Churchill: Liberal arts graduates are problem-solvers of tomorrow

Dr. John Churchill

“ The Liberal Arts In A World In Conflict”

President Gibson, distinguished faculty, friends of Maryville College, parents, families and friends of the graduates, and above all, members of the Class of 2003, I am delighted to be with you all today. My thanks go to those who offered me this opportunity to be here and to say a few words as Maryville sends out another class of graduates shaped by its purposes, imbued with its ideals, and empowered with the capacities gained in no other way than in the study of the liberal arts. The world would be a poorer place without Maryville College and its progeny.

Honor and praise go to those who have made this day possible, to the founders of this college and his successors, to those first faculty members and theirs, to the first families who entrusted their offspring to this institution and those who stand here today, and again, above all, to the students who, generation after generation, have given this College its distinctive character.

This is a distinctive place. At Maryville you have hard work made happy by the joy of learning; excellence without exclusivity; community without loss of individual, even idiosyncratic, expression; and liberal arts in their intrinsic glory, without loss of purpose in a world that calls for practical action. Maryville has been clear about the relation between liberal arts and the practical world from its beginning. The world has need of technical training; but the most practical education for a changing world is an education that offers broad knowledge; timeless skills of understanding, criticism, and communication; capacities of ethical and aesthetic discernment; and a comprehensive vision of the Good. When the intricacies of today’s technologies have given way to still newer ones, and the technical training of today is obsolete, men and women will still need to know the lessons of Homer and Plato, of Lao-tse and Machiavelli. They will still need to learn from Hildegard of Bingen, from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, and from Frederick Douglass. They will still need to know something of the cultures of the world. They will still need the discipline and insights offered by knowledge of languages other than their mother tongue, and they will still need the ability to reflect on the world’s serious moral problems.

It is education in the liberal arts that meets these needs. Since its origin Maryville has met them. May she never waiver. May Maryville always be, as in the past, a flame, a light, a beacon, a shining star of wisdom and humanity. May the disciplines of reading and reflection, the disciplines of experimentation and research, and those of creation, performance, and competition, be pursued here as if for their own sake, in confidence that these pursuits secure not only their immediate ends, but also at last in every way prove to be the most practical pursuits in a world that asks relentlessly, “What is that good for?”

And so, for a few moments this evening I want to talk about the relevance of the liberal arts in a world in which practical action seems and is a daily imperative—that is, about the liberal arts in a world in conflict. Some may think that establishing the relevance of the liberal arts is a tough task even in the best of times. And if these are the best of times, as they may be, they may also be the worst of times. (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities) It is most probable, of course, that they are times like most others. There have been moments when humanity, or some of it, seems to have taken a vacation from history: times like those untroubled years of the Roman Empire under the Antonine emperors; or the green and golden afternoon of Edwardian England, full of tea and badminton; or the West in the 1990’s when history seemed to have reached its conclusion in favor of the capitalist, liberal democracies. But we have found ourselves awakened now calamitously to history, awakening to times in which the possibility of the best shines on us like the May sun, while the possibility of the worst looms like a tornadic wall cloud on the horizon.

What is that best, and what is that worst? It was well said that the world has in it two kinds of people—the kind who think that there are two kinds of people, and the kind who don’t. There will be, in the troubles that lie ahead in this common world we share with all humanity, two kinds of people—those who indulge in Manichaean worldviews, dividing the world into realms of good and evil, who analyze history as a clash of civilizations, and who thus authorize the use of righteous violence without restraint; and those on the other hand, who recognize that the sting of the serpent has struck us all, who decline to accept the ultimacy of categories of analysis like “the West,” or “Islam,” and who thus make war, when they must, in sorrow, and hope, and restraint. The best before us is a world growing toward peace and justice and mutuality; the worst is a world fractured into competing claims of unique virtue, where armies clash in nights made bright by hostility.

What Matthew Arnold, in “Dover Beach,” wrote was not “Let us be true to ourselves.” That, or something like it, was Shakespeare’s Polonius. What Arnold wrote was “Ah, Love, let us be true to one another.” Could it be that what the world needs now (Dionne Warwick) is not that each of us be true to himself or herself, but that we be true to one another? But what would it mean to be true to humanity, acknowledging that no one, no civilization, can place themselves beyond that scope, and acknowledging, too, that ours is not the flattening, paralyzing perspective of evaluative equivalence? What is it to be true to humanity in a world in which the better must sometimes defend itself against the worse, but dares not pretend to its own perfection or attribute ultimate wickedness to those it must fight?

A couple of years ago I saw a McDonald’s ad in the London underground. There is nothing surprising about that. But the ad was in four languages, and none of them was English. And what the ad promised to patrons of McDonald’s, in French, German, Spanish, and Japanese, was “the taste of home.” My point is neither to bemoan nor to celebrate the global advance of American mass culture, international capitalism, and marketing, with their transformations of desire. If the Big Mac has been exported, so the baguette, tapas, and sushi have flowed in. If the Big Mac has fixed itself in cultures once untouched by our own, so the evolving, absorbing, assimilating genius of our own culture is busy attenuating, if not erasing, the distinctions that once made possible the confident demarcation of one civilization from another. Whitman was thinking of his own expansive soul when he said it, but surely we can gesture toward this inchoate, sprawling thing called America and say, “We are large; we contain multitudes.”

You may also recall that the preceding line in Whitman is this one: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.” And there, of course, is the rub in this welter of possibility: Our world is characterized by tension between difference and assimilation, between the stark insistence on boundaries and the equally powerful insistence on their erasure. And so we live in a world in which some forces are blurring cultural, political, and economic boundaries so insistently that opposition rises up in violence to redraw them all. We live in a world in which one party’s God-given obligation is to the other a demonic impulse. The world contains multitudes, not in Whitman’s pacific harmony, but in conflict and cacophony.

Differences imply choices. In a world of endless diversity, everything begins to look optional. A few years ago Calvin and Hobbes put this predicament in microcosm. Calvin’s father has been sent to the grocery store to buy peanut butter. But there are too many brands, each in a wide choice of sizes, and every size in every brand is available in smooth, crunchy, extra crunchy, original, traditional, low-fat, diet and new, improved, country-style classic. After bewildered expostulations, Calvin’s father has to be helped home—without having chosen any peanut butter at all. Looking closely at the problem here, we see that it combines difference with the absence of any grounds for choice. Difference would be manageable if we had an algorithm to guide our choice. Lacking one, we see the diversity as sheer undifferentiated potential.

The environment in which we try to determine what to think is true, in which we try to determine what is good and right to do, is shaped by an indefinitely various supply of mutually incompatible ways of conceiving things, all now brought before us by communication and trade. In their conflicts, they give us ample and various grounds for doubting everything. No wonder that it is tempting to think that the quest for a correct understanding of things—truth—is no more plausible an undertaking than a quest to discover which restaurant on Connecticut Avenue cooks food correctly. Thai is just different from Greek and Chinese from Ethiopian, that’s all. There are only differences, not better and worse, not true and false.

If this is the right view, it would explain why, to quote Yeats, “the best lack all conviction.” This is the attitude, really a comprehensive intellectual and cultural posture, captured in the elegant dismissal, “Whatever.” You have heard this “whatever.” It may have been like this: something was at stake and you were in a deliberative argument, an argument in the best sense, a case of giving reasons and rebutting objections, exploring assumptions and moving toward a reasoned conclusion. And then the other person says in a weary tone of voice: “Whatever.” “Whatever” may mean something like “You may be right but I don’t care,” or more precisely, “There’s no such thing as right or wrong here and I’m tired of this conversation.” In the world of “whatever,” argumentation exists only as a means of demonstrating one’s intellectual agility. And sometimes this is what we manage to teach. The point is to be clever in argument, and that anything can be defended or attacked, as long as you are agile enough.

This is a familiar option: we seem strung out between cultural and moral relativism— tolerance run down into paralysis—and the ultimate, fatal arrogance—the pretense that we are as gods, infallibly knowing right from wrong in a way that licenses us in a divine and righteous violence. The world is full of voices telling us that this is the choice. If it is, it matters little whose version of righteousness prevails, or to what book that version defers. Any victory, in a battle conceived on all sides as a battle of light against darkness, is a victory of darkness. There must be, in this world, a way of conceiving the good as being worth dying for, even if it is not perfect and needs reform, and a way of conceiving the worse as worth battling against, even if it is not ultimately wicked and in need of extirpation.

How do we find that middle ground between dogmatism and relativism, between the authorization of righteous violence and the inability to stand up for anything? If there is ground there to be found, it will be found by men and women of broad knowledge, men and women who can compare different perspectives, who possess deliberative capacities, who can argue well and listen carefully, who can live with doubt, ambiguity, and uncertainty, who can express themselves well in speech and writing, who understand quantitative data and can interpret it, and who possess a sense of values. That ground will be found by men and women who possess a growing fullness of humanity, who embody the ideals of the liberal arts, and of Maryville College. The relevance of the liberal arts in our world of violent conflict lies in this: It is to men and women so educated that we must look for the solutions to problems that will otherwise be intractable.

The best of times and the worst of times. It turns out, when we reflect, that the assertion of the primacy of reason in human affairs, once we look closely enough, always has as its backdrop the threat of war and violence, the prospect that superstition and prejudice will prevail, the real possibility that willful ignorance will eclipse any vision of truth. The Enlightenment itself was fueled in part by revulsion against the 17th Century’s Wars of Religion—Catholic against Protestant on the continent, cavalier against Puritan in Britain. Plato wrote, not in the calm of a philosophical heaven, but in an Athens wrecked by defeat in the Peloponnesian War. Perhaps, indeed, these are simply times much like most others. Welcome to history. Welcome, graduates, to a world in which your education must count for something in making the world different from what it threatens to be.

The concept of the liberal arts is the concept of those studies that tend to make one a fuller version of the human being one is by nature capable of becoming.

So the liberal arts equip one to pursue more successfully the goods of life, to contribute more effectively to the processes of a participatory, democratic society, and to enjoy more fully relationships with one’s fellow human beings in contexts from the personal and private to the global. Finally, the study of the liberal arts ought to encourage a scope of vision capable of seeing the world as a whole, and an ethical sensibility capable of responding appropriately. For a more detailed, more precise, and more elegant version of these goals, look at the Maryville Catalogue and find the mission statement

Graduates, I charge you to take that Catalogue with you, when you leave this place, and to keep it. Months from now, but more important, years from now, pull it off the shelf and read that Statement of Purpose. Then ask yourself a question. Do not ask “How did they do?” Instead, ask yourself, “How am I doing?” How well this college will have done depends on how well you do. We’re counting on you, not to become rich and famous, though that would be fine. If you do become rich or famous, the President will call on you. If you become rich and famous enough, he will bring the Chairman of the Board with him.

But whatever your fortune, this college is counting on you to carry the ideals of this place into your world, into the world that, through you, Maryville will help to shape. This college is counting on you to make a difference in the world for peace and justice. We are all counting on you to work for a world in which well-fed children sleep peacefully in the care of families who love them. A world in which such children grow to be men and women of independence, grace, and realized potential. A world in which differences mutually tolerate each other, and in which the indeterminacies of our options are worked out in discourse and deliberation, not in destruction.

We are counting on you to live joyfully, to relish the good things of life, to love and to learn, and to help each other. Remember this time and this place. Remember the look of the sun and shade in these trees. Believe that the world can be this good, and go out to make it so. We’re counting on you.

Again, congratulations. Do well and do good.


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2014 semester is 1,213.