By Patrick B. McGuigan
A unique man, J. Rufus Fears, died last month. In addition to scholarly writings of erudition and insight, he was a classroom teacher without peer.
The campus newspaper at the University of Oklahoma — where undergraduates, three times, selected him teacher of the year — reported the memories of Billy Adams, a 2007 graduate, who recalled Fears’ use of action and movement in bringing history to life:
“He would carry around a broomstick, and it would become a spear, pointer, or javelin, whatever he needed. He would use the broomstick and act out different parts of the battles. He would roam the lecture hall of 200-plus students. … You were rife with attention.”
Only once, two decades ago, did I see a full-length Fears lecture to OU students. It was a masterful rendering of the tides of history, with the rotund man pacing the stage and aisles while holding the full attention of hundreds.
One former student was Kyle Harper, who marveled at the man’s “special charisma” as “a unique performer” in lectures. Stories abounded about the closing day of class when, as Fears concluded, a room full of collegians arose in rousing ovation — in a class where most did not earn A’s, but where all learned.
After his death, a glowing tribute to Rufus Fears came from John Hood, president of the John Locke Foundation, a free-market think tank in North Carolina. Writing for National Review Online, he called Fears “one of the great missionaries of classical learning.”
Nationally, Fears became best known for lectures recorded and published by the Teaching Company — 150 hours of recordings sweeping across the canon of Western literature and history.
The sum of Fears’ scholarly endeavors lay in his understanding, as one tribute put it, of “the fundamental importance of ideas as a source of political legitimacy.” Fears rejected cynical explanations for the greatness of ancient Rome. He understood, as one observer put it last month, “ideology as a motive force in Roman politics.” And, “he explored various conceptions of liberty from an historical perspective.”
While his legendary impact flowed from the power of his classroom teaching, acolytes must never forget that his writings on Roman history garnered some of the highest honors for scholarly research — a Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Humboldt Fellowship.
Fears’ conclusions about liberty made him a conservative force in the academic world. Oklahoma City University law professor Andrew Spiropoulos — like Fears affiliated with OCPA, our state’s largest “think tank” advocating free markets and limited government — was both a friend and an ardent admirer.
In a tribute for The Journal Record, a business newspaper, Spiropoulos described a time they attended an academic event dominated by “political liberals. A session was moderated by a former leading political figure known for his biting wit. The conversation centered on the self-evident virtue of progressive politics.
“The few conservatives in the room, myself included, kept our heads down, hoping the cocktail hour would soon arrive. Not Fears. After making it apparent he had no idea who the prominent politician even was, he proceeded to explain, with appropriate historical references, why the dominant opinion of the room was appallingly foolish. Where will we find another like him?”
We won’t. He was a true conservative for all seasons, understanding and affirming the Madisonian design of the U.S. Constitution, including the prerogative of Congress to control purse strings — a power which, if exercised, can limit and decentralize taxation.
He wrote that a nation “cannot live with a tremendous debt for a long period of time. We seem unwilling to accept that economic law. However, there is still time. We still have the opportunity to put our financial house in order and to pay off our debt. But we must cut government spending, then cut it again, and then cut it some more. The road to fiscal responsibility runs directly through the House of Representatives.”
His elegant solution to counter the greatest expansion of government power in my lifetime, dubbed Obamacare?
Don’t fund it. No wonder Paul Ryan says Fears’ lectures are one of the things he listens to while driving around Wisconsin in his truck.
Last year, I was the only reporter present when Fears delivered the keynote address at a conference in Oklahoma City focused on education in the digital age, co-sponsored by the Friedman Foundation and the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (OCPA).
Brandon Dutcher, OCPA’s vice president for policy, captured the sometimes elfin Fears’ spirit in his introduction of the venerable scholar, saying, “We are foolish if we think our microchips and bandwidth make us immune to the lessons of history, as I’m sure Dr. Fears will remind us. And unlike previous speakers, he won’t be using a PowerPoint. Dr. Fears is a historian of freedom and, like Lord Acton, he understands that power corrupts and PowerPoint corrupts absolutely.”
Without the help of PowerPoint, the learned man said he was not worried by the advent of technology, per se, but by its potential misuse to undermine economic liberty. He worried, “not that children don’t learn about the Constitution, but how they learn about the Constitution.” He reflected, “When technology takes the lead, knowledge can be transformed.”
Making the arcane accessible, he pointed to three key moments in history where technology impacted the advance of human knowledge.
The first was “the invention of writing in Mesopotamia” thousands of years ago. In the ancient city of Ur and in the delta of Egypt, writing emerged essentially as a means to record, and help collect, taxes. This yielded “entire armies of bureaucrats to record those taxes.” Despite the retarding effect of taxation, commerce grew, along with cultural and literary touchstones.
Fears said, “Unfortunately, writing then essentially became a means of making despotism stronger. That is always the great danger of technology.”
The second era of tech transformation came with “the invention of printing, and the printed page, in Europe.” That fed conflict between religion as it then was understood and the ability of people directly to examine Scriptures for themselves. Seeds for transformation of higher learning lay in the works of Martin Luther, whose study of the Bible in printed Greek texts led him to challenge doctrines of the day.
The clash over the meaning of Scripture, grace, faith, and works led Luther to post his ninety-five theses on All Hallows’ Eve — Halloween — October 31, 1517. From that came wider translations of the Bible into common languages, and the emergence of conscience and belief as the basis for political structures.
And from all that, Fears argued, came religious liberty, economic freedom, and other fundamentals in the American founding.
Thus was the stage set for the third great wave of technology touching human knowledge, transformational changes still impacting our lives in “television, computers, TV, information processing, and distribution.”
The open question is whether this last surge of knowledge driven by technology is “going to be a tool of freedom, or just a means of cheap communication that brings down the soul. It is up to us to decide if freedom will increase, or if this is a mechanism, a tool for despotism.”
There will never be another quite like him, but can we ever, truly, capture the sum of all (Rufus) Fears? At least this: Lessons he taught will endure. And, the noblest lesson is his life.
Fears studied, and understood, pivotal battles in human history.
He also knew well the debates among students of the Battle of Marathon in ancient Greece. One set of stories where the wheat and chaff of fact and legend blend concerns a certain Greek herald — a runner who brought news directly to people, in those days long before printing presses or modern telecommunication.
The great historian Herodotus recorded the historic run of Pheidippides as coming after the armies of Persia landed in Greece. The courier covered the distance from Athens to Sparta, bringing news that a massive horde of invaders would soon threaten all the city-states. Spartans and others rallied to their estranged brethren, to defend freedom.
Yet, there is another story. It is likely legend — but a lovely one, bequeathed to us from the writer Lucian. In his tale, the improbable win of 10,000 Greek soldiers over 20,000-60,000 Persians at Marathon led soldiers to beg for their best runner, Pheidippides, to speed toward Athens, to inform the people and city leaders they were safe.
Robert Browning later adapted Lucian, to say the courier “flung down his shield, ran like fire once more” the course from Marathon to Athens. At the limit of exertion, he stumbled, exhausted and dying, into the city square. Browning says his last words were: “Rejoice, we conquer!” Lucian in the original version said Pheidippides uttered, “We are the winners.” A few sources have translated that final word as: “Victory!”
Dr. Fears kept his deepest religious beliefs to himself. Perhaps he was reticent to impress upon listeners his particular brand of Christianity. But a Christian he was, one who even now, I trust, reaps his just reward.
He would have been familiar with St. Paul’s second letter to Timothy, chapter 4, verse 7 (King James Version): “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
And let the people say: “Victory!”
Note: This is adapted from Pat McGuigan’s essay in the November 2012 edition of Perspective, monthly publication at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.