leadimageVitalities of the Mind

Can the Liberal Arts Reduce the Likelihood of War?
An important but limited resource

Michael M. McQuaide, Professor of Sociology, Oxford College


Vol. 11 No. 2
October/November 2008

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Vitalities of the Mind
The Gustafson Seminar on the future of Liberal Education

Educating the Vitalities of the Mind

2007-2008 Gustafson Seminar

Vitalities of the Mind Matrix

A Vitalities of the Mind Glossary

“People who understand liberal arts education argue that it’s the ultimate practical education.”

Civility and contemplation and ethics and compassion and courage—all these things are great. But we need Apollo and Dionysus. ”

Website special:
“Bathing in Reeking Wounds: The Liberal Arts and War”
Catharine R. Stimpson, University Professor of English and Dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University

Comments on the Liberal Arts
Response to the Gustafson Faculty Seminar

Some Thoughts on Overcoming Paralysis
Education and curricula in the context of war

Can the Liberal Arts Reduce the Likelihood of War?
An important but limited resource


The 2007-2008 Gustafson seminar hosted Catharine Stimpson this spring to highlight the conclusion of a yearlong conversation concerning liberal arts and war. I was asked to respond to her presentation at the concluding session of the seminar. Although Dr. Stimpson’s remarks ranged over a number of questions, I took up her query concerning the extent to which liberal arts education can reduce the likelihood of war.

I argued that education in general and the liberal arts in particular could only marginally make war a less frequent feature of social history. My argument has two dimensions. The first and more simple of the two is that some wars are just. What morally plausible approach is available when confronted with the evil of the Third Reich or the Pol Pot regime? Liberally educated individuals may well arrive at the conclusion that a given war is a fair and just response to an overwhelmingly unfair but intentionally created human catastrophe. Even the Dalai Lama finds room for righteous indignation at unjust circumstances.

The second reason education may not hold the potential to reduce war reflects a deeply seated attraction to war on the psychological level. Many have reflected on this atavistic tendency towards the destruction of one’s fellows. Clausewitz, Freud, Ambrose, Crane, Fussell, and others write about the primal magnetism of war in general and mortal combat in particular. Is Freud correct in his claims that humans are burdened with thantos, a psychological desire to destroy, which society must curtail in order for the
species to survive? If this claim is true, then we must be ever more vigilant in our efforts to limit this destructive drive, given current weapons technology.

Soldiers from wars fought by literate armies often speak to the beauty of war, the romantic, nearly erotic attraction of inflicting death on others. My father’s experience as a combat infantry soldier in the European theater of the World War II serves to illustrate this idea. (Biographical detail is relevant in our search for insights into the origins of human behavior. Sometimes we need to be reminded that behind the macro-level statistical analysis of social behavior stand the real, lived experiences of individuals. Biography is occasionally dismissed as unscientifically dependent on a sample of one person, but I am certain that my father’s experiences in Italy between 1942 and 1945 reflect the experiences of hundreds of thousands of young American men.)

I never knew my father before his draft notice arrived in 1942 since I was born in 1951. My mother, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and family friends, however, did know him before he went to war, and they shared their impressions with me over the years of the way Dad’s combat experience had changed him. The universal consensus was that my father was a happy-go-lucky and light hearted teenager from a rural community in western Pennsylvania. Cocky, always ready to laugh, and a wonderful storyteller, my father was popular with his peers, given his generous spirit and quick wit. Dale McQuaide, everyone’s favorite, left for war a nineteen-year-old boy and returned in the summer of 1945 a much changed person. Although different people described the change in various ways, the general agreement was that Dad had been diminished by his time in war. A more somber, less humorous, less emotionally available man returned from fighting in Italy.

Like many of his generation, Dad almost never spoke of his experiences in the Army. It was only on one accidental occasion that my father let his guard down and reminisced about the horrors of his wartime experiences. We lived in a relatively small town on the shore of Lake Erie, where Ohio and Pennsylvania join. Dad worked as a carpenter after the war, and we lived in a town where wasps such as our family were the demographic minority. Ethnic Italians, Poles, Hungarians, and other eastern European families made up the majority of our working-class town. This culture meant lots of live music and terrific food at weddings around town. At one wedding in particular that our family attended, the reception featured tin tubs of celery sticks immersed in crushed ice and V8 juice. We had never seen anything like that before, and Dad thought that was just about the coolest thing ever. I have no idea how many celery sticks Dad ate, but it was quite a number. Only well after the fact did we learn that the celery was standing in Bloody Mary’s rather than mere tomato juice. By then Dad had a big buzz, and we helped him to the car and on home.

What followed that evening was the only time I saw my father drunk and the only time I ever saw him weep. The alcohol must have unlocked the chamber where he kept those demonic memories stored. Story after story emerged, each more dramatically riveting and horrible than the last. I will recount one to illustrate the tenor of these memories. Dad was a first lieutenant leading an American convoy as the German army retreated north. As the first American truck carrying GIs entered the central plaza of an Italian town, a German sniper shot the driver dead. This stopped the entire convoy and threw the Americans off their schedule. Dad called for two volunteers to work their way into the church steeple to eliminate the sniper. The three of them agreed that this would take about fifteen minutes. Ten minutes into the wait, a colonel drove up and demanded an explanation from my father concerning the delay. Dad told his superior officer that his two best men were about five minutes from taking out the German sniper and then the convoy could continue. The colonel overruled my father and ordered Howitzers to destroy the steeple with my dad’s two best friends inside. My father’s two best GI buddies were killed that day by American arms. All that was needed to save their lives was another five minutes in a war that lasted over five years.

Years later, when my father was gravely ill in the 1980s, I asked him whether he would relive his World War II experiences. I thought that all the death, terrible destruction of persons and property, and personal loss that he had experienced would turn him away from such circumstances forever. “I’d do it all again in a heartbeat,” was what he told me. I stood by his bed, staring incredulously into space.

Until we better understand experiences and attitudes such as my father’s, we are at a loss to use education as an exclusive tool to diminish war and the attractiveness of war. Somehow, the thrill, the camaraderie, the nearness of death, and the good fortune to survive the war had become the central emotionally organizing experience of my father’s life. Given those powerful forces, it seems that education is an important but limited resource in reducing one’s readiness to make war.