As one of the world’s foremost historians of culture, Christopher Dawson saw the centrality of education to the process of cultural transmission – the ways in which a society passes on its inheritance of learning and memory as an expression of its cultural identity.
At the height of World War II, when the survival of Western civilisation appeared to rest essentially on material might, Dawson focused on the spiritual roots and educational implications of the conflict. In a foreword to M. O’Leary’s The Catholic Church and Education in 1943, he stressed the need for a rediscovery of Christian humanism as the vital centre of Western education. He thought the modern world that had given rise to such wholesale destruction was formed by a different type of education, “which is neither Christian nor humanist and which substitutes technology for humanity and politics for religion.”
In the 1950s, Dawson wrote various journal articles on how the tradition of Christian humanism could be revived, especially in higher education. Knowing that the study of the Classics, which had served as such a unifying influence in Western culture, was waning, he believed that a more ambitious program should replace it. Whereas the Classics were based on the Graeco-Roman heritage, Dawson thought the historical development of Christian culture, drawing on the inspiration of Jerusalem as well as of Athens and Rome, could form the new basis of Western education. It would explore the life of the Christian people from the early Church to the modern secularised era. It would be informed by philosophy and theology while also addressing the study of social institutions and practices. It would shed light on the varied culture that Christianity had produced – in such forms as art and architecture, literature and music, and the popular channels of religious rituals, customs and symbols.
Dawson thought that America offered the most promising opportunity for such a program. Not only did it seem the best custodian of Western values after the wartime devastation of Europe, but it had developed a comprehensive system of Catholic universities and liberal arts colleges that would be open to the systematic study of Christian culture.
In 1961 he elaborated his ideas in The Crisis of Western Education, which contained a selection of his previously published articles, and included a helpful appendix of suggested courses. At the time he was the inaugural holder of a new Chair of Catholic Studies at Harvard University, and the prestige of this appointment could have been expected to add authority to his proposals.
Unfortunately, the hope of registering a strong impact on Catholic higher education in America failed to materialise – despite the fact that the liberal arts enjoyed a modest revival in the 1970s in the form of new Catholic institutions, such as Thomas Aquinas College in California and Christendom College in Virginia. One reason was the accelerating secularisation of culture in post-war America, which privatised Christianity and made its public manifestations unattractive, in historical study as well as contemporary life. A second reason was the resistance of the Catholic educational establishment which saw Christian culture as an idealisation of a less than perfect past, and an unwelcome challenge to philosophy as the centre of the curriculum.
These factors were also obstacles in Australia to the possibility of Christian culture studies, though they were accentuated by the lack of a Catholic higher education system and a liberal arts intellectual tradition, as well as by the stress on vocational training as the prime motive for a university education.
In 1968 I first read The Crisis of Western Education. The book had a huge and lasting impact. Having recently graduated in Arts from Sydney University, I saw the contrast of my education with Dawson’s vision of an intellectually integrated and culturally focused degree. Mine had been disjointed, and closed to the formative influence of religious faith on Christianity and other historic cultures. Dawson awakened in me a desire to create an institution in Australia which would teach courses in Christian culture. At first I envisaged an Institute of Christian Culture as the appropriate form and title, but this soon evolved into the broader concept of a Catholic liberal arts college.
Such an institution would have a practical as well as educational benefit, especially for Christians living in a secularised culture that was, at best, neutral towards their faith and, at worst, hostile to the expression of religion in culture beyond liturgical worship, in such areas as education, law, science, politics and journalism. An understanding of the vast and pervasive impact of Christ’s message in history would, Dawson believed, give Christians a sense of their own cultural distinctiveness, their own identity, in a way that a philosophical and theological education alone could not. The traditional form could offer students sound ideas and insights, drawn from natural reason and Christian revelation, but they were insufficient in equipping Christians to function culturally in a secularised environment.
As a new millennium beckoned, it proved feasible to develop an institution in Australia which would strive to implement Dawson’s vision. A detailed account of the development of Campion College is a further story, which will soon be published by the College. But its intellectual inspiration came a half-century before, when a seminally important work by Dawson fell providentially into the hands of a young university graduate, who had no idea where these ideas would finally lead.
Karl Schmude is a member of the International Advisory Board of the Christopher Dawson Centre for Cultural Studies. He is co-founder of Campion College Australia and previously University Librarian at the University of New England, Armidale NSW. His book, Campion College Australia: The Emerging Years, will be available from the College in 2023.