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.