Why Studying History Matters

An excerpt on Dawson from Bradley Birzer's Sanctifying the World. Buy it here.

One such attempt to revive the study of western culture had been made at Columbia University, but Dawson considered it a noble failure. Its western civilization course was centered around the reading of a plethora of primary documents with little or no theme to hold them together. They were abstractions floating in a subjective ether, Dawson thought. First and foremost, Dawson opposed the prestigious university’s core because he viewed it as both unwieldy and ultimately Gnostic. Looking over Columbia’s first-year curriculum, Dawson responded, “No First Year student can possibly absorb such a pabulum. It needs a lifetime to digest it. And the same difficulty stands in the way of all attempts to find the necessary principle of unity in an encyclopaedic subject like World History.” Equally important, the Columbia core program favored politics and economics to the exclusion of literature and religion, Dawson feared. Dawson believed all “Great Books” programs—such as those to be found at the University of Chicago, St. John’s, and the University of Notre Dame—to be potential failures. Lacking an overall narrative, such programs would inevitably prove unable to explain the depth of Christian culture. These programs could never effectively understand “how spiritual forces are transmitted and how they change culture, often in unexpected ways” (231-232).

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