Chad Orzel’s piece this week, “Physics Is a Liberal Art,” is a must-read. He’s a physicist who attended a small liberal arts college and works at another one, so he’s well acquainted with the various ways in which the term “liberal arts” is used. And he’s right.
Classically, the “liberal” arts were contrasted with the “servile” arts. The “liberal” arts were understood as the arts of liberty, or the habits of mind necessary for self-governance. The “servile” arts were about performing employment. The distinction makes sense under the long-held view—going back at least to Aristotle, and probably farther than that—that people whose days were consumed by material necessity couldn’t really tend to the higher things. Athenian democracy only applied to the small sliver of society that wasn’t doing the work of economic production and reproduction. Put differently, democracy for the few relied on an excluded many doing the work.
That line of thought continued for thousands of years. As late as the 19th century, it was commonplace in the U.S. to refer to employment as “wage slavery.” The idea behind the label was that if you’re reliant on your job for your sustenance, and your job is contingent on the approval of a boss, then you’re as much under arbitrary control as any subject of a monarchy. Although we don’t hear the term “wage slavery” much anymore, traces of it still exist in terms like “at-will employment.” In another context, “at will” sounds a lot like “prerogative.” (Elizabeth Anderson’s 2017 book Private Government is good on this.)
The great experiment of the 20th century was the expansion of democracy to include those (us) who have to engage in production and reproduction to sustain ourselves. That required a tricky and uncertain balance of “liberal arts”—all the more important as isolated rural life gave way to city life with much more heterogeneous populations—and “servile arts.” If the masses are to vote, then it’s crucial that the masses have some idea of the big picture. It’s also crucial that they’re able to make a living. Being workers and citizens requires preparation for both roles.
The boundaries of the “liberal arts” change over time and place. Harvard started with Latin and Greek; “modern” languages were considered vulgar and a form of watering down. Classical literature slowly gave way to English literature, then to American, then to world, then to films, then to graphic novels and now to digital humanities. Similar debates play out each time, with more expansive definitions taking hold with each subsequent generation. On campus, some people use “liberal arts” to mean anything nonvocational, which is probably the closest approximation of the original meaning. Others use it to mean anything not math-based, so history would be included, STEM would not and political science would be sliced right down the middle. When I was the liberal arts dean at CCM, my purview encompassed the humanities and social sciences, but not STEM, business or allied health. I had enough to do, so I wasn’t about to go around trying to annex those fields, but the name always struck me as slightly misplaced. Classically, Orzel is correct: physics is a liberal art.
“Liberal arts” and “general education” have a complicated relationship. At DeVry, when I was there, the servile arts were on top and the liberal arts were relegated to the general education department. The idea was that the place was mostly about preparing students for technical jobs, but it made some sense to ensure that they could also write, read and speak like college graduates. At the time, students couldn’t major in any liberal arts field, but they had to take a smattering of gen eds in order to graduate. (There, math and physics fell under general education.) I started to think of the difference between the technical majors and gen ed as being defined largely by the speed with which the content changes. Computer operating systems change much more quickly than rhetoric or algebra.
While I’m a fan of well-constructed general education requirements, I admit I still cringe whenever I hear the phrase “get your gen eds out of the way.” It reduces the arts of liberty—our students are potential voters, after all—to an exercise in box checking. Whether you’re a poet or an engineer, if you have the vote, I want you to have a sense of history and economics. It matters. As long as votes matter, it matters. If votes stop mattering, we have a much bigger problem.
Nondemocratic societies don’t need the liberal arts and, in fact, tend to be suspicious of them. Censorship is a hallmark of autocracy. A robust sense of history can feed the awareness that the way things are isn’t necessarily the way they always were or always have to be. It also conveys a sense of how things don’t happen, which can come in handy when, say, a great power decides that nothing can possibly go wrong when provoking a land war in Asia. If there’s only one sanctioned source of truth—the church, the maximum leader, whatever—then the kind of questioning that the liberal arts encourage amounts to 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’s trying to survive. We may have lost the language of wage slavery, but the reality of it is very much alive. Higher education now faces the twin tasks of educating citizens and educating workers. That’s historically unusual. It’s difficult. But it’s worth trying to get right.