The idea of the liberal arts is one of the most important ideas in education. It is also one of the most misunderstood. A liberal education—that is, an education that teaches the liberal arts—is to my mind a real education, one that teaches us not just how to do something, but what exactly we should do and what we should want in our lives. It is an antidote to the sense of meaninglessness and exhaustion that plagues so many students on campus, and follows us throughout our lives. But the problem is, universities themselves have forgotten what the liberal arts really are, and there seem very few people today who still understand what a real education is and how it can help us live meaningful lives.
With this article I want to give an historical and a philosophical account of what liberal education always was, and what it can be, if students choose. This isn’t—cannot be—exhaustive. Yet it is the article I wish I’d read about the liberal arts before I started college and university.
1. Liberal, Servile and Instrumental Arts
The “liberal arts” (or artes liberales) always stood opposed to what were called the “servile arts” (artes serviles). “Arts” mean, essentially, ways of doing or thinking things, and “liberal” was originally used in the sense of “free”. So liberal arts were ways of doing or thinking things that were appropriate to people who are free. “Servile”, on the other hand, was used in the ancient Greek context to refer to the ways of doing or thinking things that were used by people who were not free—in other words, slaves. The liberal arts only existed with reference to arts that were not liberal.
But that distinction is long outdated. It draws upon a difference between people that, thank goodness, has not existed for quite some time. In its place, however, a new distinction has come about.
The philosopher Michael Oakeshott in his book The Voice of Liberal Learning contrasts the liberal arts to “instrumental” arts. Instrumental as in, used to achieve something else. The liberal arts in this distinction are done for their own sake, not in order to achieve other ends, while the instrumental arts are done to achieve specific ends. These ends that the instrumental arts pursue, Oakeshott says, are “exploiting the resources of the earth for the satisfaction of human wants”:
“To be human, to have wants and to try to satisfy them, is, then, to have the use of particular skills, instrumental practices and relationships. There is no action which is not a subscription to some art, and utterance is impossible without a language. These skills, practices and relationships have to be learned. Since this learning, so far as it goes, is genuine and may be extensive, it is no surprise that there should be special places devoted to it, each concerned to initiate learners into some particular instrumental art or practice and often equipped with the opportunity of “learning on the job”, as it is called: medical schools, law schools, language schools, schools of journalism or photography, schools where one may learn to cook, to drive an automobile or to run a bassoon factory, and even polytechnics where a variety of such instrumental skills may be learned.”
As Oakeshott describes, the instrumental arts are learned at specific schools like medical schools, law schools, language schools, polytechnics and so on. The learning done at these schools is concerned with a very specific end—being a lawyer or a doctor, practising those skills in a career, earning an income.
But the instrumental arts are, on their own, never sufficient if one is to be a complete human who pursues ends that are responsible and meaningful. As Oakeshott says, “It is never enough to say of a human want: “I know how to satisfy it and I have the power to do so.” There is always something else to consider.”
That something else is this: is a given want worth satisfying? What, precisely, should I want in life?
Those are the questions of a liberal education. They do not deal with satisfying specific human wants, but in determining what it is that we should want. For Oakeshott, these are “liberal” arts because they are “liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants.”
Cardinal John Henry Newman in his important book The Idea of a University described the distinction similarly:
“That alone is liberal knowledge, which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no complement, refuses to be informed (as it is called) by any end, or absorbed into any art, in order duly to present itself to our contemplation.”
And Josef Pieper in his Leisure: The Basis of Culture, said that the question posed by the liberal arts is,
“Is there a sphere of human activity, one might even say of human existence, that does not need to be justified by inclusion in a five-year plan and its technical organization?”
The instrumental arts—science and technology—allowed humans to build nuclear and chemical weapons. They were insufficient to ask the prior, and far more important question, “Should these be made?”
The instrumental arts studied at a school of law or medicine help a prodigious and ambitious young person to become a successful lawyer or doctor, well-respected and well-paid. They are insufficient for asking the prior—and necessary—questions of, “Should I be a lawyer? What kind of life would that be? What, ultimately, am I living for?”
It is the liberal arts that teach us to be responsible humans who live meaningful lives. We can and should learn instrumental arts, too—but these are best learned after one has figured out what is worth wanting.
2. The Point of a Liberal Arts Education
The first universities in England (Oxford and Cambridge), and the first colleges in the United States (Harvard and Yale)—as well as those places of learning in India and China—were all concerned with the liberal arts. They taught nothing else. They existed to be separate from the world of work and the satisfaction of wants.
At these liberal arts colleges, one did nothing for four years but read, write, and consider the important questions of human existence. One did not go to college in order to set oneself up for a good job after graduation. Students did not choose colleges based on their expected “return on investment.” They went because it was widely recognised that a young person needed time and space—four years to be precise—to figure out what it is that is worth wanting, before learning how to pursue that.
Reading literature, philosophy, and history opens students’ minds to the range of different lives that could be lived—and listening to a piece of music or observing an artwork can inspire someone to a better life. They are not read in order to become a professor of literature or philosophy, but merely to discover the full range of human existence. And this is why a liberal education is focussed on the humanities: because these alone deal with human existence.
Mark Lilla, a professor of humanities at Columbia University, in a rare recent explanation of the point of college, described the reading we do at a liberal arts college by saying:
“You’ve already encountered countless books… and you’ve encountered countless characters in them. And all of them, even the ones in the history books, are products of an author’s imagination. When we need them, our own imagination is stimulated in turn, and we are almost inevitably led to think, “What would it be like to live like this person, or that person? What would it be like to value what they value, pursue their goals, suffer their disappointments, experience their happiness?…
You’ve been observing human nature in action, and have even begun to recognise distinct human types who represent radically opposed ways to live. So you’re now ready to start reasoning about which of these lives, if any, are worth pursuing, and which might be the best for you or for anyone.”
Mark Edmundson, a professor at the University of Virginia, pointed to the question of “Who Are You?” as at the heart of an education at a liberal arts college:
“The quest at the centre of a liberal arts education is not a luxury quest; it’s a necessity quest. If you do not undertake it, you risk leading a life of desperation… For you risk trying to be someone other than who you are…
You may be all that the good people who raised you say you are; you may want all they have shown you is worth wanting; you may be someone who is truly your father’s son or your mother’s daughter. But then again, you may not be.
For the power that is in you, as Emerson suggested, may be new in nature. You may not be the person your parents take you to be. And—this thought is both more exciting and more dangerous—you may not be the person that you take yourself to be, either. You may not have read yourself aright, and college is the place where you can find out whether you have or not.”
Anthony Kronman, former Dean of the Yale Law School, says in his book Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, that
“The goal of every undergraduate liberal arts program is to provide its students with an opportunity of this kind… All rest on the assumption that one important aim of undergraduate education is to afford the young men and women who are its beneficiaries an opportunity to reflect on the curious and inspiring adventure of life before they have gone too far in it and lost the time and perhaps the nerve for such reflections.”
Andrew Delbanco, a professor at Columbia, in his book College: What It Was, Is and Should Be quotes Judith Shapiro, the former president of Barnard College, who described college as being about
“Making the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.”
And David Foster Wallace in his commencement address at Kenyon College said that the “real, no-bullshit value of your liberal arts education” is about
“How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.”
All these explanations of liberal education have in common the idea that going to college should be about answering the fundamental questions of one’s life before it’s too late to ask them. If we do not take time from roughly ages 18-22 to do this serious thinking, it’s likely we’ll never be able to—and will live lives that are less meaningful and responsible than they could have been.
College mottos—Yale’s “lux et veritas”, for instance, or “light and truth”—hint at both the religious foundations of colleges, as well as this devotion to learning at its most fundamental.
What is inescapable is that a liberal education is an enormous privilege. It is an opportunity few are afforded—but once afforded, should be taken full advantage of.
3. Liberal Arts Colleges Today
Clearly liberal arts colleges today offer something quite different. I strongly believe that they still offer the liberal education I’ve described above—but that one has to fight for that, rather than being given it as the default.
One would expect that whatever one studies at a liberal arts college will then be a “liberal art”, and will help us work out what we should want. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. “Liberal arts” as the way most colleges and universities intend them today, including the Ivy Leagues, is used as nothing more than a synonym for breadth in one’s education. The term merely implies that students intend—or are encouraged—to take a variety of subjects not immediately related to one’s major or area of focus.
Breadth may well be a part of a liberal education, but it comes nowhere close to defining it. And so when we look at colleges, or are admitted and look through the course selection booklet, there is nothing to distinguish between colleges themselves, subjects, classes or professors that may allow us an “adventure in human self-understanding”, as Oakeshott called it, versus those that teach how to “exploit the resources of the earth for the satisfaction of human wants.”
Colleges have also radically expanded the range of majors we can study, many of which are pre-professional and therefore instrumental. These majors deal with teaching students how to be or do something, rather than asking the prior questions of whether they should be or do those things. Students can go through an entire four years at a liberal arts college merely preparing for their first job, rather than undertaking a proper liberal education.
This is not the place for me to get into the reasons for this change, or its effects. Suffice it to say that the education today offered at most liberal arts colleges is not a liberal education as it was always conceived—and to better understand this, I recommend Andrew Delbanco and Anthony Kronmans’ books.
4. How to get a proper liberal education
I take it for granted that the professionalisation of our liberal arts colleges is inevitable and irrevocable. The majority of students, parents and professors demand an instrumental education even at a liberal arts college, and nothing can be done to reverse that corruption in terms. I do not complain about it—so long as students who want a liberal education are still able to get one.
The problem, however, is that because the distinction between the liberal and instrumental arts has been diminished or lost by our institutions, we simply aren’t aware of how the small decisions we make about our learning can come to radically affect the kind of education we think we can have. Most students do not know that they can have an education that deals with their lives as a whole, rather than one that deals with their first job. Everything said to us by institutions, professors, parents and classmates pushes us to receive an instrumental education, rather than a properly liberal one.
And again, I repeat—an instrumental education is necessary, because we must participate in the world towards instrumental ends. But it is best done after a truly liberal education, which first lets someone work out what ends are worth wanting.
That’s why it’s so critical we understand these distinctions that all come under the broad banner of “education”, because without an ability to discern between the liberal and instrumental arts we are blind to the way that our decisions about what to learn and when we learn them will shape our life opportunities. But more importantly, if we aren’t aware of the distinctions, we might simply miss entirely the opportunity to build the meaning into our lives that a liberal education offers.
Most students will continue to spend their time at college in the normal way, seeking instrumental ends before figuring out what ends to want. But to those who want an education of the “high old way”—to those students who think there must be more to an education than expanding one’s resume—know that it’s possible, and that it can be truly transformative. Know that there are others who also want a real education, who are likewise disappointed by what college and university has become. And know that throughout history, most of those who wrote books that we can read today understood the value and the need for a truly liberal education. They’re our guides, even if we are guided away by current university administrators from what we want in our education.