The Don: When You Allow Some to be “Left Behind,” All Come Out Ahead

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“A truly democratic education—one which will preserve democracy must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly ‘high-brow’. In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and who can know. (With very few exceptions they are the same boy. The stupid boy, nearly always, is the boy who does not want to know.) It must, in a certain sense, subordinate the interests of the many to those of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university. Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.

And what,’ you ask, ‘about the dull boy? What about our Tommy, who is so highly strung and doesn’t like doing sums and grammar? Is he to be brutally sacrificed to other peoples sons?’ I answer: dear Madam, you quite misunderstand Tommys real wishes and real interests. It is the aristocratic system which will really give Tommy what he wants. If you let me have my way, Tommy will gravitate very comfortably to the bottom of the form; and there he will sit at the back of the room chewing caramels and conversing sotto voce with his peers, occasionally ragging and occasionally getting punished, and all the time imbibing that playfully intransigent attitude to authority which is our chief protection against England’s becoming a servile State. When he grows up he will not be a Porson; but the world will still have room for a great many more Tommies than Porsons. There are dozens of jobs (much better paid than the intellectual ones) in which he can be very useful and very happy. And one priceless benefit he will enjoy: he will know he’s not clever. The distinction between him and the great brains will have been clear to him ever since, in the playground, he punched the heads containing those great brains. He will have a certain, half amused respect for them. He will cheerfully admit that, though he could knock spots of? them on the golf links, they know and do what he cannot. He will be a pillar of democracy. He will allow just the right amount of rope to those clever ones.” —C.S. Lewis, “Democratic Education” in C.S. Lewis Essay Collection & Other Short Pieces (HarperCollins Publishers, 2000), p. 599

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