The Christian Liberal Arts, Citizenship, and Power

Is a value of the liberal arts that they produce good citizens? Should Christians also argue that such an education helps keep America powerful?

Fea, Why Study HistoryAs self-proclaimed defenders of the liberal arts like myself set about their task, they trumpet the many benefits of a well-rounded education that includes a healthy dose of seemingly impractical disciplines like history and philosophy. One common argument here is that the liberal arts produce better citizens.

For example, as historian John Fea considers the nature of American civil society in his excellent new book, Why Study History?, he argues that democracy requires “individuals who understand that their own pursuits of happiness must operate in tension with obligations and responsibilities to a larger community. Citizens realize that their own success, fate, and ability to flourish as humans are bound up with the lives of others” (p. 111). How are such citizens to be formed? Fea contends that “one small way of cultivating the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy is through the study of history” — for example, through its “potential to cure us of our narcissism… to see ourselves as part of a much larger human story” (pp. 117-18).

Likewise, The Heart of the Matter, a report issued last year by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, presented the arts and humanities not simply as worthy of study in and of themselves, but as means by which this country has historically prepared good citizens. Looking to the future, it argued that such an education was increasingly indispensable because of globalization:

Now more than ever, the spirit of international cooperation, the promotion of trade and foreign investment, the requirements of international diplomacy, and even the enhancement of national security depend in some measure on an American citizenry trained in humanistic and social scientific disciplines, including languages, transnational studies, moral and political philosophy, global ethics, and international relations. (p. 57)

Now, as a historian who finds American democracy a generally admirable polity, I tend very much to agree with Fea and (particularly as an international historian) the authors of the AAAS report. For the sake of pursuing the common good in our own society and beyond it, Americans should not view education as mere job preparation. They would do better to choose educations that cultivate empathy and humility, critical thinking, knowledge of other cultures and languages, greater comfort with ambiguity and paradox, and the ability to communicate well (including the skill of listening).

Peter drawing the sword in "The Capture of Christ"
Peter striking Malchus in the anonymous 16th century painting, “The Capture of Christ” – Wikimedia

But I also need to acknowledge that, as a Christian, I’m called to an alien citizenship. We are told by the apostle Peter to “accept the authority of every human institution,” but also to live as “aliens and exiles” (1 Pet 2:11, 13). The ancient words of the Letter to Diognetus still serve as a good guide to Christians struggling to inhabit this tension:

…although [Christians] live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth.They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land… They busy themselves on earth, but their citizenship is in heaven.They obey the established laws, but in their own lives they go far beyond what the laws require.

So while the Christian liberal arts should produce the same kinds of civic virtues as any form of that educational model, they should also form people who both care for this world and know that their home is beyond it, that their highest citizenship is not in the City of Man but the City of God. I think we need to be careful in claiming civic value for the Christian liberal arts.

Because otherwise, we might be tempted to make claims like the one made recently in International Affairs Review by graduate student Samuel Doo:

The impact of liberal arts on national security isn’t as quantifiable as technological and scientific innovations. It is easy to grasp how a new source of energy or innovative weapons system benefits a country. Things become less clear when it comes to intellectual matters, but they have much to offer if policymakers are willing and able to address them. History isn’t just memorizing facts and dates; it is about learning lessons for future application. Sociology challenges us to look at our collective shortcomings and to act upon them. Art and literature allow us to transcend cultural boundaries by celebrating our creativity, the most defining feature of human beings. Philosophy compels us to constantly reevaluate ourselves and to question what we know. For better or worse, the United States has held the predominant role in setting the agenda of international affairs and the primacy of American ideas and culture has been a decisive factor in its capacity to do so.

Saunders, Who Paid the Piper?
On the CIA and Abstract Expressionism, Doo presumably alludes to the work of British journalist Frances Stonor Saunders

As we enter a world where U.S. military power declines in relation to other emerging powers and unilateral action becomes less feasible, soft power will continue to gain prominence. Still, it would be a mistake for policymakers to push a top-down approach towards promoting soft power. While the CIA’s sponsorship of Abstract Expressionism was a resounding policy success, the intellectual legitimacy of this artistic movement would have been jeopardized if the CIA’s involvement had been exposed. The government’s role should be limited to ensuring an environment where intellectualism can flourish and the liberal arts are valued. Powerful ideas are best produced in the competitive environment of the public sphere where they are vigorously debated and refined. With that in mind, policymakers would be wise to ensure that the United States continues to be at the forefront of generating intellectual capital or else risk losing one of its most powerful assets in the arena of international affairs.

I suppose I should be happy to add one more rhetorical arrow to my quiver: “Of course the liberal arts matter: if Americans don’t study history and philosophy, the USA won’t be a superpower!” But as a Christian historian (and I have no idea Doo’s religion, if any) who wants to educate young people who “busy themselves on earth” but know that “their citizenship is in heaven,” I’m more than a little uneasy with helping one particular nation-state accrue even “soft” power — particularly knowing the violence, injustice, and hypocrisy that have too often resulted from the exercise of that power. What’s even more troubling, however, is (as Doo suggests by allusion to the CIA’s use of artists in the Cold War) that I might be serving such ends whether I like it or not.

Is it possible to navigate this paradox? Can we liberally educate “alien citizens” without empowering one particular earthly kingdom?


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