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.
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?
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.