Christopher Dawson and the Renewal of Catholic Education: The Proposal That Catholic Culture and History, Not Philosophy, Should Order the Catholic Curriculum

By Olsen, Glenn W. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Summer 2010 | Go to article overview

Christopher Dawson and the Renewal of Catholic Education: The Proposal That Catholic Culture and History, Not Philosophy, Should Order the Catholic Curriculum


Olsen, Glenn W., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


OVER THE YEARS those interested in the renewal of Catholic education have proposed various curricula or programs of study. These have ranged from the very specific and articulated, such as Great Books programs, to the loosely prescribed, such as many curricula that simply have area requirements. Each has its strengths and limitations and, as elsewhere in life, you put your money down and accept the logic of the curriculum chosen. Here, by considering proposals made by the great student of the history of culture, Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), a good generation ago, I wish to bring to the surface some of the choices still facing Catholic education today.

Christopher Dawson traveled for his first and only time to the United States when he was in his late sixties to take up the recently endowed Chauncey Stillman Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard University, which he held from 1958-62. I am told it was not an entirely happy experience; Dawson, who had spent much of his life as an independent scholar, was not used to teaching, and, to put it delicately, was surprised at the level of knowledge he found in his American students.

Dawson, a convert to Catholicism, was a very well-known historian, part of what is sometimes called the Catholic Revival of the mid-twentieth century. This was a time when, quantitatively, Catholic education in the United States was flourishing, and while Dawson was in the States a number of Catholics and Catholic schools asked for his opinion as to what shape Catholic education should take in the future. (1) He attended conferences and symposia on the matter. One result was the publication of one of his most important and enduring books, The Crisis of Western Education, in 1961, which in an edition expanded four years later by his American disciple, John Mulloy, included specific descriptions of programs of study inspired by Dawson's ideas, probably preeminently the Christian Culture Program at St. Mary's College, Notre Dame, still in existence, if showing signs of (the) age. A number of schools copied Dawson's ideas in one degree or another; for instance, for years there was an undergraduate variation of the St. Mary's Program at St. Michael's College of the University of Toronto.

That said, Dawson never had the impact on American Catholic education that his moment of popularity might have suggested he would have. One might extract an explanation for this from his own thought. If study of the history of education taught Dawson anything, it was the power of entrenched patterns of thought and ways of doing things, of what a friend of mine, speaking of his colleagues, called the united front of forty-year-old pedants. What many Catholics thought the high point of western education, the classical curriculum of the Jesuit ratio studiorum or program of studies of 1599, Dawson thought also an accumulation of missed opportunities, brought about by the overwhelming prestige of study of the classical world in the so-called Middle Ages and during the so-called Renaissance, the hold still on sixteenth-century learned Christians of a program of study inherited from the pre-Christian world. Dawson thought single-minded study of the classics and classical world had blinded people to the nature and significance of the Christian world that had grown up since antiquity. Many had come habitually to live in the virtual world of antiquity rather than in the actual Christian world of Palestrina or Caravaggio. Dawson thought it strange that sixteenth-century men should read so many pagan classics and, philosophy and theology aside, so little of the great Christian works that had subsequently appeared, especially works of the imagination like the Cid or Parzival that were built around the question of what it means to live the Christian life in the world. It was almost as if, psychologically at least, the forty-year-old pedants hardly understood that a Christian culture had replaced classical culture, and that the works of this Christian culture could prepare laymen for a life in the world in ways the classics could not. …

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