Book Review: The Crisis of Western Education

Dear Reader,

I recently finished The Crisis of Western Education by Christopher Dawson (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1961). This was a decent book and I am glad I read it as it gave me some new things to think about and new avenues to pursue on my current venture. I am not calling it a must read but if you have some spare time, it is not a bad book.

As the title suggests, Dawson is responding to what he sees as the flaws in the current educational system in America (at least current in 1961 when he wrote it, though I don’t think much has changed).  While he raises some interesting points, I am not willing to climb aboard his particular bandwagon for two reasons. First and foremost, Dawson is a Catholic and ultimately the purpose of his book is to call for a definitively Catholic education. Christian culture, to Dawson, means a unified Catholic (big “C”) culture under one Catholic church (p. 124). He is not unkind and his criticisms of Protestantism are sometimes merited, but he is clearly not a big fan [especially of Luther (p. 28), though he is a little kinder to Calvin (p. 29)].

The other issue I have is in some ways even more fundamental to Dawson’s argument. He starts the book by defining education, and while I love that he does so (I am a big believer in defining terms), his definition is purely anthropological —

” . . . education . . . is what the anthropologists term ‘enculturation,’ i.e. the process by which culture is handed on by the society and acquired by the individual.” (p. 3)

The problem I have with this is that it states what education does in a society but it does not ask what education should be. I am willing to acknowledge that education does produce a common culture but as Christians I think we need to be asking what God’s purpose for education is. This touches on what will be one of our big topics — whether the primary purpose of education is to benefit the individual or the society — and so we will have to come back to it more in depth in another post. For today, I’d like to spend time on some of the other points that Dawson raises–

The first part of Dawson’s book is a history of Christian education. This is the most valuable section of the book (though it is not unbiased). Dawson raises concerns about the classical tradition, some of which he knows are concerns, some of which would concern me though he glosses over them. He mentions, for instance, the strong and long-lasting educational traditions of China but fails to address what seems the obvious question — why did we adopt and adapt the Greek system and not the Chinese? Obviously, there is a historical reason for this as Christianity arose in the west, but we must still ask if there is some inherent value in the Greek way over and above other approaches to education. Dawson suggests that the Greeks and Romans prepared the West for Christianity (p. 9) but if that is the case I would like to see more of an elaboration of this idea. Van Til, whose book I will be reviewing in the coming weeks, argues that Greek culture, not being Christian, is fallen, as all non-Christian culture is, and that we should not look to it for more wisdom than modern secular culture (Cornelius Van Til, Essays on Christian Education, Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1974, p.14). If we were to look to any culture for an educational and intellectual foundation, the obvious choice should be the Hebrew tradition. So, we continue to ask: Why the Greeks? There may be a legitimate answer to this question. Dawson raises the point, but I have yet to read a sufficiently convincing answer.

As he moves into describing the current state of education, Dawson raises (again, some purposefully and some not) some interesting questions and makes some good points which I will only list here briefly:

  • Each educational system seems to have a core subject, or collection of subjects. We might choose history and natural theology or grammar and rhetoric or mathematics (pp. 12, 40). Is there a natural or right choice?
  • Education fits the society which it serves (p. 23). But to what extent should we fit education to out society and to what extent should we use it to transform our society into what it should be?
  • State control of education leads to state-ordained goals and a lack of religion in education (pp. 52, 61ff, 82). What are the roles of church and state in education? Can there be any role for the state without de-Christianizing education?
  • “If the Church were one of these compulsory organizations modern man would be religious, but since it is voluntary, and makes demands on his spare time, it is felt to be superfluous and unnecessary” (p. 132). I love this quote. An excellent argument for viewing Sunday as the Lord’s Day — a day belonging to the Lord and not to us. If it is once ours, we are free to do with it what we will and begin to resent any intrusions into it, even the intrusion of worship.
  • ” . . .the more science a culture has, the more religion it needs” (p. 153). I am not sure I understand what he means by this but I want to know more.

The latter part of Dawson’s book is a call for a Christian education which teaches Christian culture:

“It is vital to the survival of the West that we should recover some sense of our moral values and some knowledge of the spiritual tradition of Western Christian culture. The way to do this is by education, and specifically by making the study of Christian culture an integral part of our educational system, which is theoretically directed to this very end.” (p. 117)

For Dawson, as I said earlier, this Christian education and Christian culture are inherently Catholic and he is dismissive of Protestant efforts  and contributions (pp. 75, 124, 134).

While The Crisis in Western Education comes from a different tradition, and quite passionately so, Dawson writes an interesting and thought-provoking book. This is not a must-read but, if read critically, I think it is a worthwhile book.


5 responses to this post.

  1. […] One author I have reviewed recently, Christopher Dawson, comes very close to making this claim as well. Dawson views the Greeks as having been prepared for Christianity: […]


  2. […] Christopher Dawson The Crisis in Western Education (a Roman Catholic writer) […]


  3. […] Christian approach. Most of my book reviews relating to Christian education are from this period: Dawson (a Catholic), Vos, Van Til, Greg Harris, and Rushdoony. It is no wonder that the modern […]


  4. […] educates its members for life in that community” (p. 114). This is a definition we have seen previously when we looked at Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education. Wolterstorff concludes fro this that we must indeed have our own alternative schools because we […]


  5. […] Education; Revisiting Hebraic vs. Greek Education; Douglas Wilson’s Christian Classical; The Crisis of Western Education; Van Til on […]


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