Off to Narnia for therapy

6th January 2006 at 00:00
Post-Christmas ennui and enfeeblement are best assuaged by reading children's books. Even better if you find the battered old copy you read at nine years old.

Supine on the bed with E Nesbit or Phillippa Pearce, we can for a while fend off the strenuous new year and the distant clamour of family rows.

Nobody can touch us. The washing-up can do itself.

So in honour of the new Narnia film (ace beavers, sweet Lucy, and the campest Mr Tumnus who ever pranced on hooves) I spent the Christmas break re-reading the seven CS Lewis books.

If you have just crumpled the poor old TES in disgust, ranting about Christian propaganda and parroting flouncey old Philip Pullmanisms against "racism and misogyny", then I bid you a respectful goodbye for now. Each to his own.

But what fascinated me this time were glimpses of Lewis's views on schools, which are sometimes exceedingly stroppy.

The children go off to boarding schools, but he holds no particular brief for these. Edmund's spiteful nastiness, we are told, is caused by "that rotten school", Lucy magically overhears two nasty girls gossiping about her in the Dawn Treader book, and Professor Kirke is forever grumbling, "Bless my soul. What DO they teach them in these schools?"

His main beef seems to be that they do not do logic or Plato. Clearly he would approve of the traditional Jesuit model, in which you do symbolic logic at 11, moving on to human psychology and then, in the sixth form, elements of philosophy. I did a version of that at two of my foreign convents, and very interesting it was. Given the new rhetoric about "emotional and spiritual literacy" and "enhanced thinking skills", he is not that off-beam.

But the most complete school portrait comes with Eustace, the prig who calls his parents Harold and Alberta, and who has to be turned into a dragon to teach him to be nice. He appears in the Dawn Treader, then later escapes from his progressive school for the terrifying adventure of The Silver Chair.

Lewis is extraordinarily economical with words. As an adult, it is almost shocking to find out how short the books are compared with the huge tracts of imaginative memory they inspired. But he devotes quite a few words to Experiment House school.

Some have said it is a critique of AS Neill's Summerhill because of the freestyle teaching and the policy of talking to bullies rather than bashing them. But the Summerhill theory does not wash - there is no democracy and the children call each other by surnames and use public-school slang.

More indicative is the glimpse of the curriculum. Eustace knows lots of facts, dissects poetry by prating about "assonance" but never feels its power, and the library is full of books about "exports and imports, and fat foreign children doing exercises in model schools".

There is no acknowledgement of magic or religion. Eustace's conception of art is also at odds with the Narnia children's - they like a picture of a ship because it looks like a real ship on real sea, and he says it is a rotten picture for the same reason. He has clearly been got at by a progressive art teacher of the 1950s.

Experiment House is not a Neillian free-school but merely the beginning of modern education in general, with public-school bullying bolted on. Lewis, from his safe haven at Magdalen, was remembering the latter and deploring the former.

The nastiness of school is still fresh in his heart, but at the same time the evolving late 20th-century curriculum is everything that he deplores.

Later on, Mark Studdock in That Hideous Strength is described as one whose education had been "neither classical nor scientific, but merely 'modern'", with the result that his head held "not one rag of noble thought, Christian or pagan".

Lewis saw that the educational world had discarded the things he cherished - devoutness, chivalry and medievalist wonder. Yet it had not even properly embraced the rigours of the new scientific world (which he also deplored, in his sci-fi novels, regarding space travel as a way to spread original sin across a pristine universe).

It is a strange, skewed, almost endearing viewpoint. You could argue with it all night, and grow unspeakably pompous on the subject. But note his last word from Experiment House, whose problems stem from a bad head.

"When they saw she was no use as a head," he says, "they made her a schools inspector to interfere with other heads." But she was no good at that either, so she went into Parliament and lived happily ever after.

So there is the Lewis manifesto: better libraries, more figurative art, less bullying, a bit of Plato and a bracing contempt for school inspectors and government ministers. Oh, come on, you could do worse.

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