements or disagreements are responses to the objective order; thus, emotional states can be in harmony with reason or out of harmony with it.
According to Lewis, the task of those charged with educating the young is not to eliminate their emotions—which are a core element of being human—but rather to encourage sentiments that conform to objective values. In other words, their task is to train emotions.
To achieve this, Lewis advocates for traditional education, which is (as the phrase implies) education rooted in a tradition. He assumes—or wishes—that students and teachers are operating within a shared set of values, but any tradition will do so long as it recognizes objective value and aims to correspond with reality. The goal of education then becomes not merely shaping the young’s emotional responses but transmitting human heritage.
Traditional educators, according to Lewis, initiate “the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity,” which encompasses teacher and students alike. Educators are, as Lewis puts it, “old birds teaching young birds to fly.” They teach using human exemplars and show how our nature—our rationality, our emotions and our appetites—dictates how we process and respond to inputs.
A liberal arts education, for example, achieves Lewis’ aim through the texts students read. The character Antigone, in Sophocles’ tragedy of the same name, faces capital punishment for defying the king to give her brother a proper burial. She does what is morally right by her brother despite the risk to her own life. Euripides’ Medea, on the other hand, commits a morally reprehensible act by murdering her children in an act of revenge against her husband. Both texts provide the opportunity to discuss and nurture appropriate emotional responses to moral questions.
When young people are armed with a doctrine of objective value, they can confront the gurus of this age properly prepared to either agree or disagree with their claims rather than blindly accept whatever they are selling. And these young people will understand that emotional responses don’t need to be completely stripped away—nor should they haphazardly drive how people react to content they encounter on the internet. Young people trained in this way will be prepared to objectively filter value-based claims and respond to them appropriately.