Recently I was driving through another state for a speaking engagement when I noticed a road sign with a rather smart message. “Littering is unlAwful!” is stated. The “unl” of unlawful was really small so that the message really read “Littering is Awful.” This state regulated sign is doing more than communicating a law. It’s seeking to form the affections of its readers.
The sign doesn’t aim to merely help people realize that it’s illegal to throw trash out of their car window on the interstate. It attempts to shape the way people feel about using creation as a giant trash can. It’s just awful. It’s one thing to regulate practice. It’s another entirely to form the affections.
This approach is deeply philosophical. As C.S. Lewis points out, it goes back to the earliest formal ethical systems enunciated in foundational Greek philosophy.“Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought,” C.S. Lewis writes in The Abolition of Man. Lewis explains that most students need the affective message more than the directive one:
For every one pupil who needs to be guarded against a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.
Lewis and the road sign have this in common. Instead of just getting people to obey the law, that road sign attempted the philosophical, the theological even, of seeking to shape their hearts. And in the end, that’s what education is all about.