9/11 and the Liberal Arts

9/11 and the Liberal Arts October 10, 2022

[This past September 11, I was asked by a new interfaith center on Valparaiso University’s campus to participate in an event remembering that terrible day. Participants were asked to speak from our own religious tradition and offer a prayer or two drawn from it. Herewith my reflections/prayers on this occasion.]

Like practically everyone alive then and old enough to remember, I have clear memories of that day. A beautiful, cloudless September morning. Not a cloud in the sky. Pure, quiet, still blueness—achingly peaceful and serene.

I was at my office north of Boston at Gordon College, where I then taught. I received a call from my mother. She said that I might want to turn on the news, because something had happened in New York City at the World Trade Center. I did so on my office computer, trying to figure out what was going on. Soon I saw colleagues coming in and out of their offices, nervously chatting. I followed suite. At some point, the first tower fell. Someone set up a television at the entrance to our office building, as people, stunned, took it all in–uncomprehending, perplexed. I was back in my office listening to reporter when I heard the second tower fall in real time.

At some point I called my wife Agnes and we met on campus. Later that afternoon, to escape the crushing enormity of it all, we took our two-year daughter to a nearby lake. I can’t remember exactly what we talked about, except for repeatedly musing on the cruel disparity between the beauty of the day and the stomach-churning, history-changing awfulness of what had taken place on the same day …

As we reflect on that day, I have two words for you this evening: complexity and hope. And then two prayers drawn from the Christian tradition, my own.

As a historian, I believe I can say with at least some authority that 9/11 is an event of enormous historical complexity. Sadly, however, simplistic narratives about it still have salience. World-wide, you would be surprised at how many think it was manufactured by the CIA or Israel’s secret services to serve as pretext for the West to declare war on the Muslim world. Secularists often see it as revealing the true face of religious commitment, while many Christians sadly instrumentalize the tragedy to blanketly denigrate Islam.

But it is much more complex. I worry, however, that we live in age that no longer has the skill-set to appraise complexity, historical or otherwise, and arrive at nuanced, measured judgments. We prefer the sensational, the polarizing, the sound-byte version of things–the one that snugly fits our own narrative about the world. The loudest, most simplistic voices too often rise from the froth of our social-media-saturated world. The French have a word for them: simplificateur terribles, terrible simplifiers.

I suppose that it is against this type of thinking that I am committed to liberal-arts education and why I worry about its steep decline in our country today. Even while paying it lip service, higher education has increasingly become instrumentalist, careerist, professional—not robustly dedicated to attaining a properly human intellectual freedom, which is the core meaning of the liberal arts. Education certainly can and should include professional training, but it is also much more: it’s about deliverance from ignorance and becoming a full-fledged human being with a mind capable of appraising the complexity of an event such as like 9/11. With the decline of the liberal arts, the losses are not negligible. We risk losing:

-the ability for deep reading and the capacity to appraise a difficult argument or idea
-the ability to choose words carefully and not a word’s close cousin that might result in misunderstanding and conflict
-the capacity to make careful distinctions that permit focused inquiry
-rich knowledge of the past, which illumines the present and the future, and can help us understand an event like 9/11
-the ability to detect cant, bullshit, i.e., when simpiflicateur terribles are selling you a false of bill of goods
-the capacity to recognize that to know and love your neighbor, who might be quite different from you, you have to know something about their history, their culture, their faith
-the ability to sift through the boundless information around us and find knowledge, perhaps even wisdom
-the capacity to delight in literary, artistic, and other forms of beauty
-the ability to withhold judgment when one’s ideas are poorly formed or when you think prejudice clouds judgment
-the ability to size up one’s audience and speak well and accurately to it
-the ability, following Socrates, to ask penetrating, relevant questions and not ones that take conversations in unproductive directions
-the ability to figure out what one does not know and the tools to remediate ignorance
-and, not least, the ability to ask and ponder the big questions of life: why I am here? What is justice? What is wisdom? In light of an event like 9/11, what is a human life actually for and worth?

Thus, the decline of the liberal arts is no small loss. Like 9/11 itself, it is a tragedy. With the decline of the latter, we lose the ability to size up the former.

But then here is my second word: hope. The Christian intellectual tradition has generally made a distinction between the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance; and the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. All are important, but I think that for our moment and as we reflect today on the tragedy of 9/11 and so much other mayhem and dysfunction in our world, hope is particularly important. Hope, as theologians remind us, should not be confused with optimism: good feeling about the future when the evidence seems to confirm that optimism. No, hope is a much deeper joyfulness and resolve to do good even amid the sadness and brokenness of the world. It’s an appraisal of things that resides not in events or data, but in the person of the Lord and in God’s ultimate benevolence and providence. Hope is available when the chips are down, when all seems bleak.

It would take more than my allotted time to unpack this, but permit me to recommend a little book by the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper entitled Faith, Hope, and Love–in which he reminds us that hope is based on reverence for the Lord, recognizing his sovereignty and goodness even amid the tribulations and tragedies of life. Hope is not acquired easily or cheaply and then perhaps only with grace.

I’ll close my reflection with two prayers, one drawn from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and one widely attributed to Saint Francis:

For Peace Among the Nations

Almighty God our heavenly Father, guide the nations of the
world into the way of justice and truth, and establish among
them that peace which is the fruit of righteousness, that they
may become the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

A Prayer attributed to St. Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.

About Thomas Albert Howard
Thomas Albert (Tal) Howard is Professor of Humanities and History in Christ College, the honors of college of Valparaiso University, where he holds the Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics. He also serve as a Senior Fellow for the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts. He is the author of many books, including The Faiths of Others: Modern History and the Rise of Interreligious Dialogue (Yale University Press, forthcoming) and an edited volume, The Idea of Tradition in the Late Modern World (Cascade, forthcoming). You can read more about the author here.

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