The case for more Church History in Catholic schools

The case for more Church History in Catholic schools

Michael Lynch

It seems quite obvious that the trend in educational thought is now moving in the direction of a renewed emphasis on factual knowledge and against the view that subject content is secondary or even unimportant.

From the mid-1970s it was often argued that students simply needed to learn process or thinking skills to cope with a changing world. In practical terms, it often meant "send them to the library and teach research skills, but don't overwhelm them with facts".

Enough research now exists to suggest that these very thinking skills need a knowledge base in order to function effectively.

However, besides this educational factor there is a broader cultural one of which we need to be aware.

The celebrations surrounding the centenary of Federation have served to refocus attention on our past and more specifically the place of history in our schools. As well, history, far from being irrelevant or unimportant has become central to a number the debates and issues within Australia today. In asking whether or not there was a stolen generation, whether we were invaded or settled, or what is the place of the Anzac tradition, the public is required to draw on knowledge about our past.

Surveys and the general perception is that this knowledge of history, especially among the young, is inadequate and there is increasing pressure for schools to address the issue. Also - and perhaps more importantly - in an increasingly dysfunctional and fast-moving technological society there seems to be a human need to put things in perspective and to understand where we have come from in order to help us make the right decisions for the future.

The Catholic school needs not only to be involved in these debates but also to be aware of the danger of providing its students a watered-down and secular view of history, which leaves no place for the religious factor in the development of our society.

One of the greatest problems with the so-called "neutral" education system developed from the 1870s onwards was its development of an accompanying "neutral" curriculum. Not only was there a system whose upkeep was made compulsory by all taxpayers - even those with real philosophical and ideological concerns over its neutrality - but it became a system which, via textbooks, curricula and the examination system, set the content for all schools.

For those with a genuine concern about this state control there was no real option except to maintain separate education systems, often from scarce financial sources. This systemic effort proved amazingly successful, but it may have masked a more subtle problem which did not become obvious until our own time.

Besides their own excellent religion courses, Catholic schools remained tied to curricula that often not only reflected factual errors about the place of religion in culture in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, but that were based on a fundamentally different view of history and the purpose of human life.

Christopher Dawson

Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), an English Catholic historian, sought to deal with this difficulty in the later years of his life by arguing the need for a course on Christian history and culture in schools. He saw the lack of such a course as one of the great gaps in our Catholic education system. After having been taught using general history textbooks, which ignored or were antagonistic to Christianity, students could emerge with a strong education in doctrine but with a secular view of history and culture. This could explain the rapid drop-out rates of many 1960s Catholics as they entered universities in large numbers.

It may be argued that this falling away from the practice of their faith simply reflected a sort of inferiority complex in relation to the new world of academia, for the many from working-class backgrounds and without a tradition of tertiary education. However, and more cogently, Dawson would possibly have argued that these students simply did not have the informed depth of knowledge to deal with the historical arguments presented either in the lecture rooms or in social situations, which belittled or did not acknowledge the role of Christianity in history.

To counter this difficulty Dawson wished to emphasise a number of key points including that the basis of our Western culture was Christianity, that this showed religion did form culture and furthermore that the human person is by nature religious.

He had already charted the role of religion in cultures in The Age of the Gods in 1928 and how Christianity had formed Western culture in The Making of Europe in 1932. By the time he wrote The Crisis of Western Education in 1958 he asserted that students needed to learn about Christian culture over a range of areas such as theology, philosophy, art, literature, and architecture throughout the whole period of Christian history.

Thus, this sense of history would not be achieved through a collection of isolated dates but through an immersion of the students in the culture and society of a particular time. It can be argued that this would not only imbue them with renewed confidence about how the Church had formed the best in their culture, but, it would also deepen their faith about God's presence and action in the world.

Dawson wished to give students an historical overview of what he termed the six stages of Christian culture: 1) the early years of the Church; 2) the age of the Fathers in the later Roman Empire; 3) the Church's mission to the barbarian tribes during the so-called Dark Ages; 4) mediaeval Christianity; 5) the dividing of Christianity after the Reformation; and 6) the Church in a secularised Christendom.

In doing so he hoped to provide an alternative framework to the periodisation of time into ancient, mediaeval and modern times. Since the beginning of the Enlightenment in the 18th century this periodisation had often been used to argue that the Church was a relic of the so-called Dark Ages without any real relevance to a modern secular world. By providing this framework, Dawson was in a sense freeing Catholic history and showing more clearly the pivotal role of Christianity in our history and culture.

Understanding of Christianity

Within each of these stages Dawson also saw the role of individual saints as important in an understanding of Christianity. Thus alongside the political and economic turmoil of the later Roman Empire, and the rise of a number of heresies, students would be introduced to saints such as Augustine, who had such a unique impact on the thought of Western society.

The mission of the Church to the barbarian kingdoms would allow students to understand not only the cultural and social impact of the early monasteries but also the role of the great saints such as St Columbus, St Boniface and St Patrick in the Christianisation of Europe.

As the Reformation split Europe in two and prepared the way for the secularisation of culture, St Ignatius was to found the Jesuits, who were not only energetic missionaries in Europe and throughout the world but great patrons of baroque art and architecture.

Dawson's last age of a secularised Christendom has witnessed an enormous number of saints, from those martyred during a series of revolutions and wars, to those who lived out seemingly quieter lives such as St Thérèse of Lisieux and the Curé of Ars. Interestingly, our present Pope, by encouraging devotion to contemporary saints and martyrs, has shown that he perceives the positive influence that saints, through their heroic loyalty and witness to Christ and His Church, can have on the young.

Dawson was thus seeking to provide a unified overview of Christian culture in the same manner in which students for hundreds of years had been introduced to the classical world of Greece and Rome.

If he were alive today I believe that Dawson would remind us that Christian history is incompatible with the failed enlightenment view with its denial of the transcendent and the sacred in human history, or the post-modern hang-up about truth and reality and its accompanying relativism and nihilism.

As we enter in the Third Millennium, perhaps Dawson's vision is one way of introducing students to the real meaning of history and society and in doing so we might help build what the Holy Father has called a culture of life.

Michael Lynch is currently undertaking a PhD at Australian Catholic University (Brisbane) on the subject of Catholic history and in particular the work of Christopher Dawson, the noted English historian, who died in 1970. This is his first article for AD2000.

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