In 1943, five Christians asked how an increasingly secularized and religiously indifferent populace might best be educated? Their impact—or lack thereof—is evident if you visit the street where we live.
Kathy and I live on College Avenue in Annapolis, Maryland. Sit on our front porch and you see two colleges. Across the street is St Johns College, founded as King Williams School in 1696. Two blocks down is the United States Naval Academy, founded in 1845.
The two schools appear to be quite different. St. Johns is a Great Books school. It’s contemplative. The Naval Academy is a military school. It has a bias for action. Yet each school, in its own way, represents errors that five Christians warned against in 1943.
1943 was the turning point in World War II. Alan Jacobs describes it in The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. In January of that year, Allied leaders convened in Casablanca to plan for the remainder of the war. Victory seemed inevitable. They set about establishing a post-war world that would overcome the errors of the old.
Individual colleges and universities were wrestling with that same question. “The unspoken question underlying all these explorations was the same,” Jacobs writes, “if the free societies of the West win this great world war, how might their young people be educated in a way that made them worthy of that victory—and that made another war on that scale at worst avoidable and at best unthinkable?”
Five Christians were wrestling with that same question in 1943. T. S. Eliot, Jacques Maritain, W. H. Auden, Simone Weil, and C. S. Lewis challenged the West to reject the most dehumanizing aspects of modern culture and to recover a rich Christian heritage.
They challenged with rich prose and poetry. Eliot wrote Four Quartets (1943). He complemented this with his Idea of a Christian Society and Notes toward a Definition of Culture. Lewis completed some of his most popular books, including The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity. Meanwhile, he sheltered children from the Blitz at his home in the Oxford countryside, giving him the germ of an idea for a marvelous fantasy story.
All five felt that the Second World War was a symptom of the modern West’s dehumanization. By that, they meant mass education had become technological (they foresaw the rise of STEM education). All five recognized the older tradition of learning as a preparation for contemplating eternal realities—of the “permanent things,” as Eliot would call them—was disappearing. How could it be recovered?
Not easily. In fact, some would say the recovery never happened. Education instead diverged into three schools of thought: positivism, rationalism, and privatization.
Positivism asserts that facts are the domain of science (true knowledge); faith is merely values (or preferences). The Naval Academy is a positivist school. So are most colleges and universities. Facts are for the classroom. At the Academy, faith is relegated to Tuesday nights, when all ECAs (extracurricular activities) are allowed to meet.
George Orwell recognized the problem with positivism in 1941. It reduces faith to only utilitarian value. God-talk serves the institution. In the case of the Naval Academy, it promotes patriotism. God wrapped in the American flag. Orwell warned this Christianity would be “as weak as straw.”
Rationalism is God wrapped in Aristotle’s robes. It came from the likes of Mortimer Adler and Richard McKeon at the University of Chicago. They recognized positivism had no transcendent absolutes. So Adler made a place to religion inside a hierarchy of knowledge: from “history to science, from science to philosophy, from philosophy to theology.” True knowledge of God had to be rational, pursued via dialectical means, primarily in seminars. St. Johns is a rationalist school. Religion is not relegated to ECAs, but students tell me the Bible is read as merely good literature.
Small wonder Christian schools gained popularity after World War II. But too often they espouse a privatized faith, a blend of positivism and rationalism. Positivism: I keep my faith to myself in the workaday world. Rationalism: I try to reason people out of positions they never reasoned their way into.
The greatest error emerging from the Second World War is that all five Christians were largely ignored by the wider educational world. They had the right idea, but as the brilliant sociologist Peter L. Berger reminds us, “ideas don’t succeed in history because of their inherent truthfulness, but rather because of their connection to very powerful institutions and interests.” Our elite colleges didn’t take Lewis and Eliot seriously.
College students are returning to school this month. Most will attend a positivist college. A few will attend a rationalist college. If you’ve never seen these two up close, visit the street where we live. We’ll enjoy drinks on the front porch and discuss how an increasingly secularized and religiously indifferent populace might best be educated.
 Alan Jacobs, The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (Oxford Press, 2018), 9.