A Conversation with Dr. Steele Brand

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Dr. Steele Brand leaning against a column with arms crossed, smiling at the camera.

Dr. Steele Brand joined the faculty in 2023 to help create and lead the politics, philosophy, and history (PPH) program at Cairn University. He recently sat down for an interview with Cairn magazine, where he shared about his love of history, how that contributed to his decision to serve in the military, his faith, and his vision and excitement for PPH and the students who study it.

You mentioned to me earlier that you’ve liked history as long as you can remember. Was there anything in particular that you learned or experienced that pushed history from an interest to a career for you?

I remember taking a class at Texas A&M on the Roman Republic, and it was the best class I had ever taken in my life. I also remember a political theory class I really liked that I took around the same time. Two really good professors. I learned a lot in the political theory class, especially when we were looking at Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Augustine. I was more naturally talented to look at things as a historian. That’s why I stuck with history, and ancient military history is what I found the most interesting.

Is that what motivated you to join the military, or were there other factors with that?

The United States was attacked on September 11. I remember that moment vividly. I was running late to Latin. I actually never made it, because I stopped and watched the news instead. As a young man in my 20s, I thought, “I need to go defend my Republic.” But of course, that’s just what needs to happen. That’s what young men should do. It’s their duty.

I did not just drop out and join the military, which some people did. I wanted to finish my education first. That isn’t particularly inspiring, but it reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime.” He says it’s still valuable to know these things, to study the great texts—even in the midst of the great trials—because they help us get through the trials and
understand them. They help us understand what peace should look like.

The so-called War on Terror was still going when I was about to finish graduate school. So the first opportunity I had, which was a year out from when I got my PhD, I signed my paperwork with the military. I defended my dissertation in June and then shipped out to basic training in July. I skipped my hooding ceremony, which I was more than fine with.

Do you think your education informed the mindset that you had going into the military?

Absolutely. The liberal arts force you to engage with the really big, difficult ideas: What does it mean to be human? Do we have a purpose? What is justice? What is love? What is beauty? Is there such a thing as the good? Is there only power? I had been trained to think about all these things.

Having said that, I still got into the military and saw all sorts of horrible things that were difficult to wrestle with. But that’s what a good education gives you: the tools to engage with and to know what to do with trauma. And that’s what I got. I came back to the writings of Augustine when I was in Afghanistan, and that helped me sort through some of my questions: Is this war just? Was it being justly waged? What do you do with being in a losing war? That was something I had to really wrestle with. I wrestled through that in 2012, when I and a lot of others were seeing that we were not fighting the war in such a way that we were going to win. By the time the war ended in 2021, I’d already come to terms with it. Some vets were thinking everything they did was pointless. But I would say to them, “You did your duty. Your purpose in life is to fulfill your duty to your Creator, to your fellow man. That’s not a pointless endeavor, even if you are part of a losing war.”

Related to “fulfilling your duty to your Creator,” can you tell me more about how your faith influences your desire to study history and what you do with that knowledge?

The great thinkers of the ancient world—the biblical authors, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero—argued that the world emerged from a divine being that was perfectly just and good and cared about whether humans were just and good. There are some important differences between these thinkers, but they all believed that faith in such a divine being was both rational and necessary. History is the story of how human beings have sought after or rebelled against this Creator in their quest to order society, achieve honor, and manage natural resources.

Shifting to the Cairn context, you joined the faculty last year and helped create the new politics, philosophy, and history program (PPH). Why did you advocate for the program to focus on these elements?

I was a part of the PPE major at The King’s College, which was modeled on Oxford. It’s a growing major, and I think those disciplines are best understood when they’re integrated. In Eric Voegelin’s History of Political Ideas, he integrated historical events with political thinkers. He argues that you cannot truly understand a political thinker outside of the historical context in which he lives. I have to agree. I always valued philosophy and the deep questions that philosophy asks, but I am not a philosopher by nature. I’m better as a historian, but I think these disciplines belong together.

What I saw at Cairn was an opportunity to build PPH. I still like PPE a lot, but PPH fits better at Cairn with its preexisting emphasis on biblical history and church history.

What kinds of students would you encourage to enroll in the PPH program?

Every student should engage the liberal arts, but this program will draw students who want to spend more time thinking about the really deep questions: Where do we come from? Why do humans exist? What is good? What is beauty? What is justice? What’s the purpose of humanity? Can you achieve justice in this world? If so, what are its limitations? Are humans sinful or are they perfectible? Do they have inherent flaws? Is there such a thing as a state of nature? These are really important questions, and the PPH program engages these questions. So, students who want to think about the big ideas or apply the big ideas as leaders, either in business, political, or legal sectors, are the kinds of people who I think should be doing PPH.

There is a distinctly biblical approach to everything taught at Cairn, and PPH is no exception. Why is it important that students learn politics, philosophy, and history from a biblical perspective?

Universities must train and habituate students to seek the truth. As a text that stands outside sociological theories, political ideologies, and errant conceptions of the cosmos, the Bible offers the most profound insights to the disciplines of politics, philosophy, and history. It is a text that should be read alongside others, but no other reading will better confound the falsities that tempt undergraduates or point them in the direction of that which is true, good, just, and beautiful.

What are you most excited for for these students who are currently enrolled and in the future, going to be enrolled in the PPH program?

The most exciting thing for any student, I think, who steps into a university that does what it’s supposed to do, is that they get to set aside the garbage out in the world. That includes their personal frustrations and foibles and all the distractions. They also get to set aside their personal struggles. In my classroom, my goal is that my students
set those things aside as they throw themselves into the texts we have and the historical events that occurred. We step outside of our little problems (and sometimes bigger problems), and we look at how other people confronted problems. This stirs the imagination. Human beings have this really, really great thing in imagination. It’s extremely important for children and just as important for adults.

For example, in my England class, students get to imagine what it’s like to live in post-Roman Britain, when the Roman armies have left, and all these Germanic peoples are coming in. A world empire that had existed has collapsed, and everything is changing. Out of this world, we have this emergence of new kingdoms and new kings who are asking, “How do we rebuild society?”

We then look at one person in particular, Alfred the Great, who decides to draw from the best traditions of the Germans, the Romans, and the Old and the New Testaments. He wants to create a Christian kingdom that encompasses all of the Anglo-Saxons. This is the idea of England. That’s a beautiful journey to go on. It is filled with peril and darkness and scary stories and kings being deposed and violence and battles. It’s better than all the movies. You enter into this world where this guy is basically asking the important question, “How do I create a just society and be a good statesman?”

And then you walk out of class. And you ask yourself, “Okay, how do I create a just society in my own little way? How
should I interact with someone that I disagree with? Do I really need to argue with my roommate over this, or should I just let it slide? Where is a compromise important? What is genuine evil or injustice and how do I fight it?” I find when I read history, I come to all sorts of conclusions about a whole host of things.

As a professor I have one job: to teach students the accumulated wisdom of centuries. It’s not to line them up with the perfect job. It’s to introduce them to the history of wisdom and the drama of the human experience.

Laura Myers, BA, is the communcations specialist at Cairn University. She can be reached at lmyers@cairn.edu.