We Won (but we lost)!

Book Reviews

Jonathan Sircy

Jacobs, Alan. The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. , 2018.

THE BOOK’S SUBJECT AND ARGUMENT

In The Year of our Lord 1943, Jacobs shows what five Christian thinkers thought about the relationship between education and the second world war, and how “Christian humane learning” could be “a force for social renewal.” In assessing the reasons for the war and evaluating how best to make sure such a war could never happen again, Jacques Maritain, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis, and Simone Weil investigated “the relationship between Christianity and the Western democratic social order, and especially about whether Christianity was uniquely suited to the moral underpinnings of that order” (xvi). Jacobs classifies their broad approach as Christian humanism.

Because each of these writers thought of education as a spiritual pursuit that necessarily involved the cultivation of the whole person, they were inclined to favor the humanities and the imagination over and against the sciences and technology. While the Allies won the war, these five writers felt certain that the truncated humanity encouraged by technocratic education would threaten the democratic social order just as surely as Hitler. Jacobs argues that, ironically, “Few subsequent critiques of ‘the technological society’ rival theirs in imagination or moral seriousness. But their prescriptions were never implemented and could never have been: they came perhaps a century too late, after the reign of technocracy had become so complete that none can foresee the end of it while the world lasts.” Consequently, the book celebrates the hard thinking each of these writers did on the topic of education while acknowledging that their thinking did not change the course of history.

QUIRKS

The book is not wholly analytical, but it’s certainly not a straight narrative history. In the preface, Jacobs says he has imitated the opening scene from Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil. As described by Jacobs, this means that each chapter begins with a thinker and jumps from writer to writer when a topic or event brings these disparate figures into conceptual proximity. Ultimately, Jacobs cares more in this volume for the concepts with which these writers are engaging than biography or the fates of nations. I’m sure history buffs will want more history, and the theologically inclined will want more analysis. Jacobs tries to strike a balance between both and frequently succeeds.

HOW TO THINK

The book’s structure and style are more pronounced when contrasted with Jacobs’s previous book How to Think (2017). While that book was written for a broader audience (Harper Collins published it instead of Oxford University Press), its format did not provide Jacobs with much space for extended examples of how to think well in difficult situations. Read in this light, Year of our Lord is a How to Think case study. Importantly, we see some of the principles Jacobs advocated for in action, including:

  • proximity to and constant feedback from people with different points of view (e.g. T.S. Eliot’s MOOT group)
  • writers who did not simply debate to win but because they wanted to learn how best to respond in a Christian way to the demands of the times (the extended private conversations C.S. Lewis and Simone Weil had with clergy about their doubts regarding the war and the proper Christian response to it)
  • the “terministic screens” of language that tend to hide or cover religious and ideological commitments (e.g. the keywords “humanism” or “force” or “individual”).

EDUCATION Part 1

The second world war shook many of the Allied nations’ thinkers, both Christian and secular. Once they decided that winning the second world war was more about morality than technological and military might, they started asking how such a morality had been and could be cultivated. It crossed their minds that they may not be immune to the moral sickness Germany had contracted. Their turned their eyes to the educational system and primarily how that system answered the question, “What is a human person?”

Mortimer Adler, an influential professor at the University of Chicago, went so far as to say that America had more to fear from its professors than they did from Hitler. The problems, as Adler and the University of Chicago’s president Robert Maynard Hutchins saw it, were pragmatism and positivism. Pragmatism denied a transcendental ethic, and positivism favored empirical study more than moral reflection. Neither could explain why America’s democracy was superior to Hitler’s totalitarianism. Adler and Hutchins’s views were contested, but they provide a reasonable foundation for understanding why Jacobs’s five chosen writers started to think in more detail about how Christian-informed education could form the kind of persons who would not fall prey to totalitarianism’s nihilism or democracy’s pragmatism.

HUMANISM

The writers Jacobs explores held Christian Humanism as a model for their own educational ideals. The term “humanism” dates from the Renaissance and designated the study of literature and human letters. Over time, the term took on different meanings. In a particular secular narrative set forth by Enlightenment thinkers, humanism repudiated the stuff-shirted and backwards-looking philosophy of the middle ages. This was only one version of humanism, however. Jacobs shows that humanists had two basic commitments: privileging literature over philosophy and finding truth even in classical and pagan writers. For Christian writers like Jacques Maritain, the real debate was not between Christianity and humanism but between two kinds of humanism. The humanism celebrated by atheists offered an arrested vision of humanity that led to ruin because it was anthropocentric. It was only Christian humanism, insisted these writers, that could properly see who people were because of its focus on God. Simone Weil offered a counterbalance to Maritain by arguing that humanism’s problems were less a secular assault on Christianity than a kind of corruption internal to Christianity.

FORCE

The imagination was the battleground for this debate between competing humanisms. The writers Jacobs studies, particularly Auden and Lewis, saw the imagination under attack by demonic powers while non-Christian writers tended to talk about “forces” to which humans were subject or, even more delusionally, “forces they could harness and control. For example, Auden identified Freud’s psychoanalysis as a particularly invidious lie because it attempted to offer a scientific rationalization for something that was at its heart spiritual. Lewis concurred. Humanism without Christianity disembodies us and makes us subject to demonic power. The difference between an unregenerate and regenerated imagination is immense. It’s telling then that both Auden and Lewis responded to their cultural dilemmas with imaginative literature. Auden writes a poem, For the Time Being, that spells out the way in which Christ brings the City of God. Lewis writes The Screwtape Letters and the Out of the Silent Planet trilogy to help diagnose the tension between believing that there are things beyond rational comprehension that move and act in the world and explaining the world in terms of sheer force. The skeptics claim the belief in demon powers is a kind of prison. Auden and Lewis believed that the real prison came from believing there was no prison.

The other writers that Jacobs investigates touch on this topic too. Maritain considers the Christian God an alternative to a world dominated by “blind force.” Simone Weil claims that it was during the Romanesque civilization of the tenth and eleventh centuries, rather than in 14th Century Italy, that the true Renaissance occurred. She claims the Catholic Church, had too often enforced its universality tyrannically and compromised the church’s true humanism. T.S. Eliot, through his poetry and prose, wrote about the best way of responding to the forces of war: obedience.

EDUCATION Part 2

In 1943, the Allies were confident they were going to win the war. If, as the war started, the five writers under examination were asking how education was responsible for the war, they were now asking how education might prevent another war from happening.

Their answers involved a Christianity-infused focus on the person. It is when education becomes focused on producing a mass of students who only learn technical expertise that it fails. In his book Education at the Crossroads, Jacques Maritain insisted that real education was about the “internal and spiritual freedom…achieved by the individual person.” That freedom is spiritual. In The Abolition of Man and its incarnated novel That Hideous Strength, C.S. Lewis argues that the affections are crucial to moral action and are thus in desperate need of moral formation through proper education. Meanwhile, in his address to students at Swarthmore, W.H. Auden argued for education being about vocation and maintained that the ability to find one’s calling apart from pragmatic concerns is what a democratic society supports. That democratic society, Auden continues, can itself only be sustained by Christianity. T.S. Eliot wrote on culture and education and concluded that the more primacy education is given at the expense of the family or other means of social cohesion, the more it will be subject to the whims of the technocrats. Finally, Simone Weil’s monumental 1943 book, The Need for Roots, indicts technology as the great enemy because it conforms human persons to “the social beast” which, in turn, leads to totalitarianism. For her, roots are not collective nor granted by proxy. They can only be personally established through true education.

INFELICITIES

The book is more descriptive than prescriptive. If you are looking for an answer as to who presented the best solution to the questions about how to educate faithfully, you won’t necessarily find it (though you will see Jacobs distance himself from Eliot’s 1943 prose). Consequently, you won’t find an easy way to apply the recommendations we do receive from these authors into anything like a contemporary educational curriculum.

TAKEAWAY

For these writers, the cultural effects of industrialization were a greater enemy to Christianity than either globalism or nationalism. A one world government or strong nation are frightening ends, but the totalitarian dictator and the democratic social order can end up relying on similar means: a military industrial complex and an educational system that builds technicians rather than morally cultivated people.

RECOMMENDATION

The book’s scope is narrow but deep. The five writers Jacobs examines are not dissimilar, but they’re certainly not copies of each other. As Jacobs admits, any kind of detailed engagement with the books these five writers produced would run in excess of 1000 pages, so Jacobs has done an admirable job of introducing us to a rich conversation and then providing the context for understanding why that conversation mattered. If you feel that education plays an important role in our current cultural, political, and religious climate, Jacob’s book provides a primer for seeing what really intelligent Christians have written under extremely difficult Christian circumstances. If we feel that we must ask for Christianity and education to renew their vows to teach other, we can take comfort in knowing that the precedent for those vows have been and that God providentially directed their steps.