THE attempt to use religious education in order to enforce a rigid standard of religious practice in the midst of a secular culture only results in increasing the problem of “leakage.” And thus we get a situation in which the Catholics who both practise and understand their religion are the minority of a minority, and the majority of the population are neither fully Christian nor consciously atheist, but non-practising Catholics, half-Christians and well-meaning people who are devoid of any positive religious knowledge at all.
Hence it is not enough for Catholics to confine their efforts to the education of the Catholic minority. If they want to preserve Catholic education in a secularized society, they have got to do something about non-Catholic education also. The future of civilization depends of the fate of the majority, and so long as nothing is done to counteract the present trend of modern education the mind of the masses must become increasingly alienated from the whole tradition of Christian culture.
But this is not inevitable. It need never have happened if Christians had not been so absorbed in their internal conflicts that they adopted a negative defensive attitude towards the problem of national education as a whole. In England, at any rate, there has never been a time when public policy in education has been actively or consciously anti-Christian. Indeed some of the leading representatives of the Board of Education, like Matthew Arnold, were more fully aware of the dangers of secularization and the cultural importance of religious education than were the religious leaders themselves.
The situation has, of course, deteriorated considerably since Arnold’s day, especially in the higher studies. Theology, which once dominated the university, has now been pushed from the center to the circumference and has become a specialism among an increasing number of specialisms, while the study of divinity as an integral part of the general curriculum of studies, which still survived in a vestigial form before World War I, has disappeared entirely. I do not suggest that it is possible, or perhaps even desirable, to restore it. What I do believe very strongly is that the time has come to consider the possibility of introducing the study of Christian culture as an objective historical reality into the curriculum of university studies.
Until a man acquires some knowledge of another culture, he cannot be said to be educated, since his whole outlook is so conditioned by his own social environment that he does not realize its limitations. He is a provincial in time, if not in place, and he almost inevitably tends to accept the standards and values of his own society as absolute. The widening of the intellectual horizon by initiation into a different world of culture was indeed the most valuable part of the old classical education.
The study of Christian culture would, I believe, provide a really effective substitute. It would initiate the student into a world that was unknown or at best half known, and at the same time it would deepen his knowledge of modern culture by showing its genetic relation to the culture of the past. No one denies the existence of a Christian literature, a Christian philosophy and a Christian institutional order, but at present these are never studied as an organic whole. Yet without this integrated study it is impossible to understand even the development of the modern vernacular literature.
But how does this affect the question of Christian education? Obviously the academic study of Christian culture as an historical phenomenon is no substitute for religious education in the ordinary sense. What it might do, however, is to help remove the preliminary prejudice against the Christian view of things which plays so large a part in the secularization of culture. The fact is that the average educated person is not only ignorant of Christian theology, he is no less ignorant of Christian philosophy, Christian history and Christian literature, and in short of Christian culture in general. And he is not ashamed of his ignorance, because Christianity has come to be one of the things that educated people don’t talk about. This is quite a recent prejudice which arose among the half-educated and gradually spread upwards and downwards. It did not exist among civilized people in the nineteenth century, whatever their personal beliefs were. Men like Lord Melbourne and Macaulay could talk as intelligently about religious subjects as Gladstone and Acton. It was only at the very end of the century that Christianity ceased to be intellectually respectable and it was due not only to the secularization of culture but also to the general lowering of cultural standards that characterized the age.
Today there are signs of improvement in this respect. Religion has come back into poetry and fiction, and there is once more a civilized interest in religious discussion. But this cannot go far unless religion is brought back into higher education, and this can only be achieved by giving the systematic study of Christian culture a recognized place in university studies.
A reform of this kind on the level of higher studies would inevitably penetrate the lower levels of secondary and primary teaching and by degrees affect the whole tone of public education. It is obviously difficult to improve the situation in the schools if the teachers have no knowledge of Christian culture and if the standard set by the university is a secular one. However, it is for the universities and the other centers of higher education to take the first step; and if they do, there is little doubt that they would find plenty of support elsewhere, and that their initiation of the study of Christian culture would be most fruitful in results.
~Christopher Dawson: The Crisis of Western Education. Excerpt from Chap. 8: "Education and the State." (1961)