John Churchill was a distinguished and beloved Arkansan whose posthumous collection, “The Problem with Rules,” is a continuation of his lifelong advocacy of the liberal arts. Readers may have known the Hector, Arkansas, native because they took his philosophy courses at Hendrix College or had an audience with him when he served as dean there. Others may have known him as one of the designers of the Arkansas Governor’s School curriculum or as the executive secretary of Phi Beta Kappa, the historic academic honor society. A lucky few may remember him as the author of an exceedingly wild (and unbelievably true) story about his family’s obdurate pet pig. Churchill was a true polymath — brilliant, but also charitable and gregarious. He died in late 2019. Those who knew him may be comforted to hear his voice through this work, which reverberates with generosity, wit, and Monty Python references.
“The Problem with Rules” offers a philosophy of the liberal arts. It’s not the kind of book that’s going to be optioned for the screen, but its subject is of vital importance to us all, and Churchill makes an engaging and accessible case for the meaning of the liberal arts tradition. Other books on the liberal arts defend the tradition against public skepticism or argue its relevance to the job market. In the face of abundant anti-intellectualism and unchecked market ideologies, those works have their place. But so, too, does a deep rumination on the practice, value, and necessity of deliberation, which this book offers, and which it demonstrates with a series of reflections on thinking, globalization, and personal transformations.
What is the problem with rules, then? And what does it have to do with the liberal arts? Churchill begins with a study of the analytic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, describing his analysis of the vagaries of language and how informal rules tend to guide us through situations that on first glance should, but don’t, appear uncertain. (“Wash, rinse, repeat,” our shampoo bottles tell us, failing to indicate when the job might be done.) Those unfamiliar with Wittgenstein might be forgiven for underestimating the philosopher’s famed opacity, given Churchill’s clear explication. Drawing on Wittgenstein, Churchill argues that it’s all well and good to have rules and to have strong foundations in facts and truths. (He reminds us of the motto at the venerable Faber College in “Animal House”: “Knowledge is Good.”) The rub lies in knowing when to apply which rules, knowing which facts are pertinent to what questions, anticipating what truths color which decisions and how. This is a problem the liberal arts and its focus on “disciplined reflection” is uniquely poised to answer.
A repeated term through the book: “indwelling.” Churchill insists on the capacity to reside within another person’s point of view. This is a key criterion of deliberation. Indwelling points us away from trying to win an argument and toward trying to understand perspectives and thereby better understand our shared problems and possibilities. And in the depth and welcoming voice of these essays, Churchill invites us to indwell with him, too, as he explores these ideas.
Churchill argues that all this liberal arts deliberation still has an outcome, even if it’s not the kind measured by college graduate employment rates. Indeed, the “irrelevant” studies of the liberal arts — those that notoriously refuse to submit to a particular employment sector, the art history and anthropology degrees so often derided by public officials, even, dare I say it, Wittgenstein — show unparalleled value. In facilitating skills of deliberation and disciplined reflection, the liberal arts offsets the headlong gallop of our market-based society. Here we need “reflection upon irrelevancies,” Churchill says.
Put another way: we see too easily in hindsight the cataclysms that follow from single-minded pursuit of end-goals. Hungry for mobility, our nation trundles toward ecological disaster. Eager to expand its base of users, a social media company widens the field of play for disinformation. So on. In this framework, Churchill argues, “the liberal arts is not a frill, not a decoration. It is as serious as the difference between war and peace, between justice and exploitation, or between there being or not being a future.”
Churchill’s book arrives a year and change after his death, in a moment that I would have to call dispiriting. The foreword, written by his youngest son Hugh and his brother Larry, notes that liberal arts deliberation is sorely lacking through the pandemic as we struggle to balance public health services and the needs of the economy. Further, Americans’ receptivity to violence and to authoritarianism seems to have us pointed away from the very foundations of deliberative abilities, which Churchill identifies in part as curiosity, knowledge, imagination, and a tolerance of vagueness.
It is a gut-wrenching time. And Churchill’s prescription — that we recommit to cultivating this liberal-arts deliberation — is timelier than ever.