In an essay on education in Image and Imagination, C.S. Lewis explains the difference between schools and colleges. He says that in schools, the primary activity is teaching, and therefore students are absolutely essential. A teacher must have a student to teach, otherwise he is sunk. However, students are not necessary for colleges. Colleges, as originally imagined were communities of scholars, a faculty of fellows given to particular studies, and importantly, they did so for the love of that body of knowledge. Other, younger students certainly might join the scholar in his pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but it certainly wasn’t necessary and wasn’t the primary focus.
Lewis recognizes that often this pure vision is impossible to execute for various practical reasons, but he insists that the goal is still necessary to pursue for the existence of civilization. Lewis argues that civilization rests upon leisure. And by leisure, Lewis does not mean empty spaces on the calendar or vacations or mere accumulation of free time. Rather, he means time and energy and the sort of creative, imaginative space required to not only carry out vocations with skill and excellence, but also to explore the sciences and arts and other ventures for the good of society. By leisure, Lewis means free time and energy used to pursue the good. In other words, the existence of colleges that aim for a community of scholars given to the pursuit of learning for the love of knowledge and wisdom is the way such souls are formed. Particular skills can and must be taught in various ways; vocations must be chosen and learned. But when a mechanic has finished his labors for the day, what will he do for the evening, on the weekend, for holiday? If his training has only given him a narrow set of skills, apart from the grace of God and natural curiosity and love for learning, there’s a gaping hole in his soul. And in a decadent culture like our own, binge watching sitcoms on Netflix and draining a 24-pack of Keystone Light becomes the habitus of civilization in decline.
I find a great deal of this helpful, not to mention inspiring, though questions of money and class do occur to me. How does a college fund such fellowships where “students” are unnecessary (though welcome)? And does this necessarily imply that only the relatively wealthy may be culture makers and civilization savers?