Irrigating Deserts: C.S. Lewis on Education by Joel D. Heck

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.” C.S. Lewis, “Men Without Chests,” Abolition of Man

One of the reasons that I am drawn to Lewis is that he holds multiple vocations together. In my own life, I try to integrate the tasks of teaching academic, writer, and spiritual director—aspects of my C.S. Lewis on Educationcalling that sometimes feel disconnected and other times synchronize beautifully. Lewis was a writer, scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, but also felt that pastoral responsibility to those who found his books challenging in their lives. It would seem on the outside that these streams of gifting would be complementary, but at Oxford especially, Lewis’ career paid a price for writing popularly—he was considered a kind of dime store academic by his colleagues, especially when he moved into the fields of apologetics and theology, the very things that made him famous in Britain and America. While CBC in Canada and NPR in the U.S. typically turn to academics who write and speak popularly to bring credible voices to their social conversations, when C.S. Lewis gave lectures for normal folk on BBC, he transgressed the boundaries of an Oxbridge academic. He was shunned, academically speaking, and never became a full professor until he had already been teaching for thirty years.

My interest in the tensions of Lewis’ vocation led me to this 2005 book, Irrigating Deserts: C. S. Lewis on Education by Concordia professor Joel D. Heck. Dr. Heck argues that Lewis’ primary vocation was educator, and that all aspects of his work follow his educational calling. As far as I know, this was the first full book on Lewis and teaching up until that point, an astonishing discovery by Heck if Lewis’ central vocation was indeed teaching. I’m presenting a paper on teaching C.S. Lewis at the C.S. Lewis and the Inklings Colloquium at Taylor University, so I thought I should give it a read.

There are a number of features in Irrigating Deserts that I found eminently helpful. Heck gives a description of the complex Oxford-Cambridge (Oxbridge) educational system, which is quite foreign to most North Americans. In particular, I never understood the significance of the fact that, as a young man after WWI, Lewis was exceptional in receiving three “firsts” at Oxford. To me, I assumed that meant he was a triple major in English, Philosophy, and Classics. This is partly accurate, but it also equivalent to earning a 4.0 GPA in each of these disciplines. As best as I can judge, the Bachelor work in Lewis’ day was at a graduate level, and with a few years as a tutor he automatically received an M.A. Heck also explained why Lewis never pursued a PhD—believe it or not, it would limit his career path toward a professorship—and how tenuous Lewis’ teaching career was in his first few years. For me, Lewis educational biography took on a fuller meaning.

Beyond explaining the complex ins and outs of the Oxbridge tutorial system, Heck gave me an intellectual geography for Lewis’ writing and teaching. Heck carefully explained the intellectual climate at Oxford as it shifted from the 1920s to the pre-WWII period, and then shifted again in the post-war period. This contextual map allowed me to put Lewis’ work in contexts that I hadn’t imagined. In particular, I had no real sense of how popular Lewis was as a lecturer, how much work his tutorials were, and yet how counter-cultural his beliefs were at modern Oxford. By far Heck’s strongest work is his integration of dozens of reports from Lewis’ own students, which he carefully collected and then used to give an image of Lewis when he was leading his one-on-one tutorials (which took up much of his week) and his famously popular lectures. Heck truly gives us access to unheard voices closest to Lewis when he was farthest from the international Christian superstar spotlight, in the shabby chambers of the New Building at Magdalen College.

Perhaps my favourite parts of Irrigating Deserts were the chapters on Lewis as a reader—in the 1920s he managed to read 3-4 books a week (that we know of)—and the intellectual value of reading and rereading books. As I chip away at my own reading—this short academic book took a week—I find it a bit depressing just how much he was able to read, and how much he could remember. Time after time, Lewis’ colleagues and students talk about how he had almost a photographic memory for the content of books. He read widely, and forgot nothing that he read. Yet he put great intellectual stock in rereading. As impossible as the feats in these chapter seem, the stories themselves were a lot of fun to read.

While there is much to commend itself about this book, I was also disappointed on a few points. The writing was basically good and quite functional, but not nearly as creative and organic as the subject by C.S. Lewismatter deserves. I truly appreciate its brevity—Heck is not lost in the verbose insecurity—but I think it was organizationally problematic. After a brief introduction to Lewis’ intellectual interior life, we go to two chapters on Lewis’ understand of the purpose and practice of education and the curriculum. These chapters are followed then by the chapter on reading and rereading, then Lewis as a student and teacher. This approach is unfortunate, since Lewis’ views are given to us artificially in the first chapters, rather than drawn out of his educational biography. Even within the chapters, we see the need for more editorial work. For example, three times Heck mentions the fact that Lewis flunked the math exam for Oxford entrance, but it isn’t until the third time that we understand why he did, and what the implications were. Editorial tightening was desperately needed.

What was keenly missing for me was the depth of Lewis’ philosophical understanding of teaching.  The first two chapters address it, but they are not nearly as deep as they could be and should, I think, take up a large chunk of a book subtitled C.S. Lewis on Education. After reading, I understand much better the education of Lewis, and the functional reality of his teaching, but not the difficult journey of his own methodology. These aspects are not totally absent, but lack the focus and depth that this kind of treatment requires. Especially, as the book ends, we are missing the pedagogical implications—the “what do we do now?” reality of Lewis’ own approach. I walk away from Irrigating Deserts with no real sense of how I can improve my own teaching, what implications Lewis’ pedagogical views have for our crumbling university scene, or even the full ramifications of what it would mean to “irrigate deserts” instead of “cut down jungles” in the 21st century. As a lecturer and university administrator (VP Academic at Concordia University, Austin, TX) I am certain that Heck has views on these things, but they are largely absent from the book.

I am careful not to judge a book by what it is not, rather than by what it is. However, Irrigating Deserts is published by an academic publisher. This book is the foundation for a further-edited piece that absolutely should have been published, and is worthy of the Marion E. Wade research award based on the idea of the book alone. However, the editors did a disservice to Prof. Heck in allowing the book to finalize in its current form. In general, the lack of critical attention to the editing of Irrigating Deserts is in continuity with the lack of critique of Lewis himself. There is a hint that shy or demure students were intimidated by this giant Oxford intellectual, and in one of his very useful appendices Heck humorously points out how Lewis misread an English curriculum report, but other than that we were lacking any real critique of Lewis’ thoughts or approaches. Perhaps St. Lewis is impenetrable as a logician and impervious to critique, but I would have liked to see Heck try. After all, one of Lewis’ great gifts was the critical lens with which he viewed the world.

With all these critiques in view, I still recommend Irrigating Deserts. It is, I hope, the first step in a generation-long conversation about whether, or how, Lewis is relevant to teaching today, as we sit within a mounting crisis of liberal arts education: I believe we are in great danger of becoming “Men Without Chests,” citizens of a state where we have great knowledge, technical abilities, but no moral courage to live as something other than economic units in a technocratic world. Indeed, it is Lewis’ relevant critique today that I find so helpful in my vocation as educator. Although Heck does not draw together the threads of that critique, he does give us a pretty good foundation for readers to launch the critique themselves.

Throughout his entire adult Christian life, Lewis held the various streams of his vocation in tension. While my calling probably more closely matches Frederick Beuchner’s than C.S. Lewis’, I am able to learn from Lewis’ vocational journey. I am grateful for Dr. Heck’s book in that it gave me a biography of Lewis that is focused in a way that other biographies are not. I am unconvinced that C.S. Lewis’ primary vocation was, as Heck argues, one of an educator. But the way Lewis drew that particular calling into his entire approach to life inspires me to more critically appraise myself of my vocational tasks, even when faced by public opposition, an impossible workload, and a social climate that is inherently contradictory to my worldview.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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10 Responses to Irrigating Deserts: C.S. Lewis on Education by Joel D. Heck

  1. Excellent and thoughtful review. I’ve proposed a thematic issue of “Sehnsucht: The C.S. Lewis Journal” on Lewis as Educator, and perhaps (if we do it in the next few years) we can continue to build on the foundation Heck has laid.


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