The Enduring Legacy of ΦBK Secretary John Churchill

John Churchill photo

By Laela Zaidi

In life, he was one of the country’s strongest ambassadors for the liberal arts. Now, John Churchill’s posthumously published book, The Problem with Rules: Essays on the Meaning and Value of Liberal Education (University of Virginia Press, 2021), offers an accessible, persuasive testament for the continued need and value for liberal education. The book, published in February this year, after Churchill’s sudden death in 2019, has been well received, especially by those who knew him best. As one Arkansas Times reviewer noted: “Those who knew him may be comforted to hear his voice through this work, which reverberates with generosity, wit, and Monty Python references.” 

In The Problem with Rules, John Churchill, Professor and Dean Emeritus at Hendrix College and former Secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa, develops a philosophy of the liberal arts anchored in the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein. For Churchill, Wittgenstein’s thinking around language shows us that rules, more broadly, are only as useful as their application to the right questions. Churchill links this analysis to the necessity of a liberal arts education, which offers preparation for meaningful, engaging inquiry into the world’s most pressing problems. The paradox of rules — when they are useful, when they are not, when they must be bent — serves as Churchill’s playground to explore themes of critical reflection, compassionate perspective-taking, deliberation, and collaborative thinking. Weaving through philosophical discourse in liberal arts fashion, the book responds to the ongoing debate concerning the value of the liberal arts while going beyond argument itself. Instead, he aims to persuasively explore how people should relate to their education and how their education can shape the world. 

The essays are derived from Churchill’s inaugural Malcolm Lester Phi Beta Kappa Lecture at Mercer University in April 2018. The lecture series was made possible through a gift in 2007 from Malcolm Lester, a Mercer graduate and former Dean of the Mercer College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Lester’s endowed fund came with two conditions: that Mercer University host a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, and that the chapter incorporate the lectures as part of Mercer University’s yearly initiation of ΦBK members. Mercer’s chapter of ΦBK was installed in April 2016, a culmination of a years-long and rigorous evaluation process that included site visits, review of the institution’s educational rigor in the liberal arts and sciences, governance structure, faculty excellence, and demonstrated commitment to academic freedom. According to David Davies, Professor of English at Mercer, there was no question that Churchill would be the inaugural speaker for the lecture series, which took place during Mercer’s second induction of Phi Beta Kappa members.

“He was an incredibly gracious person, clearly a brilliant intellectual but kind, gentle, and very approachable. He brought the same aspect to his delivery of the lectures, and he reveled in spending time with newly elected members,” said Davies. 

Through a partnership with University of Virginia Press, where Malcolm Lester earned his Ph.D. and also taught, lecturers also have the opportunity to publish their work. Initially, Churchill delivered a manuscript to the press in January 2019. Then, tragically, he passed away later that year. Larry Churchill, John Churchill’s brother, and Hugh, John’s youngest son, took on the task of finishing revisions and seeing the project through the final peer review process. 

“More than any book that I can think of about an author and what their life is about, this book is really about what his life stood for in terms of the liberal arts,” said Larry Churchill, who went on to elaborate on the urgency of his brother’s message.  

“We’re in a time of tremendous vocationalism….[The book] is a defense of a broad liberal education that teaches you to think and to grow, that teaches you values and about the larger social context in which one works and lives as opposed to ‘how can I get a job.’ [John Churchill] saw the role of a liberal arts college, like Hendrix College, as teaching people ways in which they could have a good life and not just a good job…his understanding of the value of the liberal arts is really what is of essence here,” he said. 

The Problem With Rules includes an introduction by David A. Davies, a foreword by Hugh and Larry Churchill, and an afterword by Frederick M. Lawrence, the current Secretary and CEO of Phi Beta Kappa. According to Eric Brandt, Editor in Chief at the University of Virginia Press, the book has been successful thanks to the Society’s support.  

“The Society was interested in memorializing John’s contributions and who he was as a person, executive secretary, and as a professor, and to underscore the ongoing contribution to the public debate that this lecture series in particular and the society can provide,” he said. 

Laela Zaidi earned her Bachelor of Arts in religious studies from Hendrix College, where she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in May 2018. Hendrix College is home to the Beta of Arkansas chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.