The educated teacher: Why culture is the key

Crisis? What Crisis? Fulton Sheen still dominated the airwaves. The Second Vatican Council was months from opening. A Catholic president sat in the White House. Notre Dame football had reached legendary status. Religious orders looked healthy and Catholic schools were bursting beyond capacity, enrolling nearly triple the students (about 5.5 million) than they do today. The year was 1961. And yet, crisis is what he called it, prophet that he was.

The Harvard historian Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) is among the 20th century’s most distinguished Catholic converts. As a scholar, he worked tirelessly to trace links between Western culture and Catholicism; he showed, at a time when many wished not to see, the essential connection between cult and culture, between our view of the gods and our capacity for the good life. Culture, in fact, Dawson argued, was nothing other than religion robed in flesh, embodied in habits, transmitted and refracted through custom.

There are many reasons to read Professor Dawson. For the contemporary educator, Dawson’s chief importance derives from the little book he wrote near the end of his career, after his move to America, The Crisis of Western Education. In that work he identified both a problem and a hopeful remedy. Culture, in his view, lay at the heart of both.

Dawson’s opening chapters carry the reader along a swift romp through the main divisions of educational history in the West. From the Greek ideal of liberal education or paideia, to Benedict’s Italian monastic schools, to the rise of the first university in medieval Paris, the fruits of courtly vernacular literature in England and France, to the humanism of Erasmus, the realignments of the Reformation, the Jesuit invention of the Ratio Studiorum, the French revolutionary’s closure of Church schools, the 18th century turn to empirical study, the four phases of the American liberal arts college, and lastly, the absorption of the schools and universities by the modern nation state.

In Part II, Dawson articulates his proposal for reform. In Part III, he shows the urgency of its need. In my years of teaching I have found no better book that offers the aspiring educator a panoramic view of the key moments in the West’s grand experiment in learning. In my years of teaching, I have also found no better book that makes vivid what has been gained and lost.

His historical reconstruction is brilliant, but the point of Dawson’s journey is to press his proposal: Culture requires enculturation; unless we wrestle back control of that task from the technocrats, defining characteristics of Western civilization will be lost beyond recovery.

Stark words these. By disposition, Dawson was a gentle man with frail health, a scholar’s scholar, not one given over to exaggeration. His proposal in The Crisis of Western Education proceeds in two steps. First is his analysis of the concept of culture, second is his suggestion for educational renewal. He opens the book with a definition of sorts: “Culture, as its name denotes, is an artificial product.” The historian continues:

It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of natural forces. It is the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social not a biological inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of “folkways” into which the individual has to be initiated.

The disciplines of sociology and anthropology were young in the 1950s, and Dawson benefitted from the fruits of both. When I introduce this book, for instance, I sometimes take an entire class to unpack this paragraph. Consider: what does it mean to say that culture is “artificial”? Does Dawson think culture is good or that it is bad? You can imagine a conversation going either way. Your initial judgment will depend upon whether you are more influenced by the classical sense or the 19th century Romantic critique of the word.

Culture, in the older sense, is aligned with cultivation, as in a garden that has been crafted to bloom from May to October. In the Romantic reaction, culture contrasts unfavorably with raw nature. The point for Dawson is this: Culture is a social inheritance; culture may be more or less healthy; culture is inseparable from education. Or, to put this in other terms: Schools and classrooms and curricula are really one species of “enculturation,” one process among many by which “culture is handed on by a society and acquired by the individual.” The law, the market, sport, music, literature, dress, and worship transmit the same.

Education, then, is chiefly about human formation. Is that obvious? Only recently have many begun to think so. The gathering momentum over the last 20 years towards private schools and homeschooling has been fueled largely by the recognition that public schools don’t deliver an education that is “neutral.” Indeed, by claiming to be “religiously neutral,” or by withholding judgment on the tattered “lifestyles” of their struggling students, public schools end up perpetuating a form of culture that most parents recognize as toxic. For instance: not to censure slavery is to endorse it; not to censure abortion is to endorse it.

When parents are asked why they send their children to Catholic schools, the top two reasons are “religious education” and a “safe environment.” “Academics” only comes third, and then it is followed in rank by “discipline”—yet another code word for “culture.” Homeschooling parents say the same thing. A recently published study by The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) asked parents why they decided to homeschool their children: 80% cite their “concern about [the] environment of other schools;” 67% say it is to “provide moral instruction,” while 61% say they want to offer better academics (table 8). In other words: Reading and writing count, but culture counts for more.

Culture is the problem, and culture is also the solution. According to Dawson, the form of culture you impress upon the young, the particular “enculturation” your school offers will flow, ultimately, not from budgetary or managerial considerations, nor from the staffing difficulties under which your district has suffered since the last recession. No, culture springs from cult, that is, from worship. The culture you impress will flow from the gods you adore, that which you regard most worthy of human love.

Education, in this view, is a battle between the gods. There is no “neutral” territory upon which an educator can stand. We’ve had 50 years of Christianity that’s light on the beef, heavy on the broth. Since Dawson published his book, both extremes—the “nones” (those who self-identify with no religion) and the “extremely committed,” (typically Evangelicals and conservative Catholics)—have grown. So has the state’s reach into our classrooms. So has the translation of sub-religious, harshly utilitarian, aims into the curriculum. It should not be a surprise that, in the face of sub-religious people, a society that publicly praises few aspirations beyond wealth generation and the expansion of recycling depots, the noble tradition of liberal learning that was for centuries the birthright of Christians has all but collapsed. In place of the liberal arts we now find endemic over-specialization. Where once a scientist was expected also to be a philosopher, now we find English majors who can’t count, and medical doctors who won’t read.

So what is to be done? Sense and sensibility need to unite once more. Dawson suggested that the best way of putting these two back together, the poetic and the scientific, was by immersing ourselves, once more, in the Christian culture that once made the marriage. Man’s eclipse by deadly technology makes the need for such a reunion all the more urgent. Nothing other than a “new system of humanist studies” will suffice.

We need to return to the Great books, to be sure. But even more, he called for the study of Christian culture in its artistic, legal, creedal, and mystical dimensions. Young people need to love the achievement of the cathedrals, see the connection between human rights and Genesis 1, appreciate the great debates of Christology, know why the State can never replace the family, and love the saints, and so on.

His advice to today’s students would amount to this: If the program you are in doesn’t deliver such goods, find one that does. Only an imaginative immersion in a total way of life, he argued, would allow for the preservation of a remnant. The work of this remnant would be to keep alive the memory of Christian culture and serve as a leaven for a future rebirth of faith within the West.

Dawson’s proposal has not been without effect. One of the fruits of his work has been the birth of the Catholic Studies movement within universities across the United States and Canada, starting at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis, and now in dozens of campuses. Few saw better the coming “crisis” than did Dawson. Those searching for remedies 50 years on will find in him a sure guide still, prophet that he was.

RYAN N.S. TOPPING is vice president and academic dean of Newman Theological College in Edmonton, Alberta. His most recent book on education is The Case for Catholic Education (Angelico Press); his forthcoming book is The Gift of the Church: How the Catholic Church Transformed the History and Soul of the West.

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