“Integrity” and “Research”: Two Evils of the University According to C.S. Lewis


Oxfordshire, Oxford, Magdalen College IIIn his mid-50s, after a devoting more than 35 years to Oxford as a student and teacher, C.S. Lewis moved to the “other university”: Cambridge. A year or so after taking his Chair, he wrote for The Cambridge Review, outlining the differences between the two great universities. It is a fun and pointed article that you can now find called “Interim Report” in Present Concerns.

The article tells us more about Lewis than it does about either school, I think. It is soaked with humour and self-criticism. But it is also a ferocious critique of culture and education.

After looking at differences and similarities between the two schools, Lewis warned that not all the similarities are good ones. “I left behind me two evils,” Lewis said, “Which I meet again here.”

When you think of campus life you might think of any number of evils. On English speaking campuses throughout the world, rape and sexual assault are key issues. Apathy abounds—indeed, for many students, professors, and administration, any sort of challenge is viewed as an evil itself. The curriculum is slipping in its standards and the marketplace is expecting more and more.

As far as campus evils go, to use Lewis’ early idea from The Abolition of Man, I believe we have devastatingly dissected the student’s experience. In Plato’s idea, humans are made up of heads (minds), hands (our making abilities), and chests or hearts. By the 20th century we had created universities that are strong on intellect and efficient in productivity, but that no longer taught about spirit, hope, love, drive, despair, ingenuity, and courage. Here is Lewis’ obituary of student life at the time:

by C.S. LewisAnd all the time—such is the tragi-comedy of our situation—we continue to clamour for those very qualities we are rendering impossible. You can hardly open a periodical without coming across the statement that what our civilization needs is more ‘drive’, or dynamism, or self-sacrifice, or ‘creativity’. In a sort of ghastly simplicity we 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 (“Men Without Chests”).

The failure of our education for students might be an evil worth pointing out.

Instead, Lewis decides to point out two great evils that Oxford and Cambridge share: Integrity and Research.

The first needs to be handled with some delicacy, perhaps with more delicacy than I possess, but it is too grave to be passed over in silence. At both places the majority of undergraduates seem to me to be very nice people; much nicer than the pre-1914 vintage as depicted by Sir Compton Mackenzie (Note: in Sinister Street (two volumes, 1913-1914)).

But at both there is a minority of unhappy young men really very like the “malcontents” who provide villains for Jacobean drama. They seem to have some grudge or grievance; tense, tight-lipped, hot-eyed, beatle-browed boys, with cheeks as drab, but not so smooth, as putty. They are rude, not with the forgivable gaucherie of inexperienced youth (I hate an oldster who is querulous about that; we have all been cubs in our time) but, as it seems, on principle; in the cause of “integrity” or some other equally detestable virtue.

They matter for two reasons. First, they raise a fear that there may be something wrong about our method of intake, or its quantity (academic overproduction is possibly a real danger) or the structure of the educational ladder—in itself an admirable thing. Secondly, I fear that if this type continues it will in the next thirty years prove an extremely disastrous element in our national life. These are future schoolmasters and journalists or, worse still, unemployables with degrees. They could do great harm.

The other evil (in my view) is the incubus of “Research”. The system was, I believe, first devised to attract the Americans and to emulate the scientists. But the wisest Americans are themselves already sick of it; as one of them said to me, “I guess we got to come to giving every citizen a Ph.D. shortly after birth, same as baptism and vaccination.”

And it is surely clear by now that the needs of the humanities are different from those of the sciences. In science, I gather, a young student fresh from his First in the Tripos can really share in the work of one of his seniors in a way that is useful to himself and even to the subject. But this is not true of the man who has just got his First in English or Modern Languages. Such a man, far from being able or anxious (he is by definition no fool) to add to the sum of human knowledge, wants to acquire a good deal more of the knowledge we already have. He has lately begun to discover how many more things he needs to know in order to follow up his budding interests; that he needs economics, or theology, or philosophy, or archaeology (and always a few more languages). To head him off from these studies, to pinfold him in some small inquiry whose chief claim often is that no one has ever made it before, is cruel and frustrating. It wastes such years as he will never have again; for an old proverb says that “All the speed is in the morning”.

What keeps the system going is the fact that it becomes increasingly difficult to get an academic job without a “research degree”.

Lewis at His DeskThe character of the first “evil” has become a caricature that has developed through time from the revolutionary to the beatnik to the hippy to the cruel distant poet to the hipster who is too cool for school. But the second “evil” touches very close to home, since I am someone who is doing a research PhD, aiming to work in a university that will require a research PhD where I have narrowed my sights and become an expert in my field. And, I’m doing that degree on C.S. Lewis–the author of this shattering criticism.

It is a startlingly relevant criticism of the academy of today, even as someone who thinks that research degrees can be a good idea (as I do).

I will leave the reader with a slightly adapted version of the last question C.S. Lewis leaves us in this section:

Can the university do anything by combining to break down this bad usage?

Can it? I’m not sure.

Can anyone?

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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23 Responses to “Integrity” and “Research”: Two Evils of the University According to C.S. Lewis

  1. Callum Beck says:

    When teaching part-time at University and considering doing my PhD, I really thought I would be more useful to my students to “to acquire a good deal more of the knowledge we already have” than to “add to the sum of human knowledge.” Having finished my PhD i am now convinced that, at least in my case, the research degree was better. Part of that was doing the British degree, where I did not have to do the theoretical course work required in an American degree, and part of it was that my research was so relevant to the community in which I reside. I also learned how to incorporate my students into my research so that we truly were a community of learning, and their research helped shape my conclusions. Still, I think Lewis’s point is probably generally true; for Arts programs the teachers are generally better to get a wide grounding in general knowledge than they are to research some minutia that has little wider relevance. At the same time, there is a value just in the process of doing the research, whether or not the results are particularly relevant.


    • I think we are so far down this road we are never going back. But the “teaching position” is going to become increasingly popular.
      Mostly, we will be left with the question: how do I integrate research, teaching, and service?


  2. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    A footnote more than a comment:

    Arend Smilde’s handy online list of Lewis’s short pieces gives April 1956 for this.

    It might be interesting to compare it with Tolkien’s Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford delivered on 5 June 1959, of which Christopher provides a previously unpublished version in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays (1983). I see my memory has conflated a phrase from it – “sausage-machine” – with an anecdote from a 1 November 1963 letter to his son, Michael. “Contemplating the workings of the B.Litt. sausage-machine, I have at times dared to think that some of the botuli, or farcimina, turned out were hardly either tasty or nourishing, even when they claimed to be ‘literary’.” And, “Years before I had rejected as disgusting cynicism by an old vulgarian the words of warning given me by old Joe Wright. ‘What do you take Oxford for, lad?’ ‘A university, a place of learning.’ ‘Nay lad, it’s a factory! And what’s it making? I’ll tell you. It’s making fees. Get that in your head, and you’ll begin to understand what goes on.’ Alas! by 1935 I now knew that it was perfectly true.”

    Very interesting in comparison with what you quote is Tolkien, in his Valedictory, on “rewarding reading and learning at least equally with minor research”.

    It might also be interesting to compare both Lewis’s Interim Report and Tolkien’s Valedictory with Lewis’s “The Idea of an ‘English School’ ” and “Our English Syllabus”, both published in Rehabilitations and Other Essays (1939).

    I see that Internet Archives has scans of various English, American, and Canadian editions of Sinister Street (including a new 1949 edition with a new foreword), and that Project Gutenberg has a transcription. It has been well-recommended to me, but I still have not yet read it…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Re the first point: I’m reminded of an earlier post by you – ‘Letters to the Editor in Response to C.S. Lewis’s “Dangers of National Repentance”. The letter in question made a valid point. Lewis did have his detractors – the young Betjemain wasn’t a fan, for one.


  4. I’d love a little more in-depth explanation on why he finds “integrity” an evil – if you have time, I’m finding it a little confusing!


    • It’s kind of weird. But–I may be wrong here–I think he is referring to a certain cool character, a kind of 1950s detached poet or scholar who walks around as if he is too good for the program that he is in. Lewis would find a personality insipid if it valued “integrity” as a general principle, and yet struggle to communicate what sorts of integrity you might have. He might have done the same with “spirituality” in our age. What is the good of “Faith” if you can articulate what the faith is in? Hope, courage–all the virtues would turn sour when not applied to the proper end. Henry VIII’s problem wasn’t that he had no religious integrity. Indeed, he had far too much for most people’s liking.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. L. Palmer says:

    I chose my graduate program because it is more practice-based than research-based. Our professors work on projects which are a combination of academic research and assisting government and nonprofit organizations. Having come from a strongly academic research university, it’s interesting to see the difference. I think the combination of being able to research something in depth while also having actual employable skills (a strange need in a capitalist market) is helpful – although, I’m working on becoming a public sector administrator, and not a professor.


    • Can I ask: Did your school specifically communicate the connections between your education and marketplace tools? I ask because there is a lot that is learned in a PhD or MA on the academic side, but those skills are never highlighted, named. The student will leave the program without the language to speak in business worlds about what they can do.


      • L. Palmer says:

        Yes – the program I’m in is very clear about developing and blending both the theoretical and practical knowledge. This is a professional based program in a business school, rather than an academic program, so it’s a bit of a different community.


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