“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.”
From C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man, his only truly public square monograph, in which he critiqued the loss of humanness in the progressive educational reforms of Britain in the 1940s. In a word, he believed that something crucial was happening that would have destructive consequences for English people and their society, that an “abolition” of the very meaning of man was taking place. By design, by intent, by purpose.
The “chest” is the long image of what it is that makes for character in human beings. Not the head or the guts, but something in-between, that which mediates, communicating between our minds and our feelings, bringing about a coherence that is critical for our flourishing as people. We can call it various things, but Lewis prefers “chests”— and what he is after is “character,” who we are characteristically, our habits of heart, born of settled choices about the meaning of life
I have thought about this over the last few days at the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, MO, near Branson, south of Springfield, about three hours from Kansas City. An unusual school in every way, for 100 years they have been working at a principled vision of learning, one that very few institutions of higher education ever even imagine. Born of a desire to assist the families of Missouri’s southwestern corner who had no ability to send their children to college, it was a work/study curriculum from the start. Over the decades of the 20th-century its hopes and programs have evolved, and a century later it is a remarkably strong school with one of the most competitive acceptance rates in the country, and a very healthy endowment.
Its hallmark is that the students work as they study, and when they graduate they have no debt. For 15 hours per week, the students are employed across the college in a host of work settings, becoming an integral part of the economic well-being of the college. From their beautiful inn, the Keeter Center, a small hotel with a farm-to-table restaurant that offers an unparalleled excellence in service, to their farms featuring beef and dairy cattle, sheep and hogs, to the dairy production facility which offers milk and ice cream to the community, to their meat packing facility which processes the meat from the farms, to their mill which grinds grains grown at the school, to the computer center serving the school, to the water treatment plant that serves the neighborhood, to the on-campus fire department, to the campus health clinic, to the campus power plant, to arts studios of various kinds producing fabric and pottery, to work stations across the campus in departments and offices of every kind, the students make the college work in and through their work.
It is simply amazing.
But the belief that work matters is set within a deeper, longer vision of the good life and the good society. So while honest conversations about vocation and occupation are central to the school’s reason-for-being, the conviction that character is central to human flourishing runs through the rich curricular architecture of the college. And so they talk a lot about being someone of character— yes, about “virtue, enterprise and honour” —and what that means in and out of the classroom; especially about the ways that that is learned in and through the work of one’s hands and head and heart.
Like everyone else, like everywhere else, the College of the Ozarks is on a pilgrimage towards who and what it wants to be. There are still conversations to be had about the whats and wherefores of learning, and those will continue on as long as the college exists, as they must.
Why am I here? A year ago I was asked to speak to their faculty about the task of teaching. For some time the academic dean has required his new faculty to read The Fabric of Faithfulness, and then think through their discipline in its light. So professors of biology and mathematics, communications and psychology, agriculture and the arts, business and music, and more, have each found their way into my work, wrestling with what they do and why they do it. And now the “Visions of Vocation” is making its way into the college’s conversation as well. I have found myself “implicated” in who they are and what they do— and am glad to be.
I will be eager to see what happens here. To take up this kind of richly-wrought vision of learning in the face of the complex challenges of pluralization, of secularization, and of globalization, is increasingly difficult— but it matters, not only for the college, but for all of us. Lewis was prescient, seeing into history, not only for his country, but for the West and the world. At the dawn of the 21st-century, we celebrate dishonor, even imagining that public fools would make good leaders, pretending that public lies don’t matter that much for the good of our republic, for the common good of these United States.
That the College of the Ozarks has so seriously set forth an education that equally honors “head and heart and hands” makes it a remarkable school, in its very soul remembering the rich complexity of our humanness. No one laughs at honor here; rather they have made the question of character the foundation upon which everything they are and do is founded.
It was a gift to be here, and yes, I honor their vision, and the virtue and enterprise that is born from it.