glenn arbery golfA golfer’s long game has nothing to do with the amount of time it takes to play eighteen holes. It’s the part of his game that has to do with distance shots—what he does with a driver or a 3-iron, for example. In football, the long game is about the passes that get the most yardage in the shortest time. But recently this fairly limited and specific phrase has expanded (as metaphors do) into other contexts. A journalist writing about problems in the Middle East writes, “The Muslim Brotherhood has always played the long game in its bid to cement its political power in Egypt.” To “play the long game” means not to worry too much about immediate results, but to work patiently toward a particular end over a long period of time. One online time-manager, to take another example of this use, recommends playing the long game: “Each significant task we choose to work on connects to the bigger picture. Instead of asking how much something matters, we ask how long it matters.”

That’s not a bad way to think about education. (I won’t pause over the game metaphor, but I’m thinking of Johan Huizinga’s famous Homo Ludens.) The short game of most American colleges might be about preparing students for the exigencies of the market or doing research that will be of immediate benefit to many people. But what is the long game of a liberal arts education like Wyoming Catholic College’s? What kinds of things will matter as much a thousand years from now as they do now—or as they did two or three thousand years ago?

I cannot think of a future, for example, when it will not be vitally engaging to watch Socrates with the headstrong Thrasymachus in Book I of Plato’s Republic. For Thrasymachus, justice is obviously whatever the strongest person says it is—an opinion that Vladimir Putin might endorse. Seeing Socrates demolish the argument remains one of the morally formative moments both in the history of the Western world and in the lives of the students who truly understand him. Does Socrates’ idea of justice prevail over his blushing opponent’s because Socrates is stronger? Of course—and of course not.

The greatest books are not monuments to former human achievement; they are the surest ways into the depth and importance of the present moment. Those who wrote them played the long game, which means that they made sure of writing what would always matter. When I read the Old Testament, I’m struck by the great lengths of time—the centuries—that pass without any diminishment in the living force of God’s intent, despite how thoroughly the people might give themselves over to miserable idolatry, even sacrificing their own children to Moloch. The Second Book of Kings goes through regime after regime, for example, of kings who commit all the usual sins, until finally a Josiah arises. To imagine living in Israel or Judea in those decades and centuries is to have a different perspective on our own American centuries.

I’ve begun a meditation that will require further thoughts later (and I welcome your comments), but one last thing today: Liberal education’s long game isn’t simply to keep preserving what is true, though that is crucial. It is also to engage the contemporary world creatively, to penetrate and expose the assumptions of the most influential current thinking, and to incorporate whatever in it is good. We have to bring to bear what we have been given. To play the long game means exploring the truths that will nourish and heal the culture beyond our own day.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay was originally published in Wyoming Catholic College’s Weekly Bulletin (July 21st, 2016) and is republished here with gracious permission. 

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