Autonomy of means and education

Though not as well known as his friends J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams (1886–1945) was nevertheless an active member of the Inklings throughout most of its lifetime, and displayed a powerful, if somewhat eccentric, spiritual insight. He wrote seven odd metaphysical novels that haven’t ever quite caught the imagination of mainstream readers, but which have had a fervent following among a few; he also wrote a number of plays and various works of literary analysis, and The Descent of the Dove, a history of the Holy Spirit in the church. It would be hard to imagine a more daring enterprise.

He also wrote two slim volumes of poetry. His poetic style is odd, his imagery occasionally encumbered with a kind of private symbolic vocabulary that defies casual analysis, and his points are frequently highly abstract and obscure. For all that, I personally think that these two books — Taliessin through Logres (1938) and The Region of the Summer Stars (1944) — are the pinnacle of his creative achievement. He was admired by such prominent poetic luminaries as W.H. Auden, who wrote a kind of hommage to him on his death. But Williams’ unique power, I think, comes largely from his capacity to articulate transcendent truths that slice through every aspect of life — often drawing steely, almost brutally realistic distinctions that are nevertheless rooted in the love of Christ.

Partway through the first of those volumes is a poem entitled “Bors to Elayne: on the King’s Coins”. It is about the introduction of a money economy into an abstracted kind of Arthurian Britain (which he refers to by its older name “Logres”). From the middle of that poem comes the following passage (the dragons are the images stamped on the coins):

They laid the coins before the council.
Kay, the king’s steward, wise in economics, said:
“Good; these cover the years and the miles
and talk one style’s dialects to London and Omsk.
Traffic can hold now and treasure be held,
streams are bridged and mountains of ridged space
tunnelled; gold dances deftly across frontiers.
The poor have choice of purchase, the rich of rents,
and events move now in a smoother control
than the swords of lords or the orisons of nuns.
Money is the medium of exchange.”

Taliessin’s look darkened; his hand shook
while he touched the dragons; he said, “We had a good thought.
Sir, if you made verse you would doubt symbols.
I am afraid of the little loosed dragons.
When the means are autonomous, they are deadly; when words
escape from verse they hurry to rape souls;
when sensation slips from intellect, expect the tyrant;
the brood of carriers levels the good they carry.
We have taught our images to be free; are we glad?
are we glad to have brought convenient heresy to Logres?”

Ever since I first encountered these words more than thirty years ago, they have resonated with me — and in particular the line, “When the means are autonomous, they are deadly.” In almost every aspect of life today, we can see evidence of its truth.

It’s as true in economics, I think, as it ever was — as Williams first envisioned it. A preoccupation with money rather than actual goods and services — price as opposed to value — enables the twin banes of inflation and depression that have become all too familiar to us in recent years; it allows manipulation of currency as a tertium quid, essentially sundered from the goods and services themselves and from the human beings to whom they are meaningful or essential. In politics more broadly, I think, we daily see examples of means — offices, commisions, departments, or even whole governments, set up for noble reasons — that have, over time, become ends in themselves. They now exist less to advance the causes for which they were founded than to perpetuate themselves and to aggrandize their own power. One could make a similar argument for many unions, charitable organizations, political parties, businesses, or even schools: in short, for almost any of the human institutions that crowd and confuse our frail fallen world. The underlying pattern is the same. Things created to be means have become autonomous — ends in themselves, answerable to nobody.

I don’t want to become mired in the bog of elaborating on this politically: I have my own opinions, and so, probably, do you. Whatever your beliefs, there are probably a number of places where you can easily produce a ringing denunciation of these means-turned-ends. Your list might not be the same as mine, but there would probably be some overlap. In many cases it’s pretty clear that not only are these entities, whatever they are, no longer serving the good at which they originally aimed, but that they are actually subverting it. They stand in a kind of rebellion from their initial purposes. When it happens, we wind up spiraling downward into a kind of idolatrous service of the means rather than the end.

But I do think it’s worth looking at how this phenomenon intersects with our common goals here of enabling and supporting classical Christian education. Educational institutions, practices, and procedures are not exempt from this broad tendency, which is, after all, a reflection of our nature as fallen beings. Herewith are a handful of reflections on how that concerns us here and now.

Perhaps the most obvious case in point is the matter of grades. Grades are, like money, a medium of exchange. That’s all. They are only a medium, however, and of no intrinsic value. They presumably enable us to compare this student with that one and to come up with a kind of relative determination of their achievement, worth, or so on. From a Christian point of view, of course, that’s rather grotesquely misguided: that anyone could presume to evaluate another person’s worth in an absolute sense, when Christ died for each of us equally and entirely, is preposterous: but we may do it all the same, while masking the reality with comfortable rhetoric. It’s not about the students’ value, we say, but about their achievement. Fair enough: but people still tend to use the term as if it were evaluative of the person. Moreover, what we don’t admit nearly as freely as we should is the fact that the grades don’t reflect the students’ achievement or learning in a more than superficial way, either.

Sooner or later — usually sooner — this dichotomy will drive us to a parting of the ways. I have had parents withdraw students from my classes on the grounds that, though (they admitted) I was providing their children with a better educational experience, in which they were learning more and understanding more deeply, they really were sure that they would get better grades from someone less rigorous. That’s probably true. I should also say that I have also had parents tell me that they valued the substance of what we were delivering over the easy grade.

A grade for a course is only a way — a very reductive way — of measuring, quantifying, and talking about achievement. It is not, however, the achievement itself. It is a purely derivative good, and entirely without value on its own. Worrying about the grade in preference to worrying about the education that it supposedly represents is a bizarre substitution of the sign for the signified. It makes about as much sense as going to a restaurant on the grounds that, though the food is inferior, the menu seems better, or the man who convinced himself he was losing weight by redefining the pound to be twenty ounces.

At first blush, this seems comical, but self-deception is always, in the long run, a grave matter, and contains the seeds of tragedy, in both earthly and spiritual terms. It eventually leads us to a kind of idolatry of the signifier, while disregarding the thing signified. It propagates up and down the whole hierarchy of being and of our experience, and eventually will — as it must — taint our relationship with God.

A similar phenomenon is the frenzy of attention attaching to Advanced Placement (AP) courses. Someone, somewhere, has been telling (especially homeschooled) students and their parents that they really need AP credits by the truckload to be in contention for admission to any kind of good college. U. S. News and World Report rates high schools on the basis of how many AP courses they offer; certainly the College Board itself is not going to play down the importance of a multi-million-dollar industry that is making it (another now-autonomous means to an end) more powerful every year. This is further heightened by the fact that many schools compute the grade point average (GPA) in such a way that a B in an AP class is equivalent to an A in anything else; an A in an AP class gets one a 5.0 on a four-point scale. It’s insurance to assure that the GPA doesn’t dip below 4.0. One bogus marker becomes convertible with another. None of them any longer has much to do with learning.

In the increasingly frenetic pursuit of these brass rings, though, fewer and fewer seem to be stopping to consider that they really are just brass. Who is fooling whom here? One of the purposes of education, it seems to me, should have to do with cultivating the ability to distinguish the genuine article from the dross.

We’re trying to do that at Scholars Online (doubtless with limited success, but we’re trying). We offer grades because people demand them, but I confess I remain uneasy about the whole process. I’d much rather graduate class after class of people who were so excellent that no grade other than an A would be appropriate, but at that point it would lose its comparative punch. Similarly, we offer some A.P. courses because people want them, and because we’ve concluded that the curricula have been established on pretty solid grounds. In other cases, we’ve made the decision not to pursue A.P. status because the A.P. curriculum definition either seems intractable or pedagogically unsound, or would in effect entail a dumbing-down of what we’re doing. A majority of the students in my Senior English class go on to take the A.P. exam in Literature and Composition, and they normally do quite well. But it’s not required, and I don’t bill it as an A.P. course. After a few passes through the College Board’s review process, I determined that in order to meet their criteria, I would have to remove a good deal of the substance of the course to enable extensive rewriting exercises that are not, to my way of thinking, the best way of spending our limited time. One can agree with that decision or disagree with it: I respect that. But that disagreement should be about the substance of the educational experience, not because there’s any real pedagogical value to having the letters “AP” on a transcript.

If classical education is worth anything, it is about seeing past the superficial to the essential. Ideally it’s taking a stand against a culture of superficiality. The value of any part of your education is not, contrary to popular opinion, in its ability to lever you into a position to get more of it somewhere else, or even a job down the line. If it has no intrinsic value, scrap it. If it has that value, grab onto it and hold on tight.

As a Christian, I believe that education is for us ultimately a matter of helping us fulfill our real life goal — in Greek philosophical vocabulary, our telos — as created beings, which is to serve and to glorify God. It is to enable us to grow more fully into that personhood for which he created and redeemed us. It’s not just to get a good job, it’s not just to get more schooling.

Williams introduces Taliessin Through Logres with an epigraph from Dante’s Latin treatise entitled De monarchia: Unde est, quod non operatio propria propter essentiam, sed haec propter illam habet ut sit. Translated a mite loosely, that is: “Therefore it is that the proper function [of any given thing] does not get its reason for being from its essence, but the latter from the former.” It’s a demanding, humbling perception that gets tougher and chewier the longer you think about it. But I think it’s entirely correct.

I will try to follow up on this theme more in particular in the coming weeks.


  1. This is extraordinarily insightful. In my years since college graduation, I’ve grown profoundly ambiguous about our formalized education process that has, as you’ve shown, become principally concerned with helping students jump through the right hoops to achieve very narrow outcomes. I am both angry and perplexed that the so-called “Best and Brightest” steered us to the brink of economic disaster. What precisely was the Ivy League teaching these people? Real learning and a “good” education have become so divergent that one wonders whether they’ll ever be brought back together. Your students are fortunate to have a teacher who wrestles with this issue, even when it’s unpopular to do so.

  2. Dr. McMenomy,

    It has been a few years since I took your AP English class here. To this day it remains the most stimulating, insightful, and thrilling course I have taken. This is spoken from the viewpoint of a Sophomore enrolled in Hillsdale College Michigan. At the moment I am drafting an opinion piece on Education for our student newspaper. While forming it, I realized that your influence on my thinking had not diminished and I remembered being very struck by some of these blog posts. Much to my joy and vindication I found one of my crucial points “All your ability to retain information and articulate your viewpoint with eloquence counts as nothing in real understanding which is an intimate and powerful encounter” to be almost exactly paralleled in your statement “True education is a real encounter.” So let this be a small token to you that what you have to give is bearing fruit whether you see it or not.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.