C.S. Lewis and the Communication Classroom
Kate Mead and Bryan Mead
East Texas Baptist University
As Christian educators blessed to work at a Christian institution we are always looking (and being asked to look) for ways to strengthen the spiritual component of our classrooms. A way we’ve found to spur ourselves onward in this way is through the insights of great Christian educators of the past. One of the most famous of these Christian educators was C.S. Lewis. While Lewis did not write specifically about the pedagogical implications of integrating faith and learning in the communication classroom, it is not a far leap to apply some of his thoughts on Christianity, literature, and education to teaching.
The field of communication encompasses a broad range of studies revolving around communication processes, theories, and practice. Course work and specializations vary widely in a field that teaches interpersonal communication techniques, social media campaigning, rhetorical studies and more. Because of this, applying Lewis’ insights to the classroom is not a one-size-fits-all reality. This is part of the struggle with integrating faith into the communication classroom. The application of Lewis’ insights will not look the same in a graphic design class as it does in an introductory speech class or communication theory course. One of our co-workers frequently likes to joke about spiritual integration by asking how he can include Jesus and His truth when teaching things like video aspect ratios. He’s right – the path to including spiritual insights into communication courses isn’t always obvious. With this reality in mind, we have found it helpful to turn to C.S. Lewis – a teacher who remained profoundly Christian even when not delivering expressly Christian content. We mean to share a few guiding principles that have led to fruitful classroom practice for us in the hopes that these principles spark fresh and creative ways others in the field can influence students.
The first principle we’ll consider here is what Lewis saw as the principle of imitation. Imitation, in this sense, does not mean our communicative aims should be to copy what is already in circulation, as if the importance was in imitating other communicators. Instead, taking an imitational approach to communication means a communicator “should never conceive himself as bringing into existence beauty or wisdom which did not exist before, but simply and solely as trying to embody in terms of his own art some reflection of eternal Beauty and Wisdom.” Whether approaching works through a theoretical lens or creating work to communicate to others, the major objective is the identification and articulation of “objective value” which stems from “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are” as human beings. In other words, all our communicative acts should keep in mind our place in eternity, and should imitate, in some way, revealed Truth. As Christians, we are aware of this Truth as being solely from God. We are the creatures, not the Creator.
One way to implement this principle into the classroom is by building a theoretical foundation through which to view all aspects of a course. Providing students with quotes from great thinkers who clearly understand the importance of objective Truth helps to frame class discussion and assignments. An example of this would be Richard Weaver’s famous dictum that all communicative acts “can move us toward what is good…[or] move us toward what is evil.” Using this quote at the top of a syllabus can start a semester off by situating all acts of communication as a “major assumption of responsibility,” and can encourage students to assess how their coursework throughout the term is moving others toward what we can identify as objectively good.
Another method to encourage students to think about how objective truth interacts with coursework is through weekly discussion boards that we call “Agree to Disagree.” Each week students must show why they agree or disagree with a new quote, either from a text for that week or from any quote you know that captures the truth you’d like students to focus on for that class session. These can be particularly effective in theory courses by having students post their agreement or disagreement with a quote or two from the theorist the students are currently studying. A quote like “Today the tyrant rules not by club or fist, but, disguised as a market researcher, he shepherds his flocks in the ways of utility and comfort” from Marshall McLuhan, for example, could be a great launching point for discussions on the aims of advertising and how those of us working as professional communicators must keep objective truth in mind when creating or analyzing discourse. As Lewis writes, the “right defense against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments.” Helping students interact with just sentiments on a weekly basis challenges them to think through their worldview and enlivens a course by infusing discussions about what is good, true, and beautiful, as well as where goodness, truth, and beauty originate.
We also like to end each semester with students writing a reflection paper, asking students to reflect on what they have learned about course content and, perhaps more importantly, what they have learned about themselves as communicators. You may even ask students to incorporate a few of the quotes used throughout the semester to further solidify the importance of objective truth as a course theme. It never ceases to amaze us what students glean from our courses simply because we continually stress Lewis’s principle of imitation.
The second principle we want to share is Lewis’ principle of academic and artistic humility. We must admit that, for those of us with lengthy professional resumes or advanced degrees, success and intelligence sometimes become ends rather than the means. We often want others to recognize us as inside what Lewis calls the “inner ring.” We want to be an insider – someone “in the know” – and many times enjoy this pleasure more distinctly because we can keep others out. It is even tempting to emphasize the difference between our education or skill-level and that of the students, creating a chasm the students are hard-pressed to bridge. As Christians, though, we know the point of communication, and all of life, is to reflect on, and point others toward, eternal truth and community. So, as we help students hone their communication skills, let us remind ourselves and the students, that our ultimate goal is not simply to impart or increase our knowledge. The whole act of communication, as a means of imitating and reflecting the divine, is to be an act of humility. Teachers should, therefore, use the tools of the classroom to arm students in their quest to, in Lewis’ words, “aim at edification.” Our classrooms can frame communication as the means by which we can interact with human souls. The end goal, then, becomes pointing others to Christ by building community in our classrooms so that we and our students can extend Christian community outside our classrooms.
We have used a few different tactics for encouraging edification through community-building. One activity that helps establish this need is one we call “Knowing.” This activity works particularly well in classes in which students are largely unfamiliar with each other, but has also been successful in more intimate, upper-level courses. We assign partners, placing together those who are not sitting near each other in the classroom. We then tell them to, without moving or communicating, write down any similarities and differences they can see between themselves and their assigned partner. We move about the room, encouraging them to persist if they claim they have “nothing else to write,” which is normal and expected during an activity that leaves many uncomfortable. After five or so minutes, we come together as a class to discuss the types of things we noticed. Common observations include hair color, gender, race or ethnicity, apparel, hair styles, and left- or right-handedness. Then, without further discussion, we ask them to relocate so that they can sit next to the same partner and continue the exercise by verbally communicating to discover additional similarities and differences.
The results of this activity are usually amazing. Students, having already broken the ice through the first step of discomfort, usually speak freely and share details about themselves. They discover each other’s hobbies, interests, and past experiences. They find similarities in family dynamics or political beliefs. Then we re-enter class discussion and discuss the new similarities and differences they found. We make sure to point out how communication has taken two isolated individuals and drawn them toward community. We typically use this activity when discussing diversity and stereotyping and it works well in that course module. The reason it works, however, is because it does what Lewis directs us to do: it aims at edification. Rather than reducing individuals to a distantly observable characteristic, it encourages students to approach each other in humility and uncover a sense of connection.
Another way we build community in the classroom is through student-directed group work. In a small group communication course, for example, we have used an assignment that encourages students to come up with their own group project to complete over the course of a semester. We have given a general direction such as the theme of “giving back” and then empowered students to design and implement a project. Our students’ drive and creativity flourishes in this atmosphere. There is, of course, the need for well-placed guidance as they hone their ideas, but the relationships within the classroom blossom as we work in tandem to impact a wider community. Students have connected with local high schools to offer mentoring and have also created “encouragement campaigns” to spread positivity throughout campus. One such campaign painted many rocks with positive messages and strategically placed them throughout campus. The group then connected our student body through social media buzz by hanging posters directing other students to post and share photos of each rock they discovered. These projects utilized student knowledge and creativity to impact communities both inside and outside the classroom rather than for individual grades or accolades.
To summarize, Christian communication shines into the darkness when we aim for proper imitation and humility. For Christian educators, there is nothing more important than training up students to communicate Truth in its most beautiful and wise forms. So, wherever you teach, seek after ways to build your students’ communication skills while always keeping Lewis’ points on imitation and humility in mind. Focus lessons and projects on the conveyance of unchanging principles, and help students see that Truth is not found in what we create but how that creation can draw people together, toward the Light.
 Though not specifically about communication pedagogy, see Steven Beebe, C.S. Lewis and the Craft of Communication (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 2020) for a recent book connecting Lewis’ writings with Communication Studies.
 C.S. Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” in C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 8.
 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, in The C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperOne, 2017), 701.
 Richard M. Weaver, The Ethics of Rhetoric (Vermont: Echo Point Books, 1953), 6.
 Weaver, 6.
 Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride (Berkeley: Gingko Press, 1951), vi.
 Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 699.
 C.S. Lewis, “The Inner Ring,” in C.S. Lewis Essay Collection: Literature, Philosophy and Short Stories, ed. Lesley Walmsley (London: HarperCollins, 2000), 313-320.
 Lewis, “Christianity and Literature,” 4.