My most vivid image from a childhood spent reading is a tall, skinny man cracking his thin, spidery fingers in front of a low fire. He has a shock of grizzled, unruly hair, shining eyes, and a long, pointed nose. I still get a pleasant shiver of horror the moment he rises from his seemingly empty armchair and locks his office door behind the children Digory and Jill.
It’s just a spooky picture for a child. But the wicked old man’s words in that scene have been a key lesson in my development as a student. Those words are why every incoming freshman should have to read C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” before starting school.
When Digory accuses Uncle Andrew, the magician, of telling lies, he responds with these words:
“Rules of that sort, however excellent they may be for little boys – and servants – and women – and even people in general, can’t possibly be expected to apply to profound students and great thinkers and sages. No, Digory. Men like me, who possess hidden wisdom, are freed from common rules just as we are cut off from common pleasures. Ours, my boy, is a high and lonely destiny.”
Digory is tempted to buy it. For just a moment, Uncle Andrew looks so wise and spiritual and grand. It’s a hard temptation for us to avoid, too. In our world, great men with scholarly titles speak like gods to the unread masses, their words processed through pop literature and news-station interviews. Emerging from this sea of media-controlled cretins comes the corps of college kids headed to the Ivy League, Stanford, and Duke — ready to be molded by the untouchable professor and become the next man behind the curtain. It’s the quiet siren call of academia, that those who know have power and are free to use it. For an 18-year-old gifted with intelligence, education, a little pocket money, and a lot of swagger, that hidden wisdom becomes a glittering ladder out of a stupid job, stupid friends, stupid parents. For the less blatantly self-centered, it’s an appeal that whispers to the basic human fantasy of standing alone; the tragic hero wages a gargantuan battle against the forces of evil — whether that be queer theory for the “conservative” or exploitative capitalism for the “liberal”.
But Digory is better than that.
“‘All it means,’ he said to himself, ‘is that he thinks he can do anything he likes to get anything he wants.’”
At commencement my freshman year, the senior class president Jon Gregg issued an exhortation to his fellows: If your education leads you into pride, it has failed. Higher studies are worthless unless they teach you how to love the world and the people who live in it. I don’t remember who the main speaker was. I think he talked about Churchill.
Love and humility — wonderful things for a senior to have learned in his four years. But it’s so easy to miss those things, to let knowledge pass over your heart as it goes to your head. As “The Magician’s Nephew” progresses, Andrew’s ivory-tower pride gives way to Digory’s crucial choice: he rejects becoming a tyrant in Narnia and by his faithfulness saves his mother’s life. Ours is not a high and lonely destiny. We still have to go to the grocery store, buy gas, and drop our kids off at school. We are men, placed among a community of men, and dependent on all the others just as they depend on us.
Before honor comes humility. If we speak with the tongues of Washington and Aristotle, but have not love, our education has made us worse.
That’s the first lesson freshmen need to hear.