Arms and a (Free) Man

As readers of Minding the Campus are no doubt aware, the Supreme Court recently issued a decision regarding a fundamental right named in the Constitution. Not Dobbs, which expunges a would-be right lurking in certain penumbras, but Bruen, which invalidates state laws that unduly restrict citizens’ Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Bruen overturned a New York law, but it will affect other places too, such as my home state of Massachusetts, which have “may issue” laws on their books. It won’t affect me much. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts already deemed fit to issue me a concealed carry license.

I carry a Ruger .22 pistol, which is comfortable, even though, according to the highest government authority, the most it can do is lodge a round in an assailant’s lung. I also have a Canik 9MM. (My preferred choice, the Glock 43, the Commonwealth considers too scary to allow it to be sold to civilian residents.) The same high authority said the 9MM round will blow an attacker’s lung out of his body. Alas, The Science shows that’s just not the case.

But bearing arms goes beyond self-defense. I’ve long thought it holds an intimate connection to liberal education.

When I was a student I considered liberal education an education in freedom, namely, in understanding the principles of liberty, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution. A salutary but rather heady take.

As I got older, I came to see liberal education as an education for freedom, that is, the education proper to people politically free and seeking to free their minds as well. Hence, it consists of dialogue with thoughts and thinkers far beyond the American scene, the “Great Books,” even those (such as by, e.g., Machiavelli, Aquinas, or Plato) that contradict American principles in important respects. It is the “turning of the soul” depicted so memorably in Socrates’ image of the Cave.

Still, does true freedom amount solely to dialectically smacking down ruling opinion and ascending to a fleeting glimpse of nature? It didn’t seem so for Socrates, at least, who hardly ever left the city, and whose life involved much more than whispering in corners with boys.

Which leaves me wondering: are the Great Books-style-programs that many conservatives have long seen as the antidote to Wokism truly enough?

How about including in a liberal education, say, firearms training? Numerous philosophers knew how to handle weapons, at least defensively. As a citizen, knowing how to safely handle a variety of firearms makes one an asset to one’s family and neighborhood, against assailants foreign and domestic. It also helps to instill habits of personal responsibility, without which it’s impossible to have any sort of freedom worthy of the name.

[Related: “The Wrecker”]

Of course, safely using a gun is one of the last bulwarks of freedom. As firearms instructors love to say, “The gun is a tool; you are the weapon.” A lot can go on “Left of Bang,” which, ideally, keeps bang from ever happening. So why not instruct students in the habits of attention and discipline that experience shows make them much less likely to become victims, dependent on government action (or victims of government inaction)?

Fort Knox may seem an unlikely source of insights on liberal education, but from Basic Combat Training there many years ago I learned at least two things that strike me as relevant to liberal education. One was to fight—and to fight dirty. Not many people want to continue a struggle if you poke out their eye or tear off their ear.

Now, I wouldn’t want to see college students missing eyes and ears. But why shouldn’t they learn some basics of boxing or martial arts, or, at the very least, the habits of awareness, readiness, and calm that would allow them to avoid or escape a fight if possible and to end a fight quickly if need be?

The other thing the Fort Knox education emphasized was cleaning, everything. It would be worthy of a new Xenophon to write a book on the centrality of cleaning to liberal education. I’ll only say here that it teaches precision, knowledge of your tools and environment, perseverance, discipline, and pride—all excellent features of a free life.

College dorms won’t be turned into barracks any time soon. (Would this be so bad?) But why not have some inspections and prizes for the cleanest rooms?

Studies of extreme environments show that survival is a mindset. Training makes a difference. Physical fitness matters too. But expert training and Olympic-level fitness don’t fully explain why some people die and others live. Habits of mind prove much more decisive, such as being present, being supple, refusing to look away from reality, seeing humor even in frightening situations, relying on yourself, but also trying to help others. Teaching those habits won’t ensure their emplacement, but it’s a start.

Of course, survival is not all there is to a free life. But the high and low are never far apart. Living well depends on living. That’s one of the reasons I try to swim every day. It promotes health and physical beauty (or at least, in my case, keeps the Dad-bod at bay). And a swimmer is simply less dependent on others’ aid than someone who can’t swim. That’s why Socrates compared philosophic rhetoric to swimming—sometimes the sailors on the ship of state might want to throw you overboard—and the philosopher-poet Horace thanked his father for teaching him to philosophize—and swim.

Harvard College used to require graduates to pass a swimming test. Why not bring back this requirement?

[Related: “Winged Words”]

Speaking of swimming, the ungentlemanly example of William (aka Lia) Thomas reminds us that, in some of these activities, men and women perform differently. (Not in all. At least in my experience, trained women shoot every bit as well as trained men, while I believe that men, contrary to the common slander, tend to keep their personal spaces cleaner than women do.) Would these differences set such recommendations athwart Title IX? If so, then it’s time to remind ourselves that that law concerns access, not outcomes. I see no reason to fail to take advantage of the male fascination with guns and fighting to promote true liberal education, provided women have the same access to these competitions.

In this light, I’ll offer two more equal-opportunity recommendations.

First, during the Pandemic, like many others, I took up golf. It’s rather like shooting, bringing together mental and muscle memory, attention to breathing and aim. Of course, the ball isn’t so small, doesn’t go so fast, and won’t (usually) kill you. With respect to liberal education, it teaches close attention to the natural environment, delight in beauty (every hole is like a picture, framed for the viewer’s enjoyment—at least until he tees off), and graceful athleticism. Unlike football or basketball, one can get a workout (by walking) without breaking much of a sweat. It’s gentlemanly, and gentlewomanly. For thanks to the handicap system, even though men, generally, can drive farther than women, the sexes can compete together with real enjoyment. It is a game for free men and women. And, like swimming (in which one counts laps or breaths), competitive golf relies on counting, which anyone who’s read Plato’s Epinomis knows is the most necessary foundation of human wisdom.

Second, besides a gun, I pack a lot of poetry, in my head. I wouldn’t want to risk my life on recitation. That said, Patrick Leigh Fermor tells the famous story of a German general he captured in Crete whose life he spared due to their shared ability to recite Horace’s Ode I.9. And I have a similar story on good authority from a friend and mentor, now long passed. According to my friend, his son, a student at St. John’s College in Annapolis, was held up at gunpoint one night on a Maryland street. The young man, utterly startled, immediately broke into recitation of the Iliad prologue, an outburst that caused his would-be mugger to flee quicker than swift-footed Achilles.

Again, I wouldn’t want to bet my life in a “dynamic” situation on poetry. But, more importantly, reciting from memory does bring minutes, even hours, of joy and something like contemplation to my every day—time that otherwise would likely be spent in dependent gaping at my phone or computer. I also infer from history that should I be sent to the new Gulag, the ability to recite from memory would be a prized skill. So there’s that.

Schools used to require students to memorize poetry “by rote”—something to consider? Not merely for “cultural literacy” window-dressing, but as central to using freedom well.

To be clear, I think a Great Books-type education that entices students to confront their own untested, even unrecognized, opinions is a thousand times better than the ideological conformity that most colleges and universities enforce. But, especially in an age in which young men are eschewing higher education, why not add shooting, fighting, tactical awareness and habits of survival, swimming, as well as some cleaning, memorizing poetry, and even an extracurricular offering of golf?

Are there other adornments to a liberal life that readers would add?

The better we use our freedom, the more jealously we’ll want to keep it.

Image: Velizar Ivanov, Public Domain


  • Keith Whitaker

    Keith Whitaker, Ph.D., is a Founding Associate at Wise Counsel Research Associates. He also serves as Chair of the Board of the National Association of Scholars.

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9 thoughts on “Arms and a (Free) Man

  1. My father taught me how to shoot when I was 12 years old. Back in the day, this was not at all unusual. Indeed, some high schools even had shooting clubs. Not any more.

    And to Mr. Whitaker, I own a Glock 43. It is perfect for concealed carry.

  2. There are rights and there are absolute rights. Guns, properly owned and handled are fine.

    Where reasonable folks differ is how broad are those rights. Some limitations are not the same as government tyranny. This is where we need more work.

    1. The problem is there are no reasonable folks on the left regarding gun ownership. They want gun confiscation. All of them. Period. And that is government tyranny.

      1. The problem is that we left “reasonable” behind sometime in the 1980s.

    2. No, we don’t need “more work”.

      We need to roll back some of the encroachments on our freedoms, and then *solidly* enforce the laws we have.

      There is no reason why I shouldn’t be able to walk into any gun store in the US and walk out with a suppressor without paying a $200 tax, register that device with the Feds and playing “mother may I” with state and federal officials.

      There is no legitimate reason why I should have to pay a 200 dollar tax, and beg permission to get rifle with a barrel shorter than 16 inches. AND THEN have to have that registered with the Feds AND notify the feds if I want to travel across state lines.

      No city should be able to prohibit me from carrying a firearm for my own protection in their jurisdiction.

      We are well past the point of Tyranny on this issue.

      I bet you also think it’s ok for *some* people to have their speech curtailed.

  3. The pictures of the signs warning about drug smugglers in Arizona will not paste to the comments. As is a picture of a rifle. This is responding to an opinion piece in The Christian Century.

    Editor Marty,

    There are around four reasons to own firearms: sports shooting, hunting, self defense and to be part of the unorganized militia. When previously we lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado, around 21 gangs, mainly Hispanic, had arrived there to trade illegally diverted marijuana for hard drugs supplied by East Coast and West Coast gangs. A very excellent and senior law enforcement officer I knew said he only carried his duty pistol in town. On the highway, in addition to his duty pistol he had an AR-15 or similar long gun in his vehicle.

    We have traveled south past the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) interior check points in Arizona and ventured off the regular highway in Arizona. We have seen those signs. The CBP officers gave us no updates on any potential gangs in the area. To protect myself and my wife I had this in our truck plus it had a Trijicon scope on it. We were out of cell phone service and there was no one around. This is what is called YOYO Country, i.e., You’re On Your Own (YOYO).

    Actually, it is Independence Day. From the perspective of an accurate history, one of the reasons the colonists revolted was that the British were trying to disarm them.

    Shot Heard ‘Round the World

    The Revolutionary War was a very brutal war. Colonel Tarleton ordered his troops to kill colonist prisoners of war.

    British Colonel Tarleton gives “quarter” in South Carolina

    Alexander Hamilton had served during the Revolutionary War on General George Washington’s staff. He assumed a field command and led a successful attack on a British redoubt at Yorktown. He wrote that the unorganized militia was the entire male middle class citizens. In previous centuries, state governments specified the arms and equipment the unorganized militia should have. It was incumbent on the citizens to purchase them on their own.

    The Federalist Papers : No. 29 Concerning the Militia: From the Daily Advertiser. Thursday, January 10, 1788 HAMILTON

    Actually, as it turns out Daniel Morgan, aware of the strengths and limitations of the militia, was able to use them effectively in The Battle of Cowpens. Among those defeated there was the British Colonel Tarleton.

    A Devil of a Whipping: The Battle of Cowpens by Lawrence E. Babits

    In The Compendium of Everyday Wants by Luther Minter, he writes about “Citizenship Duties.” He wrote in a more manly and brave age. He wrote,

    No man should do anything to divest himself of his political and civil rights.

    It is expected, if you have attained the requisite age, that you vote at all elections, and keep yourself generally informed as a citizen. No man should have the right of suffrage unless he can cast an intelligent vote.
    As an American citizen it is your duty to be obedient to the laws, although they may be severe and unjust, until such laws are repealed.

    If the law commands it you must serve in the State militia; in such position it is expected of every man to be sufficiently acquainted with the manual of arms that lie can assist in the quelling of any riot.

    Actually, as it turns out, the United States of America could find itself virtually fighting unaided should a war come. As we have seen, India is staying neutral and unwilling to ally with us to confront the People’s Republic of China. As we have Germany has let their entire defense establishment decay so that they have no power and it is unclear whether German citizens would fight for Germany let alone in a coalition to help the United States of America. In France, they have let their defense industries atrophy to the point, they could only fight with weapons they have on hand. It might take a decade to replace weapons.

    French Army Approaches to High Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century by Michael Shurkin June 22, 2022

    Australia is too weak to do much to support us. Korea is too small.

    Thus, the U.S. Army War College has proposed a policy similar to Switzerland. It might make sense for the Department of Defense to issue standards where every citizen, part of the unorganized militia, purchased the same weapons, had the same field gear including plate and helmet. In the time of an emergency, we may not be able to ramp up the production war materials like we did in World War II. Even then some soldiers initially trained in the manual of arms with broom sticks.

    PLAN TO FIGHT LIKE NO ONE IS COMING TO SAVE YOU Posted by Garri Hendell June 16, 2022

    I hope that these resources can aid you in discussing our national policies in the future.


    Richard R. Allen
    Lubbock, Texas

    1. Thank you, Mr. Allen, for this highly informative post. I hope that everyone who’s read this far reads at least the Garri Hendell article that you linked at the end. I do believe that there is a growing receptivity to that mindset of preparing against an existential threat. As you indicate, that’s what we have right now at the southern border and beyond.

  4. Up until about 1960, Massachusetts elementary schools (then Grades 1-8) taught marksmanship with .22 rifles. Many had rifle ranges in the basement.

    As late as the 1980s, some high schools still had rifle teams – a varsity sport. Decades earlier, they all had teams — coached by teachers who were WWII veterans.

    It was the retirement of teachers who were WWII vets that took the guns out of K-12 — and this was in Massachusetts…

    1. Dr. Ed, receiving your well-informed comments is one of the perks of writing for MTC. I believe that if the MA schools, at least in the western half of the state, were to invite current veterans to organize rifle teams, there would be strong interest among pre-teen and teen-age boys to sign up–a much healthier intervention than offering them Ritalin and weed for their “toxic masculinity.” Not that we should hold our breath for Charlie Baker and the Massachusetts Teachers Association to allow such a step!

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