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Education and the Transmission of Culture

Dr. Robert Jackson, the first long-standing headmaster of The Heights School, used to say that education was about transmitting a culture. He was not alone in such a view. T. S. Eliot, for instance, wrote that “the purpose of education […] is to transmit a culture” (Christianity and Culture, 172). Chesterton put it a different, though similar, way: “Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another” (G. K. Chesterton, “Small Property and Government”). Pope St. John Paul II – a man whose biographer, George Weigel, described as taking a “culture first” approach – in an address at the headquarters of UNESCO, remarked that “…the first and essential task of culture in general – and also of all culture – is education.” Education and culture are inseparable friends.

In light of the importance of culture for the work of schools, The Heights hosted a conference last spring in which the question of fostering and transmitting a culture took center stage. Drawing on conversations started at that conference, I would like to consider more deeply what culture is, how it is transmitted, and what role schools – especially primary and secondary schools – have to play in this perennial work. 

Defining Culture

Similar to words such as “love” or “art” or “humanity,” the word “culture” is used in different contexts by different people to mean slightly different, though related, things. On the one hand, the word is used broadly to imply everything that makes a community what it is: traditions, customs, food, parades, values, language, the arts. On the other hand, “culture” often takes a narrower meaning. Someone is “cultured” when he knows something of the fine arts or classical music or theater; this use of the word is sometimes paired with the modifier “high.” Given the wide range of uses for the word, it’s important to be clear what we mean by “culture” when we speak about how education transmits culture. 

T. S. Eliot called culture the “incarnation of the religion of a people” (Christianity and Culture, 101). According to Eliot, culture consists of the manifold ways in which a community embodies its ultimate values. The University of Notre Dame community, for example, highly values football, and this value is especially visible every Saturday in October, embodied by the traditions of the university’s football faithful. Eliot’s definition of culture is, I think, good because it is particular enough to have a definite meaning while remaining universal enough to apply to the many things people mean when they use the word. The definition, moreover, is rooted in a proper anthropology that understands man as a rational and social animal. As a rational and social animal, man knows and loves; he desires goods not only sensibly, but also rationally. As a rational and social animal, he does so in relation to others; he pursues not only private goods, but common goods. As a rational and social animal, his way of knowing and loving and relating is embodied; he is most at home in the world of concrete being; and even his abstractions tend to take shape in his mind. Thus, Eliot’s definition contains three elements: culture is embodied (“incarnation”); culture pertains to ultimate goods (“of the religion”); and culture is social (“of a people”).

One way to think about Eliot’s definition of culture is to say that culture consists of a community’s best practices for heaven. Here, by heaven, I mean that which a community sees as its ultimate purpose or goal: what it means to be flourishing, to be fully alive. Understood in this way, every community has a vision of heaven – whether implicitly or explicitly – which informs its understanding of what it means to be living well here and now. Even a culture that is blind to a literal afterlife still has its own sort of heaven, which may be an after-the-working-life. A culture’s vision of heaven informs every part of that culture, from how it understands work, to how it approaches rest, to how it sees leisure. 

If a given culture’s view of “heaven” is essentially a comfortable retirement, for example, then the best practices for heaven will be something along the lines of working hard to go to a good university, to then get a high-paying job (the worth of work being judged primarily in monetary terms), to then be able to support a comfortable and enjoyable retirement. For rest, one should spend time doing whatever is pleasing to him, since that is what he’ll be doing in retirement. Giving to charity may be good if it makes one feel good; children could be nice (though they are likely not necessary for success) so long as there aren’t too many and they aren’t too disruptive; religious services could be a good thing to attend when convenient, especially if one’s friends also go and the homily or music are decent.

If, on the other hand, a culture understands “heaven” to be lovingly contemplating God in friendship with others, then the best practices for heaven will involve learning to see truly and commit fully, learning to enjoy the beauty of reality as such. Work becomes an opportunity to grow in one’s capacity to love by serving others attentively, and leisure affords one the chance to participate with friends in activities that are beautiful and, therefore, worthy of doing for their own sake. Committing to a spouse and welcoming children become opportunities for generous self-gift, ways to expand one’s heart. The sacraments become the source and summit of one’s life, as they are a gift from God and a foretaste of heaven. Of course, money and a good retirement are still important, but for different reasons and with a different level of relative importance. Money affords one more opportunity to serve others munificently, and retirement affords one more availability to love others, especially grandchildren, by spending time with them. 

Having certain goods and embodying those goods in certain ways, a culture is like a novel. Indeed, a culture is like a book that helps one to read, see, understand the world. Similar to a novel, every culture presents its own story of the world, complete with a genre, certain rules of how things work, an overarching plot, and character types. As Flannery O’Connor wrote, the work of fiction is “to embody mystery through manners” (Mystery and Manners, 124). Like works of fiction, cultures present a way of seeing the world, of relating to the Creator of the world, and of relating to the creatures within the world. Like works of fiction, moreover, there is not one and only one good way of seeing the world; multiple cultures may embody the same or similar goods in a diversity of ways, none of which are absolutely better. Writing about the Catholic faith, Pope Benedict XVI wrote in Verbum Domini: “The word of God is capable of entering into and finding expression in various cultures and languages.” In other words, there is not one and only one culture which alone can embody the Faith.

An important caveat, however, is in order. While every culture has, as a matter of fact, certain goods that it values and certain ways that these values are embodied, and while there may be a multiplicity of ways to embody these goods, not every culture is equally disposed to human flourishing. A given culture may err in its values, or it may err in the way these values are lived. For instance, a community may verbally be committed to the right values, but practically contradict them by the actions it takes; or, it may simply value the wrong things or the right things in the wrong order. To keep the novel analogy, there are bad – that is, not truthful, not beautiful, not conducive to human flourishing – ways to view reality and a culture informed by false views of reality cannot but be bad for those in it.

Transmitting Culture

It is perhaps helpful to start by saying what transmitting a culture is not: transmitting a culture is different from merely learning about a culture. A culture is transmitted when a child chooses to enter into a particular way of seeing the world, his relationships with others, and God. Transmitting a culture is like learning a language: in part, it occurs by way of books and lessons; but it is best if such learning is done in the context of full immersion, osmosis within a culture. This osmosis occurs principally in the home. As one’s mother tongue remains closest to his heart, so too with the culture one receives in the home. “The primary channel of transmission of culture,” wrote Eliot, “is the family…” (Christianity and Culture, 115). The way a family transmits a culture is, in the first place, by having its own particular family culture, which is a microcosm of a broader culture, of which it is a part and which it in part forms. As John Paul II reminded us, the family is “the basic culture creating environment.” As the family goes, therefore, so too the broader cultures of the world.

All things being equal, this family culture is what a child will most deeply absorb. In Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote, “my first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery” (46). To say that parents are the primary educators of their children is both normative and descriptive. Parents should be the primary educators because this is most natural to humans; and parents are the first educators because, as a matter of fact, theirs is the most powerful influence on a child. 

Within the family, parents transmit a culture by way of matter and meaning, embodiment and explanation, manners that express mystery. A child first sees his father kneeling, sees him dress well for work, sees him dance with his mother after dinner; and over time he too learns more fully what prayer is, why work is good, what love is. If he merely heard about these things without also seeing them, the transmission would be incomplete; likewise, if he just saw certain actions without learning about them, he would not understand the significance of those customs and ways of acting. Importantly, parents are a child’s first image of who God is and how God relates to them. They come to see – or not see – embodied in their parents what it could mean to say God is their loving Father and that God is a communion of persons.

Family traditions also facilitate the creation and transmission of culture; they are like culture shots. Celebrations communicate and draw children into a lived experience of what the family ultimately values. A family that intentionally celebrates the sabbath, avoiding unnecessary work, communicates something about the relationship between work and leisure, and their relative value.

How Schools Transmit Culture

Schools exist to assist parents in educating their children. In a letter on education, St. Josemaría wrote that parents should feel that the school is “an extension of their family” (Euntes ergo, 22). The partnership between parents and a school works best, therefore, when the culture of the home and the culture of the school are in harmony. When this is not the case, one or the other will exert a greater influence – although not so great, as would be the case, were they in sync – on a child’s formation. Though families by nature are powerful culture transmitters, given the current way in which schools are set up, schools can at times exert the greater influence. During the school year, for example, students spend more of their waking hours at school than with their parents. “The state,” wrote Chesterton, “did not own men so entirely, even when it could send them to the stake, as it sometimes does now where it can send them to the elementary school” (The Well and the Shallows). 

A school assists parents by helping them transmit a culture to their children. More than individual lessons or facts or skills, what remains most deeply in a student’s memory will be a school’s overall culture. This culture is something which the students sense from a very early time at a school. For instance, when Head of Middle School Andrew Reed asks new middle school students for their impressions of The Heights compared to the schools they previously attended, students give the same answer again and again: freedom, and a sense that the teachers are entrusting us with something important. Just as someone attending an orchestra performance will not likely remember the details of every individual part that contributed to the piece as a whole, so too a student will, in the end, mainly receive an overall impression of the school’s tone, punctuated by particularly powerful memories of a few specific parts. Jacques Maritain remarked, “culture consists in knowing, but it does not consist only in knowing; it [consists] even more in having known, and in the forgetting of a great many things because we know them too well and because they have passed down from memory into the very marrow of our bones” (The Education of Man). A professor of mine described the effect of education as the formation of one’s taste: education shapes one’s intuition, even if he does not remember every detail of his time at a school.

This sort of formation that a school provides – this transmitting of a culture – occurs in three categories: direct and planned, direct and spontaneous, and indirect. Direct and planned formation occurs any time a faculty member is in front of a student for a particular purpose. This could be anything from class time to an assembly to a rehearsal to an athletic practice. A particularly powerful direct and planned culture transmitter in a school is festival days, on which the faculty and students celebrate important days in the liturgical calendar. Direct and spontaneous formation occurs whenever a faculty member and student are together by happenstance without any particular agenda for being so. This happens, for instance, every time a teacher passes a student in the hallway. Lastly, indirect formation occurs by way of the overall atmosphere and tone of the school, shaped by everything from the architecture of the building to the artwork on the walls to the layout of the spaces. At The Heights, for example, having a living room and carpets on the floors communicates a familial tone.

While all three modes of formation are important, perhaps the spontaneous and the indirect are the most effective. Most students will forget much of what they are directly taught in the classroom; but the tone of the place, set especially by the school head, faculty, and oldest students, will sink into their bones. When they think of what a man or a woman is like, how they behave, their intuition will be shaped by the actual men and women they knew and saw on a daily basis.

A final point: culture is transmitted, not imposed. Without freedom, all that can arise is at best an external performance – an empty shell – that does not touch the inner life of a child. One may make a child go through the motions, but for him to enter fully into a culture and to receive a culture fully, he must have the freedom to do so. Cultures create an environment, but people remain free. A healthy culture, moreover, will be a catalyst for an increase in interior freedom, as it will give him a taste for the good and refine his desire for it by showing, more than merely telling, what a good life is and that such a life is attainable.

The Fruits of a Culture

The fruits depend, I suppose, on the kind of culture that is transmitted: “you shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). There is something rotten in a culture that produces bad fruit: boredom and indifference punctuated by anxious, frenetic work, which aims at ultimately vacuous achievement. A good culture tills the soil of one’s soul to receive the seeds of life and produce good fruit: men and women fully alive, working with the joy of knowing they are stewards of their Father’s vineyard, capable of enjoying a real party. For all our work is, in the end, for heaven; and heaven is a great wedding feast. 

About the Author

Nate Gadiano

Executive Director

Nate is the Executive Director of The Heights Forum. In addition to his work at the Forum, he has also taught Natural History in the Lower School; and currently leads a philosophy seminar for high school seniors.

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