Education and the Formation of Culture
We can set many goals for education: career preparation, forming the student holistically, growing in faith, coming to know the truth, etc. All of them are correct from a particular angle, but we can integrate them into a broader goal: cultural initiation.
Culture is a way of life, the social fabric that weaves the interior and exterior threads of our life into a coherent whole. Unlike the goods of nature, culture arises as an artificial and cumulative creation of humanity over time. We inherit cultural norms and practices, which shape our life, as we continue and advance collectively in return.
When it comes to Catholic education, we do not simply form students within the culture of our nation, but seek to impart a way of life centered on our faith, which gives light and life to all elements of culture. The Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Education, Gravissimum Educationis, presents this goal of culture formation to the Church:
No less than other schools does the Catholic school pursue cultural goals and the human formation of youth. But its proper function is to create for the school community a special atmosphere animated by the Gospel spirit of freedom and charity, to help youth grow according to the new creatures they were made through baptism as they develop their own personalities, and finally to order the whole of human culture to the news of salvation so that the knowledge the students gradually acquire of the world, life and man is illumined by faith (§8).
Not only does the Catholic school form culture within its walls, it should serve as a source of cultural renewal in the world through its graduates. Pope Benedict XVI sought to reawaken Catholic educators to the connection of education and culture, stating that “Catholic schools should therefore seek to foster that unity between faith, culture and life which is the fundamental goal of Christian education” (“Address to the Participants in the Convention of the Diocese of Rome,” June 11, 2007). Essentially, this means that our schools should serve as a “school for life,” learning how to be a Christian in the world and to change the world.
All education inculturates—teaching values and forming worldview. Stratford Caldecott explains that “the way we educate is the way we pass on or transform our culture. It carries with it a message about our values, priorities, and the way we structure the world” (Beauty for Truth’s Sake, 17). This is one reason why public schools teach secularism implicitly: if God is absent from instruction, they imply He is absent from life as they provide a bulk of children’s formation. Children today are formed to be moral and metaphysical relativists and these traits now shape our culture.
As we consider how Catholic schools can foster the renewal of culture, we can find guidance in the thought of Christopher Dawson, particularly his Crisis of Western Education (CUA Press, 2013). Dawson proposed refocusing our schools on teaching Christian culture. He noted that until the early twentieth century we had deliberately preserved and taught the great patrimony of classical civilization, as we were still living in the midst of a Christian civilization. Now with the dominance of secularism, we need to teach the key elements of Christian culture in a living and organic fashion (not simply as ancient artifacts or museum pieces). The following passage gives us a glimpse of his proposal:
The essential function of education is “enculturation,” or the transmission of the tradition of culture, and therefore it seems clear that the Christian college must be the cornerstone of any attempt to rebuild the order of Western civilization. In order to free the mind from its dependence on the conformist patterns of modern secular society, it is necessary to view the cultural situation as a whole and to see the Christian way of life not as isolated precepts imposed by ecclesiastic authority but as a cosmos of spiritual relations embracing heaven and earth and uniting the order of social and moral life with the order of divine grace. Christian culture is the Christian way of life. As the Church is the extension of the Incarnation, so Christian culture is the embodiment of Christianity in social situations and patterns of life and behavior. It is the nature of Christianity to act as a leaven in the world and to transform human nature by a new principle of divine life (115).
I would recommend reading his complete proposal for the study of Christian culture (found both in the Crisis of Western Education and Christianity and European Culture) for inspiration on how to reinvigorate Catholic education.
Dawson provides a concrete plan on how we can accomplish the goal of Catholic education: to integrate faith and life and to form our students in Christian culture to be a source of cultural renewal more broadly.
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