Spying and the Liberal Arts

How my mind works: Ideas, memories, and experiences float around in my head until they crystallize into a question:

Thinking about our popular “Spy Camp,” contemplating our college’s Strategic Intelligence Program, having recently read a book and watched a movie about the origins of the CIA, having taken my son to D.C.’s Spy Museum, having just read a student paper relating the lessons from Shakespeare to the field of Strategic Intelligence, and having just done some research on Graham Greene (one of many author/spies going all the way back to Christopher Marlowe and Daniel DeFoe), I came across a quotation from super-spy and counter-intelligence czar James Jesus Angleton who said that literature majors make the best spies.

Indeed, during World War II and in the eariy days of the CIA, the recruiters for the new intelligence agencies tapped mostly Ivy League English majors.

What connection do you see between the study of literature and the VOCATION of espionage?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    I imagine there is an art to spying, so a knowledge of the art of writing and constructing a story would be helpful. Also, knowledge of obscure authors, novels and/or quotes would be great in writing secret messages or clues!

  • http://gpiper.org/katiesbeer Theresa K.

    I imagine there is an art to spying, so a knowledge of the art of writing and constructing a story would be helpful. Also, knowledge of obscure authors, novels and/or quotes would be great in writing secret messages or clues!

  • Joe

    Perhaps this is why Bill Buckley’s Blackford Oakes spy novels are so good.

  • Joe

    Perhaps this is why Bill Buckley’s Blackford Oakes spy novels are so good.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I suppose living under a false identity (or having a cover job to disguise one’s actual business) is a sort of narrative exercise.

  • http://www.brandywinebooks.net Lars Walker

    I suppose living under a false identity (or having a cover job to disguise one’s actual business) is a sort of narrative exercise.

  • Paul

    The art of spycraft requires the ability to spin a believable tale.

  • Paul

    The art of spycraft requires the ability to spin a believable tale.

  • F. Scottie

    It’s funny that you mention James Jesus Angleton because I just saw “The Company.” In my opinion, espionage relates to the study of literature in that decoding a secret message is much like interpreting symbols in a narrative: they both point to someone or something outside of themselves.

  • F. Scottie

    It’s funny that you mention James Jesus Angleton because I just saw “The Company.” In my opinion, espionage relates to the study of literature in that decoding a secret message is much like interpreting symbols in a narrative: they both point to someone or something outside of themselves.

  • Bruce

    And some former spies make rather good authors. One of the best of course is LeCarre, whose George Smiley at one point is told, “Karla is looking for a legend!”. This is spy-talk for a Russian spymaster needing a legitimate life-long story that the other side will find believable.

    Crafters of fiction have to be very good indeed to be good spies. In a sense, it is fiction come to life.

    The very best (writer of spy fiction) IMO is Allen Furst.

  • Bruce

    And some former spies make rather good authors. One of the best of course is LeCarre, whose George Smiley at one point is told, “Karla is looking for a legend!”. This is spy-talk for a Russian spymaster needing a legitimate life-long story that the other side will find believable.

    Crafters of fiction have to be very good indeed to be good spies. In a sense, it is fiction come to life.

    The very best (writer of spy fiction) IMO is Allen Furst.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel

    I believe it has less to do with such baubles as codes and clues, and more to do with the fact that those who write and study literature live very nearly in another world – they are captivated by their imaginations. No one can be interested in literature without at the same time straining for it. A writer is able to *live* a story to a greater degree than most, in fact I would guess it is even artistically therapeutic.

    I suppose too that the kind of person who is deeply interested in literature is able to make inferences and leaps of intuitive understanding that escape the strictly analytical mind, which are invaluable in navigating safely through murky waters where not all the factors are known. I am thinking of David Gelernter’s book “The Muse in the Machine,” in which he argues that humans can make the kind of logical breakthroughs that machines cannot because they are capable of finding associations among seemingly unrelated impressions – and that it is this same quality which leads humans to produce poetry, prophecies, and art.

    There is also more money in spying than in literature.

  • http://jdueck.net Joel

    I believe it has less to do with such baubles as codes and clues, and more to do with the fact that those who write and study literature live very nearly in another world – they are captivated by their imaginations. No one can be interested in literature without at the same time straining for it. A writer is able to *live* a story to a greater degree than most, in fact I would guess it is even artistically therapeutic.

    I suppose too that the kind of person who is deeply interested in literature is able to make inferences and leaps of intuitive understanding that escape the strictly analytical mind, which are invaluable in navigating safely through murky waters where not all the factors are known. I am thinking of David Gelernter’s book “The Muse in the Machine,” in which he argues that humans can make the kind of logical breakthroughs that machines cannot because they are capable of finding associations among seemingly unrelated impressions – and that it is this same quality which leads humans to produce poetry, prophecies, and art.

    There is also more money in spying than in literature.

  • S Bauer

    I suppose only an English major could have come up with the Bay of Pigs. *Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself* :-)

  • S Bauer

    I suppose only an English major could have come up with the Bay of Pigs. *Sorry, I just couldn’t help myself* :-)

  • Bruce

    #7 Joel: “I am thinking of David Gelernter’s book “The Muse in the Machine,” in which he argues that humans can make the kind of logical breakthroughs that machines cannot because they are capable of finding associations among seemingly unrelated impressions – and that it is this same quality which leads humans to produce poetry, prophecies, and art.”

    Or in the case of Dr. Veith: questions!

    “How my mind works: Ideas, memories, and experiences float around in my head until they crystallize into a question:”

  • Bruce

    #7 Joel: “I am thinking of David Gelernter’s book “The Muse in the Machine,” in which he argues that humans can make the kind of logical breakthroughs that machines cannot because they are capable of finding associations among seemingly unrelated impressions – and that it is this same quality which leads humans to produce poetry, prophecies, and art.”

    Or in the case of Dr. Veith: questions!

    “How my mind works: Ideas, memories, and experiences float around in my head until they crystallize into a question:”

  • fw

    Liberal arts taught me to think critically and in a structured way, it taught me to connect the dots between seemingly unconnected things, and it gave me a sense of depth and continuity with those who have passed before me. “nothing new under the sun” mentality. It also made me curious and open to new things. mentally flexible. all of this I imagine might serve someone in intelligence.

    I think that is probably why the culture wars don´t particularly excite me. they are part and parcel of the great ebb and flow of history, and to know that is to remain calm knowing the world as we know it will not end because of whatever….

  • fw

    Liberal arts taught me to think critically and in a structured way, it taught me to connect the dots between seemingly unconnected things, and it gave me a sense of depth and continuity with those who have passed before me. “nothing new under the sun” mentality. It also made me curious and open to new things. mentally flexible. all of this I imagine might serve someone in intelligence.

    I think that is probably why the culture wars don´t particularly excite me. they are part and parcel of the great ebb and flow of history, and to know that is to remain calm knowing the world as we know it will not end because of whatever….

  • Bethany

    How about the fact that lit. gives one deep insight into human nature? The reader lead to examine motives, actions, and reactions in credible if unexpected ways. And it encourages consideration of the perspective from a radically different point of view (cf. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis). Most of the conflict in spy novels (I confess to knowing no real spies) is derived from the inability to correctly assess the enemy’s motive and forecast their course of action.

  • Bethany

    How about the fact that lit. gives one deep insight into human nature? The reader lead to examine motives, actions, and reactions in credible if unexpected ways. And it encourages consideration of the perspective from a radically different point of view (cf. The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis). Most of the conflict in spy novels (I confess to knowing no real spies) is derived from the inability to correctly assess the enemy’s motive and forecast their course of action.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    All kinds of reasons; certainly “telling a story” and looking at human nature, but also the habit of learning a culture through the stories would be helpful, not to mention the habit of learning other languages–keep in mind that colleges used to have fairly extensive requirements for foreign languages–even the dead ones.

    For example, English majors who learned middle english for “Beowulf” would have a leg up on learning German, and I would bet as well that Ivy Leaguers would have a higher chance of having learned German manners and language in the Vaterland itself during the thirties and before.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com Bike Bubba

    All kinds of reasons; certainly “telling a story” and looking at human nature, but also the habit of learning a culture through the stories would be helpful, not to mention the habit of learning other languages–keep in mind that colleges used to have fairly extensive requirements for foreign languages–even the dead ones.

    For example, English majors who learned middle english for “Beowulf” would have a leg up on learning German, and I would bet as well that Ivy Leaguers would have a higher chance of having learned German manners and language in the Vaterland itself during the thirties and before.

  • Anon

    An information-gathering agent should be well-read, exposed to different minds and thoughts and human behaviors, history and cultures/time.

    The study of literature is key to that. Not the modern post-modern nonsense, but the Western canon, aided for intelligence work with the works of the target cultures.

    A question though is do the intelligence agencies allow having an ultimate concern/loyalty higher than the agency or Caesar?

  • Anon

    An information-gathering agent should be well-read, exposed to different minds and thoughts and human behaviors, history and cultures/time.

    The study of literature is key to that. Not the modern post-modern nonsense, but the Western canon, aided for intelligence work with the works of the target cultures.

    A question though is do the intelligence agencies allow having an ultimate concern/loyalty higher than the agency or Caesar?

  • Pinon Coffee

    Thanks, S. Bauer.

  • Pinon Coffee

    Thanks, S. Bauer.

  • allen

    Perhaps young people who are drawn to literature enjoy pretending to be someone they aren’t. That would come in handy for a spy.

  • allen

    Perhaps young people who are drawn to literature enjoy pretending to be someone they aren’t. That would come in handy for a spy.

  • http://jramos95.blogspot.com Jay Ramos

    The study of literature isn’t the important thing. It’s the larger liberal arts tradition that is the key. Liberal arts allows for the higher-order thinking (synthesis, analysis, and evaluation) to blossom within any number of humanities-based contexts.

    I’d go on, but I’m not at liberty to divulge any further information.

  • http://jramos95.blogspot.com Jay Ramos

    The study of literature isn’t the important thing. It’s the larger liberal arts tradition that is the key. Liberal arts allows for the higher-order thinking (synthesis, analysis, and evaluation) to blossom within any number of humanities-based contexts.

    I’d go on, but I’m not at liberty to divulge any further information.


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