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 ...

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