03 June 2008
“The Parthenon and the Optative”
C. S. Lewis opens his essay by the above title (which I found in his collection On Stories) with a remark from “a grim old classical scholar” as he was marking college entrance exams: “The trouble with these boys is that the masters have been talking to them about the Parthenon when they should have been talking about the Optative.”
Lewis then explains what is meant by the two terms as symbols of two types of education: “The [Optative] begins with hard, dry things like grammar, and dates, and prosody; and it has at least the chance of ending in a real appreciation which is equally hard and firm though not equally dry. The [Parthenon] begins in ‘Appreciation’ and ends in gush. When the first fails it has, at the very least, taught the boy what knowledge is like. He may decide that he doesn't care for knowledge; but he knows he doesn't care for it, and he knows he hasn't got it. But the other kind fails most disastrously when it most succeeds. It teaches a man to feel vaguely cultured while he remains in fact a dunce. It makes him think he is enjoying poems he can't construe. It qualifies him to review books he does not understand, and to be intellectual without intellect. It plays havoc with the very distinction between truth and error."
He goes on to discuss the purpose of examinations: “to find out whether the boy had read his books. It was the reading, not the being examined, which was expected to do him good.” They are not to determine if his soul has been touched, if he sufficiently appreciates literature and is moved by it. These things cannot be tested – but if the student does the reading well, then “[a]t best he may have learned [. . .] to enjoy a great poem. At second best he has done an honest work and exercised his memory and reason. At worst, we have done him no harm [. . .].”
His final paragraph addresses the laments of people who claim they would have loved poetry if they’d never had to take exams over it. “It is theoretically possible,” Lewis muses. “Perhaps they would by now have been saints if no one had ever examined them in Scripture. Perhaps they would have been strategists or heroes if they had never been put into the school OTC. It may be so: but why should we believe that it is. We have only their word for it; and how do they know?”
I think I shall have to place this essay before my students . . .
My favorite line, though, is this: “I am not sure that the best way to make a boy love the English poets might not be to forbid him to read them and then make sure that he had plenty of opportunities to disobey you.” Definitely a man who knew human nature!