How do we give today's college student the kind of education that produced scholars like C.S. Lewis?

Bringing Back Oxford-style Education

Most fans of C.S. Lewis know that when he wasn’t writing delightful novels like the Chronicles of Narnia or profound yet accessible theological works like Mere Christianity, Lewis was a highly respected professor at Oxford University. What some might not know is that if Lewis were to step foot onto the campus of an American or British university today, he would hardly even recognize the daily life of a modern professor or the functioning of contemporary higher education.

A college professor in Lewis’ day might give the occasional lecture to large class of students, but that hardly constituted the bulk of what he and his colleagues would have called teaching. Much more common was what they called the “tutorial.” Each week, a student would meet one-on-one with a professor (in this context called a “tutor”) and discuss in significant depth the books that student had read and the writing projects that student was working on. An Oxford education was thus intensely personal and tailored to the needs and abilities of the individual student.

The Oxford tutorial system was actually standard in American and British higher education until after World War II. In America, the GI Bill brought a massive influx of students into universities nationwide. Rather than expand their faculties to accommodate the growth, universities changed the way they delivered education. The one-on-one tutorial session was replaced with the massive lecture hall, where hundreds of students would passively listen to the “sage on the stage” rather than engage the great texts with a mentor who knows his students’ capabilities, needs, and interests. The subsequent 80 years have witnessed ever-growing class sizes and increasing uniformity in the curriculum.

Here at The College at The Saint Constantine School, we believe that individual students matter, that a college should not feel like a warehouse, that students and professors should actually know one another in order to get the best results. Like Oxford, we certainly have the occasional lecture delivered by one of our outstanding professors or a visiting scholar. But most of our students’ time is spent in Socratic discussion in small group settings and in one-on-one tutorial time with faculty who are infinitely more concerned with the education of their students than with their next peer-reviewed article.

Despite recent trends, education is not a commodity. If your classroom can be replaced with a television, I would suggest your school is doing it wrong. And so would C.S. Lewis.

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