Avoiding The Higher Illiteracy

Michael Metzger

U2 lead singer Bono once joked, “We started a rock band to avoid college.” No joke. It gave Bono an advantage that few who go to college enjoy.

Bono’s new book Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story was published in December. He’s since been crisscrossing the globe doing interviews, including one in the New York Times. You might find it interesting. I did. Bono’s learned a few things you don’t learn in college.

The first (I’m quoting Bono) “is the off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce, it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.” You don’t learn this in most American colleges and universities. Capitalism is decidedly uncool. Bono admits to once feeling this way. “I ended up as an activist in a very different place from where I started. I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. I now know that’s not true.”

Bono learned this while spending time in countries all over Africa. “They’re like, Eh, we wouldn’t mind a little more globalization actually.” Thomas Pikkety knows why. Capitalism and globalization have created “much more equal societies in terms of political equality, economic equality, social equality, as compared with 100 years ago, 200 years ago.”[1]

You won’t learn this in most American universities, nor will you learn how the medieval church invented capitalism. Yes, we need to tame capitalism according to Bono but coupled with globalization the two have “brought more people out of poverty than any other-ism. If somebody comes to me with a better idea, I’ll sign up. I didn’t grow up to like the idea that we’ve made heroes out of businesspeople, but if you’re bringing jobs to a community and treating people well, then you are a hero. That’s where I’ve ended up.”

That’s where columnist David Brooks has ended up. Last year he confessed to being wrong about capitalism. He made a paradigm shift. Bono’s learned about shifts. In Surrender he writes: “Hard to fix a problem that’s paying everyone’s bills.” That’s Thomas Kuhn’s point in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Societies shift paradigms (underlying assumptions) when a better one come along. But it takes a generation or two as the old paradigm pays everyone’s salaries, from professors to practitioners to pastors.

Bono began shifting paradigms at an earlier age than Brooks. But don’t forget that Brooks went to the University of Chicago, a liberal arts school. Most American colleges and universities are not liberal arts schools. They’re STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics. STEM is important, but severed from the arts it amounts to what Philip Rieff called “the higher illiteracy.”[2] This lessens the likelihood of graduates shifting paradigms.

Rieff knew why. A professor at the University of Pennsylvania, he claimed a “radically skeptical knowledge industry [college] has been built upon the ruins of sacred truth.” It’s “the exact equivalent of invincible ignorance.”[3] The result is the higher illiteracy, invincible ignorance that makes it less likely college graduates will ever make any paradigm shifts.

Paradigms shifts ought to be of interest to Christians as Kuhn got the idea from studying Christian conversion. In older Christian traditions, salvation is a series of conversions—we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Difficult to come into the fulness of salvation if you attended the typical American college or university (or even seminary).

Bono’s salvation has been a series of conversions. His education reminds me to Mark Twain’s quip: Education consists mainly of what we have unlearned. Shifting paradigms involves unlearning, which is why, in avoiding the higher illiteracy, Bono has kept learning.

Next week I’ll tell you how Bono has come to enjoy the higher literacy.


[1] From the French economist Thomas Pikkety’s interview in The Times Magazine (April 2022).

[2] Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks (University of Virginia Press, 2006), xxiii.

[3] Rieff, Deathworks, 56.


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  1. I am listening to the audible version of Surrender, Bono reads it himself and the music is interspersed throughout…It is a wonderful listen, a personal story…highly recommend…

  2. Regretfully, higher education is perceived as nothing more than a credentialing system to get a good job to pay off your college loan. Very few people are attracted to any study in the humanities where the deep questions about life are posed…questions that spur paradigm shifts. As always, this is a heavily nuanced issue if one really wants to get to the truth. The educational institutions themselves have aggravated the problem with annual double-digit increases in tuition costs when the rest of the country was experiencing cost of living increases in the 2-3% range. Now students are saddled with huge loans that often prompt the behavior of selecting majors they believe will generate the most income. Of course, this behavior is heavily supported by their parents. Most liberal arts colleges, including Wheaton College where I attended have seen an explosion in “business majors” at the cost of severe reductions in majors such as philosophy, literature, history, etc.

    I had a previous college President ask how my education at Wheaton contributed to my success in business. My response was that my four years at this school primarily gave me three valuable assets that have serves me well:
    1. It taught me to think deeply, clearly, and logically.
    2. It honed my ability to communicate clearly in writing and orally.
    3. It began the construct of building a Christian world view that enabled me to sort all that I was learning.

    During my later 20’s, I had the privilege of being part of a church with an adult education pastor named JP Moreland who is now considered one of our world’s most prolific Christian philosophers. JP’s enthusiasm instilled within me the desire to become a life-long learner. Mike, you also have played a vital powerful role in spurring my hunger to never stop learning and reading.

    Unfortunately, as the demographic impact of our country’s reduced number of students (couples are waiting longer to start families, birth control, etc.), colleges are competing aggressively for top students who are in short supply. In order to do so they are re-engineering their curriculums to meet the perceived needs of the market. The administrations are between a rock and a hard place. Many are selling their real estate to make ends meet. I guess this is capitalism at work.

    When you step back from this issue of catering to the “market” needs and wants of future students you need to ask the question, “How many 17–18-year-old high school students in our world today are truly equipped with the maturity to make an intelligent decision on something that will cost in excess of a quarter of a million dollars. And yet, we parents are fully prepared to let our students make this decision on their own. I have seen numerous college selections made because the student liked the dorm bathrooms, ivy covered walls, football team, or the dining services.

    I often think back on Peter Kreeft’s work that followed the imaginary conversation between a modern university student and Socrates. Socrates queries the student on why he is studying so intently. The student replies, “so I can get a good grade on tomorrow’s exam.” Socrates responds, “Why is getting a good grade so important?” The student replies, “so I can graduate and get a good-paying job.” Socrates asks why the good-paying job is important and the student completes the circular argument by saying, “So I can afford to send my kids to a school such as this.”

    I am more and more convinced that a huge issue is that the high school graduate (unlike Bono) has not had enough life experience to formulate questions that would result in paradigm shifts. That is why I think ministries such as Clapham can catch people at an age of maturity where they are examining the tough questions about life. Unfortunately, many are trapped in career tracks that have not been well-conceived and see their vocations as merely a tool for putting food on the table. As a result, they are looking for efficiency in earning money. Catching this audience at the precise time they stick their heads up and question, “what is my life all about?” is a crucial moment for one who wants to pursue the “examined life.”

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