The Fourth R

Michael Metzger

When Europeans first set sail, they were surprised to discover their technological superiority over the rest of the world. European explorers attributed much of this to one of their inventions, the modern university. Today they’d be surprised at the inferiority of education, especially in the United States. What went wrong?

Exploring the globe was an eye-opener for Europeans. They hadn’t realized how, for centuries, they were the only ones possessed of such technological innovations as eyeglasses, chimneys, reliable clocks, heavy cavalry, and a system of music notation. They excelled at metallurgy, shipbuilding, and farming. And while there were many reasons for Western dominance, historians often cite the rise of the modern university as being particularly important. Here’s why.

The modern university arose in the early Middle Ages, a period when “religion was not a particular way of life but the way of all life,” writes Christopher Dawson, a Catholic historian.1 Religion was considered a reliable resource for making life better, according to Norman Cantor, a medieval period historian. “Medieval culture was a culture of the Book, and in the Middle Ages, the Book was the Bible.”2 The Bible served as source code for hundreds of years, understood as the story for improving life and told in four chapters, creation-fall-redemption-restoration. This “four-chapter” gospel calls men and women to make culture.3 Making culture meant making something of the world, improving on it, so that people flourish.

Flourish is the key word. Anyone can know how to get an education. The “four-chapter” gospel describes why an education matters, what it is for. Scripture pictures the purpose of education as promoting human flourishing. This is why Rodney Stark writes that the modern university was based on the Bible depicting God “as a rational, responsive, dependable, and omnipotent being and the universe as his personal creation, thus having a rational, lawful, stable structure, awaiting human comprehension.”4 College is designed to give graduates a comprehensive view of the world so that they can make something of it, promoting human flourishing. Religion provided the rationale for college, since religion means “to rebind.” Only religion can reconnect us to purpose.

This is why education originally included the four Rs—reading, writing, arithmetic, and religion. For example, religion provided reasons for reading. By the mid-20th century, however, religion had been removed from most colleges. Yet faculty still spoke of educational aims. In 1951, the faculty of the University of Chicago invited T.S. Eliot to address the topic of the purposes of education. Eliot essentially said it requires the fourth R. “If we define the purpose of education, we are committed to the question ‘What is Man for?’ Every definition of the purpose of education, therefore, implies some concealed, or rather, implicit philosophy or theology.”5 Remember, Eliot was not speaking at a religious institution. “As you may have feared,” he continued, “this question raises for me the final question, that of the relation of education to religion.”6

What faculty most fear is these conversations inevitably leading to religion. But in Eliot’s mind, religion is inevitable. “Now we cannot expect to agree to one answer to this question; for with this question, our differences will turn out in the end to be religious differences; and it does not matter whether you are a ‘religious person’ or not, or whether you expressly repudiate everything that you call ‘a religion’; there will be some sort of religious attitude—even if you call it a nonreligious attitude—implied in your answer.”7 Eliot’s point is self-evident. If you desire purpose, religion will be part of the equation. Of course, the challenge is there can be good or bad religion.

The inevitability of religion means it cannot be excised. When modern educators tried, they forgot that nature abhors a vacuum. Good religion will be replaced by some other article of faith. For elite students, the fourth R became reward—prestige, power, and riches. Education became a passport to privilege, a bad religion because it only offers selfish rewards. Elites however only account for 10 percent of the student population. The other 90 percent—hard-working, everyday students—don’t share the same alluring prospects. Their fourth R became rock pile. This too is a bad religion.

In World War II, German and Japanese concentration camps broke the will of prisoners by having them move rocks from one pile to another pile—and then repeat the process day after day. This meaningless task drove many insane. “Meaning, not disconnected facts, is what sane human beings seek,” writes John Gatto in his 1991 book, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling. When students drag heavy backpacks from one class to another, day in and day out, without being given any sense of purpose, it feels like moving a rock pile. Gatto believes education ought to help students find meaning but laments that, “behind the patchwork quilt of school sequences and the school obsession with facts and theories, the age-old human search for meaning lies well concealed.8 If European explorers saw this situation, they’d grieve. They’d recognize what went wrong. The challenge for modern American educators is not to get everyone to agree on one religion but to recognize there is some sort of religious attitude underpinning the purpose of education. It’d be wise to find a good one since religion is inevitably the fourth R.

1 Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York, NY: Sheed and Ward, 1950), pp. 271-72.
2 Norman Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 1994), p. 21.
3 C.f., Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996), One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton: Princeton Press, 2001), and The Victory of Reason: How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2005).
4 Rodney Stark, For The Glory of God: How Monotheism Led to Reformations, Science, Witch-hunts, and the End of Slavery (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003), p. 147.
5 T.S. Eliot, “The Aims of Education,” To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1965), p. 75.
6 Eliot, Aims, p. 107.
7 Eliot, Aims, p. 109.
8 John Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (Philadelphia: New Society, 1991), p. 3.


The Morning Mike Check

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  1. As a modern educator, a Professor and Chair of the History Program, I agree wholeheartedly in your perspective and your historical analysis. Your take, I fear, represents the future continued decline of our country, though if we can raise the alarm enough, perhaps others will hear!

  2. Delighted to see the T.S. Eliot take on the Fourth R. . . . and (as usual) you’ve come up with a powerful depiction of the bad consequences of having gone astray. Rock pile, indeed. No wonder so many students hate school.

  3. Mike, nice job. You paint the Middle Ages almost a bit too kindly, but never mind, the Middle Ages deserves better press and you gave it its over-due due for its bright side. Gatto used the word “meaning” but if I was your editor I’d ask you to squeeze in the word Real to make the R emphasis round-out in a final R. Still, a further comment: Secularists I know sincerely believe their lives are full of meaning and they often very generously propose that we’re all seeking “good things” but that they do so without the imaginary fluff of gods & myths, making their inquiry a lot more pure (and therefore more likely to succeed) because in their asking questions, they’ll ask better questions, having removed superfluous issues. My answer back is, and to put it on a plane with your essay, is that Real Religion includes real questions and not pat-answers. That’s the secularists’ real concern: we religious types have stopped asking questions, and instead we have accepted pat-answers in the form of religion. We appear to them to have a long way to go to keep our own questions real. When we sound or act like know-it-alls is when we lose touch with reality (& religion). You keep raising great questions, and you help me bring up questions I’ve never dreamed of asking! Thanks for keeping it real.

  4. Unlike moderns, people in the Middle Ages believed that religion spoke about reality, not subjective opinion. This shift has made all the difference in the public imagination.

  5. Thanks very much for a most interesting read.
    God still has the final word on things including “Education.” Consider what He said here: “Thus saith the LORD, Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD.” Jeremiah 9:23-24 and again: “There is no wisdom nor understanding nor counsel against the LORD.” Proverbs 21:30 This the “education” a man needs to “know”.

  6. Mike, thank you again for getting me “dialed in” this morning. It’s wonderful to have our common focus clearly stated but in new ways and with fresh information to back it. I appreciate your work!

  7. While I agree with gusto on most points – I can not agree that religion has been removed as the “fourth R.” It appears that this has happened – but the reality is that we have simply excluded MOST religion from our education system. We have done this as a defensive mechanism for protecting the one religion currently held by a majority of academia today – secular humanism layered on atheism.

    Atheists will howl that “Atheism is not a religion – but if you look at what religion is – there is no stretching required in order to apply this label. By definition, religion is: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe…” The atheists base their system of beliefs in this area on the absence of any god – where the Christian is a “monotheist” who bases their understanding on a system that includes one (mono) true God.

    Those who care about education must deal honestly and directly with the reality that as leftists succeeded in driving Christianity from education, they have indeed installed what amounts to a “state religion” by default.

  8. Mike,

    Week in and week out you write some of the most thoughtful, fulsome, and wise articles I encounter on the web. As a (now) teacher of apologetics and worldview in a classical Christian high school in Centreville, VA, almost everything you write on is marvelous food for the next generation. Many are spot on for our conversations any week, Keep persisting,


  9. Mike, thank you for continuing this work of writing to enlighten us to the four-chapter world all around us, and the forces that endeavor to de-root it. The enlightenment gave us “higher education,” which began a slippery slope. I’d like to see us work more trades education into our secondary ed system, so that when students graduate and have the decision to enter the work force or get further training they will really have that choice, rather than being subject to a system that trains them to “think” above all else, and try to get a desk job so that they can “manage” others and make a great salary.

    My personal experience holds true to your thesis. I would have rather been mentored by a business leader than watch my parents transfer their retirement income into the state school coffers so that I might sit under many who desire to “pick apart” my presuppositions, and leave me w/no roots, rather than honor the fact that we all have presuppositions and may learn from one another, and flourish together if we have some sort of root, rather than none.

    Thank God for the few men and women who were connected to their roots, and respected mine, and for those men and women involved in the Fellows Initiative. I almost wish I had found them directly after high school, but alas i think the timing was right.

    Maybe some day we’ll be at the point where high-schoolers can do something like TFI instead of going to a school that will try to “root up” their religious grounding.

    I hope these comments have been helpful. Thanks again for writing.


  10. Makes me think of Prov29:18 (which I like in the KJV):

    “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”

    The ESV has “cast off restraint” for “perish”

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