Liberal Arts and Servile Arts

Chad Orzel’s article “Physics is a Free Art” this week is a must read. He’s a physicist who attended one small liberal arts college and works at another, so he’s well acquainted with the various uses of the term liberal arts. And he’s right.

Classically, the “liberal” arts were contrasted with the “submissive” arts. The “liberal” arts were understood as the arts of liberty, or the habits of mind necessary for self-government. The “servant” arts were about the pursuit of employment. The distinction makes sense given the long-held notion—dating back at least to Aristotle, and probably beyond—that people whose days were consumed by material needs couldn’t really care about the higher things. Athenian democracy applied only to the small section of society that did not do the work of economic production and reproduction. In other words, democracy for the few relied on the many marginalized doing the work.

This train of thought continued for thousands of years. As recently as the 19th century, it was common in the United States to refer to employment as “wage slavery.” The idea behind the label was that if you depend on your job for your livelihood, and your job is dependent on a boss’ approval, you are as much under arbitrary control as any subject of a monarchy. Although we don’t hear the term “wage slavery” much anymore, there are still traces of it in terms like “employment at will”. In another context, “at will” sounds a lot like “prerogative.” (Elizabeth Anderson’s 2017 book Private Government is good on this.)

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The great experiment of the 20th century was the extension of democracy to those (us) who must engage in production and reproduction to sustain ourselves. This required a tricky and uncertain balance between “liberal arts” – all the more important as isolated country life gave way to city life with a much more diverse population – and “serving arts”. If the masses are to vote, then it is crucial that the masses have an idea of ​​the big picture. It is also crucial that they are able to make a living. Being a worker and a citizen requires preparation for both roles.

The boundaries of the “liberal arts” change with time and space. Harvard began with Latin and Greek; “modern” languages ​​were considered vulgar and a form of dilution. Classical literature slowly gave way to English literature, then American, then World, then movies, then graphic novels, and now digital humanities. Similar debates play out each time, with broader definitions emerging with each succeeding generation. On campus, some people use “liberal arts” for anything non-professional, which is probably the closest approximation to the original meaning. Others use it to mean anything not based on mathematics, so history would be included, STEM would not, and political science would be cut right down the middle. When I was Liberal Arts Dean at CCM, my area of ​​responsibility included the humanities and social sciences, but not STEM, business, or allied health. I was busy enough so I didn’t want to go around trying to annex these fields, but the name always felt a bit out of place. Classically, Orzel is right: Physics is a free art.

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“Liberal arts” and “education” have a complicated relationship. At DeVry, when I was there, the slave arts were at the forefront and the liberal arts were relegated to the general education department. The idea was that the main purpose of the place was to prepare students for technical jobs, but it made sense to ensure that they could also read, write and speak like college graduates. At the time, students couldn’t major in a liberal arts subject, but they had to do a couple of genetics degrees to graduate. (There, math and physics fell under “general education.”) I began to think that the difference between engineering majors and general education is largely defined by the speed at which content changes. Computer operating systems change much faster than rhetoric or algebra.

While I’m a fan of well-constructed general education requirements, I’ll admit that I still cringe when I hear the phrase, “Get your genes out of the way.” It reduces the arts of freedom—our students are potential voters, after all—to an exercise in ticking boxes. Whether you are a poet or an engineer, if you have the right to vote, I want you to have a sense of history and economics. It is important. As long as votes count, it matters. If voices don’t matter anymore, we have a much bigger problem.

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Non-democratic societies do not need the liberal arts and tend to be suspicious of them. Censorship is a hallmark of autocracy. A robust sense of history can nurture the awareness that things as they are are not necessarily as they have always been or always have to be. It also gives a sense of how things _not_ happen, which can be useful when, for example, a major power decides that nothing can go wrong by provoking a land war in Asia. If there is only one sanctioned source of truth – the church, the supreme leader, whatever – then the kind of questioning that the liberal arts encourage amounts to an apostasy. From a democratic point of view, that’s a compliment.

I agree with Orzel that an expansive sense of the liberal arts is badly needed precisely because we have an expansive democracy that is trying to survive. We may have lost the language of “wage slavery,” but the reality of it is very much alive. Higher education is now faced with the dual task of educating citizens and workers. This is historically unusual. It’s tough. But it pays to do it right.

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