Antagonism toward the liberal arts is nothing new. Any right-wing politician can rouse the rabble with an attack on the study of literature, philosophy and history. Florida Governor Rick Scott followed the script recently when he proposed shifting funds away from programs like anthropology to those that actually prepare students for real jobs.
Unfortunately, most of the defenses of liberal arts that I’ve read are less than fully convincing. Too often, the apologists are just making a case for the preservation of their own university departments – an understandable response, but incomplete.
One of the more thoughtful discussions of the matter is found in an address, LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, by W. R. Connor, president of the National Humanities Center.
Connor fleshes out the truism that a liberal arts education is something essential to preparing free persons to be responsible citizens:
When we say ‘liberal’ education, we are not, of course, talking about the dreaded ‘L’ word of recent American political sloganeering, nor are we even referring to the free play of ideas as in traditional liberal political theory. We are borrowing and translating a Greek term eleutherios, ‘free’, a word used most commonly to contrast free people from slaves. It also has connotations of generous, spirited, outspoken, and living the way you want.
A ‘liberal education’ means what a free person ought to know as opposed to what a well educated and trusted slave might know. Such a slave might well know a trade, manage a business, run a bank, cut a deal. Athenian slaves did these quite well from time to time, and sometimes did quite well for themselves, too. Some of them developed a craft or a skill, a techne, the Greeks would call it, using the word from which we get ‘technique’ and ‘technology’. …Some slaves possessed valuable skills and could be better managers than their masters. What slaves were not allowed to do, was speak in the assembly, or participate in any other of the rights and duties of a free citizen, the jury system, diplomacy, war. These activities also took skills—technai, but skills of a kind quite different from those looked for in a slave.
Our term ‘liberal arts’ is derived directly from a Latin translation of the Greek technai. Since the skills needed to be an effective citizen are so prominent in the Greek conception of a liberal education, it’s not too much of a stretch to retranslate ‘liberal arts’ as ‘the skills of freedom.’ Since freedom or slavery was so often at stake in citizen decision makings, these were, as well, the skills needed to preserve freedom….Those skills certainly included the ability to speak correctly, persuasively, and cogently—grammar, rhetoric and dialectic as they would be called in the later trivium. The included enough arithmetic to keep an eye on the city’s books, enough geometry to deal with surveying and land issues, and eventually enough astronomy not to be trapped in superstitious dread every time an eclipse appeared. Add harmony to arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and you have the quadrivium of medieval times….
In thinking back to the origins of these skills of freedom in the developing democracy of Athens, the central question for the liberal arts today is not: How do we market ourselves? How much vocationalism do we put into the curriculum? Or, how closely can we imitate the research university? It is, what does it take to create a truly open, free society in this strange new world we have entered in recent years? What are the skills of freedom today?
Considering that we’re witnessing a rising tide of modern-day tyrants who want to hold us in bondage to their cult of consumer capitalism, I suppose we’ll continue to see more and more attacks on anything as dangerous and subversive as liberal education.
But a question for a later post is whether or not the university can be counted on to provide such an education.