Christopher Dawson: A View from the Social SciencesRUSSELL HITINGER
Christopher Dawson's theory of education will go nowhere today. First, it focuses upon Christian culture as being the specific backbone of the West.
If we put Christopher Dawson in the context of the twentieth-century Intellectual Renaissance, he was different from the other great lights by virtue of the fact that he was not a poet, a philosopher, or a theologian. Generally speaking, those involved in this Intellectual Renaissance excelled and made contributions in three areas:
Apologists like Chesterton and C. S. Lewis, of course, combined all three of these specialties. Dawson was an exception to this pattern because he was a social scientist. And this should give us pause, for the miscellany of subjects and methods drawn together under the rubric “social science” represents something very close to the core of the modern mind. In any of the other disciplines, one will find premodern examples: there is an obvious relation between Aristotle, Descartes, and Newton, just as there is between Homer, Virgil, Dante, and the modern Welsh poet David Jones. I am not sure that this is true (except by the most extenuated analogy) for sociology. In other words, that Dawson stood alone in this field suggests to me that the Catholic Renaissance was an incomplete intellectual response to modernity. Indeed, I want to suggest (for to treat this at its proper level of detail is beyond the bounds of what I am prepared to do here) that this incompleteness explains why, in our day, the social sciences moved into Catholicism like so many bacteria for which we had no immune system. While Catholics were prepared to deal, for example, with Kantian epistemology, or modern critical methods in biblical studies, or literary modernism, they were not prepared to deal with the sociological point of view. Even today, many Catholics view the social sciences as territory held by the enemy, and those who have taken the sociological point of view, by and large, have little interest in making sense of traditional Catholic beliefs and practices.
Perhaps some of you are already vexed by my description of Christopher Dawson as a social scientist. In at least two ways, his work did not resemble our image of a social scientist (both have to do with the word scientist). In the first place, he was not a number-crunching statistician. He did not practice the kind of sociological “science” found in the corporate and political world. By today’s standards, Dawson was closer to being a cultural anthropologist than a sociologist. In the second place, his work was not sequestered to a particular discipline within the university. This is an easy point to make, since Dawson was not a university man. His appointment at Harvard was to the Stillman Chair, not to an ordinary department. If he were to be hired in a university today, he would probably end up in a department of religion.
I use the term social scientist in connection with Dawson chiefly in the classical-modern sense of the term — derived from Weber and Durkheim, who worked on the border of such disciplines as history, cultural anthropology, and philosophy. The great pioneers of modern social science were fascinated by the problem of religion and modernity, which was a central issue not only for Weber and Durkheim but also for Freud. Dawson also stood in a slightly older tradition, which I shall call “prophetic sociology”, of the sort practiced by Alexis de Tocqueville and perhaps also, in his own way, by Henry Adams. Prophetic sociology is not the same thing as “gadfly sociology”, in connection with which Andrew Greeley’s name comes to mind. By prophetic sociology, I mean an investigation of social data that leads not so much to scientific generalizations as to a moral or religious vision. Here I am only paraphrasing Dawson’s own characterization of Tocqueville, with whom he closely identified. 
In his book The Crisis of Western Education, Dawson emphasized that the curriculum should reflect the “sociological character” of the subject.  There can be no doubt but that, in matters of education, Dawson wished to subordinate the aestheticliterary, the philosophical, and the theological to the sociological. Notice that I said “subordinate”, not “reduce”. It would never have entered his mind that the so-called sociological point of view is reductive, for Dawson’s understanding of history and culture was eschatological — he remained throughout his life an Augustinian. By “sociological”, he meant something very simple, which I think can be described in a sentence or two. One adopts the sociological point of view when he takes institutions, and the processes by which they are built and eventually decay, as a subject for inquiry antecedent to a detailed study of the intellectual and aesthetic artifacts of those institutions. More simply put, and to take one of Dawson’s own examples, one should first understand the institution and culture of monasticism and then turn to monastic philosophy, illuminated manuscripts, and the other artifacts of the institution.
In the time remaining, I would like to examine a current issue which requires, or at least favors, the sociological point of view — and about which Dawson still has something important to say to us. No doubt, there are other issues that could be fruitfully discussed in the light of Dawsonian themes. The one I shall discuss, however, is the issue of the college curriculum, and whether or not we should be interested in a canon of great books. The recent debates at Stanford, Allan Bloom’s book, and the circumlocutions of our past secretary of education have brought this issue to the forefront of public attention.
In The Crisis of Western Education, Dawson wrote: “What we need is not an encyclopedic knowledge of all the products of Christian culture, but a study of the culture — process itself from its spiritual and theological roots, through its organic historical growth to its cultural fruits.”  As I said earlier, he was interested first in the cultural process of social institutions and only then in the literary and philosophical achievements of the institutions. This explains, in part, why he was relatively more interested in the formative period of Western culture (the so-called Dark Ages) than the high medieval period.  For Dawson, the primitive or incipient stages are more sociologically interesting than the fully developed flower of a culture. This focus is entirely understandable to historians and sociologists, but I should mention in passing that it made it very difficult for the scholastic establishment in Catholic schools to hear what Dawson was saying on this score some thirty years ago. Scholastic philosophy abstracts the intellectual geometry from the culture and, for good reason, is more interested in the highly developed intellectual systems of the thirteenth century than in the sociology of barbarian peoples north of Italy in the seventh century.
Far be it from me to criticize intellectual abstraction, since it is what I do for a living; and as far as I am concerned, in comparison with the pop psychology and pop sociology in schools today, we could use more rather than less rigorous philosophical training. But there is an important difference between what it means to abstract and what it means to prescind from culture. All intellectual disciplines, including sociology, require abstraction, which is nothing other than generalizing from particulars. It is quite another thing, however, to prescind from culture. Prescind, from the Latin, means to “cut off’. Since Descartes, philosophers have believed that there is such a thing as noncultural starting points for inquiry; that, by methodological fiat, the inquirer can prescind from culture for the purpose of “seeing” reality more accurately. This, rather than abstraction, is the problem. As the cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz has remarked, the heritage of the Enlightenment is the image of “man as a naked reasoner [who appears as he truly is only] when he took his cultural costumes off”.  This not only leads to the distorted idea that there can be a traditionless body of knowledge, but it also hides the fact that culture is a second nature, in the womb of which virtually all of our thinking is formed. One can admit that ideas have sociological feet without being a relativist or reductionist. Aristotle, after all, argued that it is our habits (both moral and intellectual), working conjointly with our first nature, which make us in any determinate way what we are.
Long before the term enculturation became fashionable, Dawson equated it with education in the broadest sense of the term. The purpose of education is to understand how cultures are formed, transmitted, and received by the individual — not just Western culture but non-Western cultures as well.  In fact, in The Crisis of Western Education, Dawson wrote that it is necessary “to make the student aware of the relativity of culture.”  Dawson did not believe this was a capitulation to secularism but, rather, the way out of it; for the self-centered world of secular and popular culture presents itself as the only optic on reality. Dawson here had an Augustinian diagnosis of modernity as a kind of spiritual autism.  A healthy sense of cultural relativism is needed to break out of that loop. After what we have seen in the school systems these past two decades, one might wonder whether Dawson was out of his mind when he recommended a heightened sense of cultural relativity; but I think he was correct. Students do not really have a sense of cultural relativity but are trapped in the perspective of popular culture, having no more sense of how their grandparents lived than of how people arrange their institutions in Indonesia. The problem is that students are under the impression that one can have all of the goodies of a culture (ranging from material artifacts like VCRs, to more noumenal artifacts like “great ideas”, to legal artifacts like a Bill of Rights) without learning how these things, ideas, or legal systems are culturally conditioned and traduced.
In the Closing of the American Mind (I987), Allan Bloom had his finger close to the nerve of the issue when he charged that popular culture occludes or clouds the minds of the students. Unfortunately, Bloom’s remarks in this vein crossed over into a diatribe against social scientists; in so doing, he flubbed a golden opportunity to point out that students need more rather than less training in what is sociologically specific to the West — or, for that matter, what is specific to any particular culture. It is interesting that, on this same problem of the circumambient influence of popular culture, Dawson looked to the social sciences as a crucial part of the solution. He wrote:
The position of modern American education is very paradoxical. On the one hand . . . the dominant tendency of American society is towards social conformity, and public education has strengthened this tendency by its uncritical attitude towards “the American Way of Life” and the current democratic ideology. But on the other hand Americans have had exceptional opportunities to understand the diversity of culture, owing not only to the differences of their own cultural origins, but also to the fact that from the beginning of American history they have been brought into contact with native American peoples who followed a completely different way of life. It has been the American anthropologists who have led the way in the study of these different ways of life and who also were, I believe, the first to formulate the concept of culture as the fundamental object of scientific social study. Dawson goes on to recommend the work of Margaret Mead. Whereas one might suspect that Bloom’s answer to popular culture is a Pythagorean summer camp without radios, Dawson does not recommend more attention to universals but, rather, to a study of determinate cultures in all of their particularity.
I want briefly to point out why Dawson’s understanding of education cuts against the grain of certain conservative and progressive theories of education today. In the first place, Dawson’s approach was quite different from a “great books” program. Indeed, he explicitly rejected the notion that his program of studies was a refined exposure to great literature. While I am sure that he would not have denied the idea that there can be a relatively nonarbitrary canon of great books, he also understood that one can read the artifacts of a culture and still be ignorant about the culture itself, and what sets it off from any other culture. I teach Saint Anselm in philosophy classes every year, but I am not at all convinced that the students have the slightest notion of the institution of monasticism, the pattern of medieval culture, or what separates it from modernity. So here I will speak for myself. The notion of a great books program can be a conservative smorgasbord — a bag of nouns without the rest of the cultural grammar. And insofar as this is the case, it reflects the worst of the modern mind, even though it is usually styled as a conservative alternative to Deweyanism. John Dewey, we recall, insisted that education should be practical rather than speculative. True enough, in contrast to Dewey, a great books course of studies would seem to reaffirm the traditional primacy given to the contemplative over the practical. What I mean by the worst of modernity is the notion that a student can have immediate access to a world of ideas without having to pass through the cultural media which traduce those ideas; accordingly, the student is relieved of the burden of having to reckon with, to avow, and ultimately to live in one culture rather than another.
A set of ideas or books, without an historical and a cultural context, is neither conservative nor, for that matter, coherent. For example, if one reads the required book list for freshmen at Columbia University (1937-38), one notices nothing between Augustine and Dante. Nearly 800 years are off the map. Now, if one is principally interested in literature, this is perhaps not so surprising. But if one is interested in Western culture, the 800-year gap is devastating; for some of the central aspects of Western culture evolved during that time, including monasticism, universities, and the distinction between ecclesial and secular jurisdictions. (Incidentally, nothing from the Bible is to be found on the list, nor are any of the great treatises of the Reformation, which is just as well, since those treatises would be virtually unintelligible without presupposing a thing or two about the Bible.) If I can be permitted a gratuitous sideswipe at Allan Bloom, the curriculum I am describing here was formulated thirty years before the I960s. It is ahistorical and traditionless; so perhaps the reaction of the I960s regarding cultural relevance can be reconsidered in a more favorable light.
The Columbia curriculum of 1937 could be read as reflecting the altogether typical modern effort to censure matters of religion — whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic. I am not the first person to notice or to point out that most great books programs developed out of the University of Chicago orbit gave little place to matters of religion; and this is not so much a symptom of irreligion as it is a reflection of an Olympian disdain for empirical culture and history. For if one continues to read the Columbia list chronologically, there is likewise nothing to indicate the emergence of the modern state, state-sponsored science, or modern political economy — in short, those sociological realities most distinctive of modernity. The reading list simply does not touch base with history and social institutions.
To summarize, a great books program strikes me as deficient on two scores. On the one hand, it lacks the virtue of premodern education, in which the student was a participant in a concrete and determinate way of life. When Thomas More, for example, educated his daughter in the classics, the program was not an ersatz academic culture unrelated to one’s familiar institutions but was, rather, a process of appropriating the culture one already avowed. On the other hand, it lacks one of modernity’s most interesting self-correctives, which is the heightened awareness of historical contingency and of diverse cultures. The social sciences at least can make one aware that the modern culture is not the only way that human beings have culturally reproduced themselves. This was Dawson’s point about the value of sociology. I want to amplify the point, and say that one should not drink from the well of modernity without swallowing the pill of the social sciences. One needs an antidote for that kind of water.
On the other side of the issue, the progressives not only drink the water of modernity, and swallow the pill, but continue to swallow the pill. Since the 1960s, their criticism has moved along one or another of these two lines. First, it is argued that there is no such thing as a traditionless, ahistorical, and decultured hierarchy of knowledge. With some qualifications, this claim is more than a half-truth, which, unfortunately, is usually canceled out by the next line of thought. Second, it is asserted that these hierarchies are nothing but thinly veiled expressions of power, reflecting the imperialism of a gender, class, race, or whatever. Those who follow the first line call for cultural relevance — namely, that ideas and lists of books reflect more closely the cultural grounds. They insist that more works by women, third worlders, blacks, etc., be represented in order to broaden perspective. Those who follow the second line are not satisfied with cultural relevance and diversity but, rather, insist that all claims be unmasked as a will to power. As Michel Foucault argues, educational curricula (like hospitals, prisons, and modern factories) are modern institutions in which the inner life is made public for the purposes of surveillance, discipline, and the exercise of power.  Foucault is probably the most influential social theorist of our time; it is his work that is in the background of the Stanford controversy. From what I have been able to gather from it — that is, from reading and from having to teach it — Foucault’s work is powerful precisely because he reaches into the historical and empirical level of social institutions, taking liberal pieties about rights and liberation and then examining them on a level that the liberal Brahmins of our educational institutions disdain. Foucault’s work is dark; morally, it is a dead end; but I can understand why young faculty and students are enthralled and why they do not believe that Secretary Bennett and Allan Bloom have the foggiest idea of what they are talking about.
The two prongs of the progressive critique (cultural relevance and the will-to-power thesis) often go hand in hand in the academy today. For example, in a recent forum in Harper’s, Ellen Spivak (an Andrew Mellon Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Pittsburgh) argued on the one hand that the canon of great books must reflect not only the culture of Old Europe but also the history of Africans and Native Americans — giving special emphasis to the history of slavery and genocide of non-Western peoples; on the other hand, she contended that the legacy of Western humanism is “the story of the straight, white, Christian man of property” — a story that “covers up” other stories and therefore is an “unacknowledged power play”.  Every document of culture, she warns, is a document of barbarism.
There are many problems with this self-engulfing sociology. First, one begins by asserting the primacy of the sociological approach to ideas, which in turn yields the position that culture is not valuable; indeed, the sociological approach itself is only another instance of will to power. There is nothing in principle to prevent the judgment that these young professors are using Foucault to make their own professional power play. Second, historically speaking, it is amazing that anyone should claim that the story of Western humanism is the story of white, heterosexual men of property: (a) Homer, Aristotle, Augustine, and the authors of the Scriptures were not “white” men; Socrates and Plato were perhaps not entirely “straight”. (b) Virtually none of the medieval works were written by men of property. Spivak’s remark in this regard indicates, despite herself, the need to ground great books in history and culture: she does not seem to recognize the most elementary facts about the racial and cultural pluralism of the Mediterranean peoples. The conservative response is that ideas transcend race and gender, but my point is rather that one first needs to see them in their particular cultural and sociological settings. (c) Although the canon overwhelmingly includes male authors, the notion that those who write books are the most powerful and prestigious members of the culture is a rather Western assumption. Third, the suggestion that we should, as Dawson once complained,  kick away the ladder of European historiography would be in vain, for Spivak’s own claims make sense only from a Eurocentric perspective. The imperialism that she decries makes sense, of course, only against the backdrop of European colonialism and the international scope of that expansion. Any effort to understand non-European cultures (such as Indochina) without understanding the ideologies spawned in Europe and implanted internationally is doomed — much of Asia lives under regimes organized by a nineteenth-century German ideology. In this regard, I am reminded of a theology professor I had as an undergraduate, who recommended that the class read Black Elk Speaks. The book, he opined, showed that Sioux Indians had a well-developed theological culture that was in many ways “Christian”, perhaps more Christian than conventional Christianity. Several years later, quite by accident, I learned that Black Elk was a Jesuit-trained catechist. So much for ideas and books that fail to connect with actual historical conditions.
Finally, the progressive position does not really draw the mind to cultural pluralism but, rather, constitutes an ersatz, syncretic culture having reality only in the minds of academicians. If the conservative great books programs are a bag of nouns, the progressive versions are a bag of verbs, reflecting reactions against Western culture by literate academicians. For example, if we look at the list of books recommended for the course “Culture, Ideas, Values” last year at Stanford, one does find Augustine, Freud, the Bible, Weber, and Shakespeare; but one also finds texts with titles like these: Black Jacobins; Voodoo in Haiti; In Defense of the Indians; Vindication of the Rights of Women; The Woman Warrior; Travel in Hyperreality. I am probably revealing my ignorance, but I have never heard of at least a third of the books on the list. For all I know, they are good books. But my point is that the list does not reflect any concrete culture or any culture-forming process. One doubts that the book Voodoo in Haiti represents an interest in Caribbean culture.
The progressives at Stanford and elsewhere, despite themselves, are providing a service. One can, with certain qualifications, be sympathetic to their critique; for what they have done is to call the bluff on what remains of Western humanism. The bluff is this: that one can enjoy the artifacts of a culture without enculturation in the process that produces those artifacts: (1) that one can grasp at even an elementary level what is going on in Augustine’s Confessions without knowing something about the difference between Christian prayer and psychoanalytic introspection; (2) that one can grasp the ideas in the Declaration of Independence without any appreciation for the religious and cultural context; (3) that one can recommend Shakespeare’s sonnets to students even while recommending in the real culture the primacy of television — as in the I960s, when authorities tacitly admitted the equality if not the supremacy of pop culture while trying to hold the line on the curriculum. There is no such thing as traditionless knowledge, no art or ideational products outside of institutions, no culture without religion. It seems to me that the progressives have called this bluff. Why should one read the Song of Roland rather than The Woman Warrior or Augustine’s Confessions rather than Voodoo in Haiti? Judgments of this sort cannot prescind from culture; even if a book has transcultural meaning and value, one cannot start there; the judgment moves from the particular to the universal. Failing to stand in a cultural tradition, claims about the relative superiority of certain ideas or books will appear to be just what the radicals say they are — namely, assertions of power. Like recommending that people learn English or a computer language, one might argue that the more traditional — looking canons of great books have value because they are practical — which is another way of saying that they help people accommodate themselves to a power structure. I am not sure that the liberal Brahmins of our schools have any argument left.
Dawson’s theory of education will go nowhere today. First, it focuses upon Christian culture as being the specific backbone of the West. Second, it defends the Eurocentric perspective — which is one of the main points of his book Christianity in East and West. Any effort today even to suggest that one needs the Western perspective if only to understand the plight of the non-Western world is doomed to failure. Third, the modern university is too bureaucratically complicated to enact any curricular reform as nuanced as Dawson’s. If you go back and look at his program in The Crisis of Western Education, you will see that he wanted to organize the curriculum according to an historical scheme: the student is introduced to subjects like law and art and philosophy as the subject matter emerged from within particular cultures. History departments cannot organize history that way, and it is entirely unrealistic to expect a university- wide curriculum of this sort. Nevertheless, the general point Dawson wanted to make about the importance of history and sociology is still valid. What is important today are not the details of Dawson’s curriculum but the problem it was geared to address.
Dawson’s ideas were by and large rejected by Catholic educators. The program was viewed either as insufficiently scholastic or as too interdisciplinary for the modern university. But the same people who regarded Dawson suspiciously then were the ones who presided over the dismantling of scholastic philosophy and theology a few years later. About the time of Dawson’s death, Catholic educators in America declared the older forms of knowledge to be provincial, obsolete, and foisted upon Catholics by ecclesiastical authority. The whole thing was acted out just as Dawson predicted it would be.  To argue that students ought to have three courses in philosophy is to draw upon an historical context of shared expectations about how various disciplines and inquiries ought to be integrated: to argue that all students must have courses in human nature, metaphysics, and ethics is to presuppose somewhat more; and to suppose that the content of those courses should give a prominent place to Aquinas’ philosophy is to assume an even more specific history. As a general rule of thumb, I believe it is true to say that the material that has the most transcendent and transcultural value is also the material that rests most precariously upon contingent and historical sensibilities, requiring the kind of training that only a determinate cultural tradition can afford. When the cultural tradition is lost, it becomes virtually impossible to argue for the value of its artifacts.
Alasdair MacIntyre has recently (1988) written a book entitled Whose Justice? Which Rationality? One of the main points of the book is that moral and legal conceptions of justice are rooted in traditions and institutions. MacIntyre points out that discourse about justice becomes fruitless if none of the interlocutors are themselves rooted in a tradition. Discussion and inquiry into the relative merit and superiority of ideas must begin somewhere. What we have seen in the Stanford debate is the fruitlessness of starting from nowhere — by which I mean that none of the parties to the dispute are willing to live in and avow the historical and cultural contexts of the ideas or lists of ideas. Rather, as I said, the context turns out to be an ersatz academic culture, unrelated in any concrete way to a real culture (either past or present, either mainline or marginal). And this is what Catholic schools are coming to resemble; for, as anyone who teaches in a Catholic school can attest, what is billed as the uniquely Catholic component of the college (campus ministry) usually turns out to be a weird little subculture, like the bar in Star Wars, that has little connection to any sociological reality beyond the gates of the campus. This, I suggest, is precisely what Dawson feared and tried to warn his American audience about some thirty years ago. The problem cuts deeper than issues of orthodoxy and heterodoxy, for those issues already presuppose some determinate sense of history and culture.
The Catholic Intellectual Renaissance earlier in this century made extraordinary contributions in literature, philosophy, and theology. It did not happen by accident. Catholic institutions, as well as the surrounding secular culture of the late nineteenth century, still contained the conditions for a renewal of those disciplines. Today, any prospect for another renaissance of Catholic thought will require a more direct reckoning with the social sciences-both for their diagnostic power and for the reminder that all of the important things have sociological feet.
Hittinger, Russell. “Christopher Dawson: A View from the Social Sciences.” In The Catholic Writer: The Proceedings of the Wethersfield Institute 2 (1989): 31-47.
Reprinted by permission of the author and the Wethersfield Institute.
The purpose of the Wethersfield Institute is to promote a clear understanding of Catholic teaching and practice and to explore the cultural and intellectual dimensions of the Catholic Faith. The Institute does so in practical ways that include seminars, colloquies and conferences, especially as they pursue our goals on a scientific and scholarly level. The Institute publishes its proceedings.
Russell Hittinger is Professor of Philosophy and holder of the Warren Chair of Catholic Studies and a Research Professor in the School of Law at the University of Tulsa. He is on the editorial boards of First Things and the American Journal of Jurisprudence and has published and lectured widely in the areas of political philosophy, philosophy of law and religion.
Copyright © 1989 Ignatius Press
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