If a liberal arts education is correctly defined, no defense is needed; if it is not, no defense is possible. The term “liberal arts,” despite all its contemporary ambiguities and misinterpretations, comes from a simple Latin phrase: artes liberales, meaning work (or activity) befitting free men. Unless, therefore, no man is in any measure free, or, being free, is incompatible with any form of activity—premises that few, I think, will affirm—then the only task remaining is one of definition, not defense.

At once, however, we run into ethical and social tensions generated by the difference between a pagan (classical) conception of the inequality of men (basically, some free and some enslaved) and the Judeo-Christian view that all men and women are “created equal” in the sight of God, however feebly that essentially theological view may operate in modern Western democracy. It is inherently offensive to us to view any kind of work as befitting only one class of persons, some “menial” (originally meaning simply that pertaining to the household), and some appropriate to a higher “caste.” All work, we say, is dignified (dignity, remember, once had the meaning of “worth, merit, rank, authority, power”); “to work is to pray,” and similar pieties. And we wrestle with Ruskin’s question in Sesame and Lilies: “Which of us … is to do the hard and dirty work for the rest—and for what pay? Who is to do the pleasant and clean work, and for what pay?”

In short, from the first step we confront the difficulty of making compatible with our humane, democratic social theories an educational concept deriving from the highly stratified society of classical paganism. Free men were to be prepared for one kind of life, slaves for another, and the study of the liberal arts was for the former. For the latter, education was at most on-the-spot training in a vocation, a skill, engaged in so that free men might have the leisure to pursue their own creative activities.

So we have, in large measure, redefined a liberal arts education to make it fit our social and ethical theories, and to make it compatible with our avowed belief in the dignity of all work. That is, we have defined it as a vocation, a means of making a living, putting it alongside welding, or engineering, or accounting, or computer programming. Thus defined, the concept is not possible to defend, on the simple ground that it does not work. One does not get paid simply for being “liberally educated.” Not that accountants, welders, engineers, and computer programmers, as individuals, may not be liberally educated, nor that their work may not be enhanced by a liberal education: they often are, and their work often is. But a liberal education is not that “skill” for which employers pay wages.

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The office of every dean of a liberal arts college—surely mine—is the setting for a recurrent scene: concerned parents, sometimes accompanied by offspring, asking the question: “My son (or daughter) has just earned the A.B. degree with a major in history (or philosophy, or art history, or literature); where does he go now to get his job? We’ve put a lot of money into his education, and we want to know what he is trained to do.”

The theoretically correct but uncomforting answer is that the student has been cheated if the college, while pretending to provide him with a liberal education, has done no more than to train him for a job. Dissatisfaction with this reply, however, is not always the result of faulty parental understanding. Often the unhappy fact is that four years in a liberal arts college have provided neither a marketable vocation nor a liberal education. Liberal arts colleges today suffer from their own identity crisis, and it is not surprising that in the past few years the general public has become increasingly disenchanted with them. The sight of raging, unkempt, vandalizing college students in the late sixties and early seventies led many to doubt whether the characteristics of a liberally educated person—surely including civility, ethical maturity, literacy, and rationality—were in fact being fostered on the campuses of the nation. Public disillusionment has produced a severe decline in public moral and financial support of higher education, and the need is urgent for almost all liberal arts colleges to reassess what they are doing.

We seem to have lost our way, and when one is in that condition it is wise to retrace his steps. Indeed, to do so in the sense of studying the past in order to learn its lessons and avoid repeating its mistakes is a basic objective of a liberal education, however out of fashion it may be in a day that sees “relevance” only in the contemporary. It has been said that to try to confront the future without a knowledge of the past is like trying to live one’s memory, and many contemporary distortions of the liberal arts concept are the product of such amnesia. Countless books over the centuries have examined the nature of a liberal education, and these lines can do no more than glance at a few of the major strands of thought.

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As we have noted, the basic concept of a liberal education derives (in the Western world) from classical origins; and we have noted that the term “free” in Athens, Alexandria, and Rome meant the condition of not being a slave—the condition, that is, of not being forced to do any work one does not choose to do. The free man is simply one who can choose his own work, his own creative activity, and one who has the leisure, means, and opportunity to receive an education befitting his station. All his “work,” therefore, may be called “art” in the sense Santayana meant when he defined that word as embracing everything one wants to do when he does not have to do something else. It could as well be chemical research as architecture; as well mathematics as learning to play a musical instrument; as well geology as painting a picture. Only servile labor—work one is forced by master or circumstance to do—is excluded as “unbefitting,” or beneath the dignity (rank, worth, merit) of, a free man.

The slave, on the other hand, was trained to perform those burdensome chores imposed by the exigencies of this life—making and mending clothes, raising crops, making pots and pans, cleaning the streets, cutting hair, rowing boats, copying documents, and the like. Roughly, one was the intellectual life and one was the physical life, though the lines overlapped. From the earliest times, however, such roles as those of ruler, warrior, priest, and creative artist were considered inherently to befit the free man. Others were “workers.” Categorized and rigidified, such roles were familiar in medieval Europe as the “estates” (from “status”) into which everyone was pigeonholed.

From the first, therefore, a liberal education was designed for only one class or status of society, and was aimed essentially at the individual’s self-fulfillment, his own enlargement and happiness. To modern ears the concept sounds opprobriously selfish, smacking of exploitation and elitism. And of course it involved both. No one can deny that the vaunted Greek civilization was built on slave labor, or that educational opportunities were available only to favored classes—and usually only to the male sex. One should not, as the old saying went, “be educated above his station [status].”

Mitigating the rigors of such theories, however, were several practices and understandings. For one thing, those in the more favored class were taught, as a part of their education, to recognize their responsibility to all others. One sees this vividly in the proper education of a “prince” in Renaissance Europe, which included vigorous exhortation to service, justice, and philanthropy. Even in a quite different pagan tradition, the Germanic, it is clear that the chieftain (Beowulf, for example) had the duty of giving his life for his people, as they had the duty of obeying him. Status brought duty, and it was part of the role of a liberal education to teach obedience to that “stern voice of the daughter of God.” For another thing, practice, even in the Greek and Roman world, often blurred the distinctions. An able Greek slave in a Roman household might, though in legal servitude, be the intellectual center, the tutor, and the arbiter of art and learning for the entire family, and receive respect as such. In a later age this was called “rising above humble origins,” or, as in the case of Horatio Alger, above servitude to economic pressures.

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It may be said, then, that the classical origin of the word liberales need not totally deprive the concept of validity in our own time. No man is altogether free, whatever the law says. He is a slave of inertia, bad health, economic pressure, circumstance, intellectual limitations, sin, and other restraints. But a liberal education is aimed at enriching that portion of his life which is free, that it may be lived more abundantly.

The other word in our term, artes, also requires a backward glance; and it is illuminating to realize at once that a negative derivative from the same root is “inert.” Artes does not, therefore, mean “arts” in our usual sense—the fine arts—but any study, activity, or craft. Indeed, the “liberal arts” of the medieval curriculum included, in the trivium (“the coming together of three roads”), grammar, rhetoric, and logic (note the gratifying emphasis on literacy); and, in the quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. To call a liberal arts college a “college of arts and sciences,” therefore, is redundant, but often necessary in our day of etymological ignorance. Physics is as much one of the “arts” as sculpture, chemistry as much as literature. Any area of knowledge, any “discipline” (a definable body of coherent knowledge, from discere, to teach), presents the opportunity for the exercise of the peculiarly human capability of intellectual curiosity; and when such an exercise is undertaken voluntarily as a means of living a fuller life, of developing one’s broadest intellectual, aesthetic, moral, and philosophical capacities, it is one of the “liberal arts.”

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Occasionally, of course, the happy chance arises that one discovers that the capability he voluntarily (selfishly, if one wishes) chooses to develop is one the world will pay him money to exercise. This is simply a matter of good fortune—to be able to engage in “art” (that which one wishes to do anyway) and make a living from it at the same time. The fact does not debase the art into a mere vocation, nor identify it as one “beneath the dignity” of its practitioner. It simply means that one is at once both amateur and professional.

Today we often distinguish between the amateur and the professional by ascribing a higher skill to the latter. It should be the reverse. When a free man pursues his own bent because he loves it (as an amateur) he should be better at it than the one who “slaves” at it for money (for his keep, as it were). The comparative devaluation of the amateur is relatively recent. Perhaps snobbery played a part in earlier days, when to be paid for one’s work was to lose status, but the fact is that finer work was presumed to come from the lover of his task, regardless of reward, than from the paid hack. (Edmund Spenser, for example, was an amateur—depending on patronage, true, for the leisure he needed to write. Shakespeare as dramatist was a mere artisan, a maker of plays, paid by the job, and he had to seek status by writing such poems as Venus and Adonis, untainted by the need to earn money. When Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, dared to publish his plays as if they were an amateur’s “Works,” he elicited the derisive inquiry: “Pray tell us, Ben, wherein the mystery lurks; / What others call ‘plays’ you call ‘Works’.”)

The main point, though, is that the term artes excludes no subject, no area of knowledge, no discipline befitting the attention of a free man and serving to enrich his life. Our deepest understanding of the term artes, however, comes from the facet of its etymology that suggests order, balance, and harmony, “that which is complete, perfect of its kind, suitable” (A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, Ernest Klein, 1971, p. 51). Only within a philosophy that teaches an orderly universe, with hierarchy and interdependence, and with right human conduct as an essential part of its comely operation, can a liberal arts education be truly fostered. And not surprisingly we find that it is within a contemporary philosophy of fragmentation, disintegration, and “dissociation of sensibility” (Eliot’s phrase) that the traditional liberal arts concept has been most eroded. In Aristotle, who of all the ancients had the greatest influence on education in the Western world down through the Renaissance, we find a clear position: true learning inculcates virtue. Morality is that characteristic which distinguishes human beings from animals, and virtue is, by definition, the unique quality of manliness (manlikeness) (see Eric Partridge’s Origins, 1959, p. 783). Add the strong theistic element in the Judeo-Christian tradition and the study of religion naturally became the center of medieval and Renaissance liberal education—theology, the queen of the sciences (“science,” of course, meaning “knowledge”), because of all disciplines it best reveals the harmony and orderliness of the universe God has created.

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What this all means is that a liberally educated man should be distinguishably a good man—balanced, rational, and righteous, a student and lover of virtue. And here our contemporary vision has tragically faded. Few would maintain today that our liberal arts colleges, by and large, strive above all else to inculcate virtue. Materialism, determinism, and the quantification of all knowledge makes such an attempt seem almost anti-intellectual. Today we tend to call educated that man or woman who knows much, whether it be about nuclear physics, Slavonic philology, genetics, or comparative government. We do not ask: Has his education made him wise and happy? virtuous and enlarged in his essentially human capabilities? righteous and loving? And yet these are the questions to which a liberal education is supposed to provide at least a partially affirmative answer.

Someone has said that until social studies and technology had demonstrated the interdependence of men and nations on a shrinking planet, and until man’s eyes were properly directed downward to this earth as his one and only home, people were so busy saving their souls that they let the world go to pot. Now that we have progressed “beyond freedom and dignity” we are busy doing the reverse.

So here we are today, with a superfluity of institutions purveying a kind of education called “liberal,” but one that is only superficially, or tangentially, in accord with traditional purposes. Furthermore, in a laudable (if impracticable) effort to give every young American a chance to “go to college,” we have compromised with intellectual standards and diluted intellectual enlargement with job training. And in response to the demand for complete secularization in state-supported institutions, we have largely eliminated the religious core of value-oriented studies and substituted vast quantities of more or less esoteric information. This kind of a “liberal arts education,” shorn of its true strength, cries out in vain for defense. None is possible.

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But so long as there is a difference between the fulfilled human being and the unfulfilled one, between an enlarged intellectual capability and a narrow mind, between a heightened intellectual, aesthetic, and spiritual sensibility and a debased one, and (most tersely) between virtue and vice, some human beings will always use such freedom as they may have left in the pursuit of a truly liberal education. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius’s ironic assertion that one may live well even in a palace, one may say that it is possible to acquire a liberal education even in a liberal arts college. But it is not always easy; moreover, one need not go to college to get it, nor does the possession of a diploma guarantee its possession. No great harm, though. “Nothing can be taught, but anything can be learned,” and our liberal arts colleges (with widely variable effectiveness, true) still provide the best environment in which an earnest seeker may liberally educate himself or herself.

If the student while in college can learn to write with some clarity and facility; to think with reasonable vigor and orderliness; to become acquainted with the past (and with a foreign language or two); to begin to explore the vast realm of literature and art and music; to take a few paces into the marvels of science and number; to sense in some measure the power and beauty of virtue; to practice at least a little civility and compassion toward others; to inaugurate (in short) an acquaintanceship with and a desire to emulate the best that has been thought and said in the history of the world—if he can do such things he will not only bring greater effectiveness to whatever money-earning skill or profession he may later choose, but he will make an investment that will pay dividends both to him and to society.

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