The Importance of Preserving Culture - Ch. 1 from "The Crisis of Western Education" by Christopher Dawson

The Origins of the Western Tradition of Education

In chapter one, the historian Christopher Dawson emphasizes the importance of education in the preservation of culture. If there is not a group of educated people in a culture to preserve the beliefs, practices, knowledge, etc. of that culture then it is always on the verge of extinction. Certainly there are other ways besides formal education that pass on culture to a societies' many citizens, but formal education and written information is of supreme importance. Dawson also talks about the the hijacking of this process. If a culture's intelligensia are hijacked, in his words, then there can a revolution in that culture more powerful than any other economic or political one. The second half of chapter one is about how the West took on a double character of both Classical wisdom and high culture and Christian doctrine and spirituality. 

The Preservation of Culture Through Education
What is the origin of education? In the broadest sense, education is part of the passing on of a culture to the next generation. Education is the formal means by which ideas and behaviors are transferred to the youth. This passing on is something that has taken work. Culture is not something built by nature, but by people who fought and strove to generate it. "Culture, as its name denotes, is an artificial product. It is like a city that has been built up laboriously by the work of successive generations, not a jungle which has grown up spontaneously by the blind pressure of nature forces. I tis the essence of culture that it is communicated and acquired, and although it is inherited by one generation from another, it is a social not a biological inheritance, a tradition of learning, an accumulated capital of knowledge and a community of 'folkways' into which the individual has to be initiated." 1

While this aspect of formal education may be relatively new as something available to all members of a first world society, nevertheless culture was faithfully and successfully transmitted amongst all its classes of people through other means such as trades, worship, language, art, stories, and rites of initiation into adulthood. Dawson points out that while many cultures may have developed elaborate ways of educating through oral stories and teaching, formal education resembling that of today was developed in response to those who had literary and written systems that needed preservation, such as in Sumeria and Egypt. This literate class wasn't always necessarily equivalent to the ruling class either. " possessed an immense prestige as the guardian of the sacred tradition on which the very existence of the civilization depended."

Dawson also gives the example of the education system in China which has lasted for thousands of years. It was the Confucian scholars who maintained continuity over the vast number of conquering, defeats, and changes that took place over time. It is this class, these people, that hold a civilization together, because of this knowledge is lost then the culture dies. "The case of China is an exceptionally clear example of the way in which the survival of a civilization is dependent on the continuity of its educational tradition. But a similar relation is to be found in every advanced culture. A common educational tradition creates a common world of thought with common moral and intellectual values and a common inheritance of knowledge, and these are the conditions which make a culture conscious of its identity and give it a common memory and a common past. Consequently any break in the continuity of the educational traditional involves a corresponding break in the continuity of the culture. If the break were a complete one, it would be far more revolutionary than any political or economic change, since it would mean the death of civilization ...". 3

The Development of Education in the West
The Western world too has had a tradition of education just as long. Dawson talks about how from the Greek Sophists, to the Latin Rhetoricians, to the Medieval Monks, to the Renaissance Humanists, to the universities of Europe, the West has incorporated education into the essential life of a functioning society. Without out these pursuits and skills being prevalent in a core part of the population then the city-state could not flourish. 4 Not only the technical skills of education have been important in the West, though. The Greeks, especially with Plato, thought that an essential part of education was the seeking of truth in its highest sense, in the philosophical, spiritual, and religious sense. "Thenceforward the 'liberal arts' of a purely civic education were not enough. They were but the preparation for the real business of higher education, which was to guide the mind by science and philosophy towards its final spiritual goal. And thus the Platonic Academy and the Aristotelian Lyceum created a new type of educational institution which was the archetype of the Western university." 5 

These deep spiritual and metaphysical concerns were not fully shared by the Romans, who though versed in these studies, still focused on the important of running a civil system. Neither the Romans, nor the Greeks, could satisfactorily provide answers for these spiritual longings regardless. It was but a preparation for the coming Christian faith which swept over the world by filling in the gaps in the Classical foundation laid. "The religious needs of the ancient world were satisfied not by philosophy but by the new religion which had emerged so suddenly and unpredictably from beneath the surface of the dominant culture. The coming of Christianity ...". 6 For education, this meant that the Christian West was being formed on a double platform. There was the Classical education of antiquity which continued to be studied, added to the Christian spiritual life. "Thus by the fifth century a synthesis had already been achieved between the two elements, and this remained the foundation of medieval culture and education."

This preservation of both the Classical and Christian would prove more challenging as the Roman Empire spread to the reaches of Gaul and Britain. There they had neither of these sources of enlightenment, neither the long philosophical tradition of virtue, piety, and philosophy, nor the deep spirituality of Christianity. For the barbarians, "The moral ideas were still derived from the primitive heroic ethics of tribal society: virtue was military valor and loyalty, justice was revenge, religion was an instinctive veneration of the dark forces that manifest themselves in the life of the earth and the fates of men and peoples." 8 And so it became even more necessary for the study of the Classics because they kept alive the high culture of the past. As time went on, both of these pillars of learning were united in the preservations centers known as monasteries. "This idea of using the old liberal classical education in the service of the Church and ecclesiastical learning was diffused throughout Western Europe by the monastic movement. ... the rapid flowering of this new Latin Christian culture on barbarian soil shows that the combination of the old tradition of liberal education with the dynamic moral energy of Christianity was not an archaic survival of a dead culture but a vital process which was capable of giving birth to new forms of culture." 9

1 - Dawson, Christopher. The Crisis of Western Education. (New York. Sheed & Ward, 1961). Pg. 3.
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