Practical Arts

If the public schools neglect the liberal arts, which were the studies considered appropriate for free men, ordinary people end up living like slaves. But if the practical arts are neglected, people could end up living like animals. The practical arts include the so-called servile arts and the so-called mechanical arts. The servile arts were the arts that were considered appropriate for slaves (servi). The mechanical arts were the arts that were considered appropriate for mechanics, engineers, and manual tradesmen (mechanicae). To promote peace and social justice, we must ensure that the public schools give everyone a solid grounding in the liberal arts and the humanities. But to enable young people to learn how to earn their keep, the schools must teach the practical arts.

31.11.10 Lekythos attributed to the Amasis Painter Attic, ca 540 B.C. Terracotta scaned from met fipps
This terracotta jar from ancient Greece (circa 550 BC) shows women weaving on an upright loom. The ancient Romans classified weaving, pottery, and painting as among the mechanical arts. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

As Grover Cleveland wrote to the Democratic convention of 1884, A truly American sentiment recognizes the dignity of labor and the fact that honor lies in honest toil. Modern society needs people who know how to make things and do things. So vocational training is a perfectly legitimate goal of public education.

Throughout history, educated people from various religious traditions have even made a point of cultivating some of the arts that Roman aristocrats considered to be servile. Practicing these arts was considered to be a spiritual discipline that led to higher states of consciousness. The classic example is the tea ceremony, as practiced in various Asian countries, including Japan.

The so-called servile arts are the basis of hospitality. This print by the famous Japanese artist Hokusai depicts the Japanese tea ceremony, a demanding ritual that is performed for aesthetic and spiritual purposes.

The Japanese tea ceremony is a demanding ritual that can take up to 4 hours. It is intended to help people cultivate an awareness and appreciation of spiritual and material aspects of life. Ideally, the host or hostess devotes his or her entire being to providing the optimal experience from the guests’ point of view. Although the tea ceremony was something practiced by the aristocracy, it was a way of cultivating humility and empathy. The ritual was also intended to cultivate humility in the guests. If the ritual was done correctly, the guests would be awed by the beauty and simplicity of nature (as embodied in the materials used in the ritual).

Similarly, the members of the Shaker religious movement in the United States viewed cultivation of the mechanical arts as a spiritual discipline because they considered work to be a means of worship. They produced durable and practical products that are admired even today for the elegant simplicity of their design. The quality of Shaker products stemmed from the Shakers’ attitudes about the nature of work and workers: that all men and women are equal, and that all work is morally uplifting.

Even though the U.S. Declaration of Independence clearly states that We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, political equality has been more of an ideal than a reality. In fact, the man who wrote those words owned slaves. Much of this inequality arises from the division of labor in society.

In his book The Wealth of Nations, which was published in 1776, the British economist Adam Smith explained that the division of labor is uniquely human. Only human beings specialize in certain kinds of work so that they can trade what they produce for what they want. He noted that the division of labor led to enormous improvements in productivity because it gave individual workers the opportunity to develop better skills.

Of course, the downside of the division of labor is that some people get to specialize in highly paid, high-status jobs, while others are stuck in low-paid, low-status jobs. In an unequal society, a few people get to “specialize” in giving orders and accumulating wealth, while the many get to “specialize” in taking orders and doing poorly paid or sometimes unpaid toil. Some people “specialize” in eating the pie, while others “specialize” in baking the pie and washing the dishes afterward. This kind of inequality can be perpetuated by an educational system that provides nothing but vocational training for the masses, while reserving the liberal arts and humanities for the young people destined for the ruling class.

If we want to have a society where everyone gets a fair share of the pie, then we must ensure that everyone gets a solid grounding in the liberal arts and the humanities. We do not need to provide the same vocational training to everyone. After all, we need only so many carpenters and so many brain surgeons. What matters is that the opportunity to become a carpenter or a brain surgeon should be open to anyone, regardless of their sex or their color or their family background.

One serious problem with the “experiential” approach to education as practiced by John Dewey is that it neglects both the liberal arts and the practical arts. Schoolchildren would be kept busy with activities such as cooking and sewing instead of being taught to read, write, and do arithmetic. Yet the children would not learn enough about cooking or sewing at school to become a cook or a tailor. As a a result, the students end up neither educated nor trained.

At John Dewey’s laboratory school at the University of Chicago, students were expected to “learn by doing.” Yet in practice, the students often failed to develop adequate skills in either the liberal or the practical arts.

It was once considered normal and natural to reserve certain kinds of work for certain kinds of people. For example, white and black women and black men were routinely excluded from some of the better-paying jobs during peacetime. Nevertheless, many white women and black men and women proved capable of doing those jobs during wartime. Of course, these opportunities for women and black men tended to dry up when the war was over. Yet over the following few decades, the Civil Rights Movement and later the Women’s Liberation Movement worked to get legislation that outlawed discrimination in education and hiring.

A woman riveting an airplane in a factory during World War II.

Up until the passage of the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, it was completely legal in the United States to reserve the better jobs for white, Protestant men. Many people are aware that women’s scholastic and collegiate sports benefited from the passage of Title IX of the United States Education Amendments of 1972. Few people today realize that until the passage of Title IX, it was completely legal to exclude women from educational programs, such as law schools or medical schools.

Laws such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and Title IX were not gifts from the Almighty. Nor were they charity bestowed upon the people of the United States by a thoughtful ruling class. Those pieces of legislation were the fruits of a long and often painful political struggle that was often led by people with a liberal arts education. Yet the results have been dramatic.

The graduates of Johns Hopkins Medical School in 1960 were all white and nearly all male.


The Johns Hopkins Medical School class of 2010 included many women and people of color.

Even today, many people tell me that training in the liberal arts and the humanities is a frill that would be a waste of time for a carpenter or hairdresser to study. Yet in a democracy, political work is supposed to be done by the people as a whole, not by an elite ruling class. You may not need to know much about the liberal arts in order to build things with wood or cut hair, but you do need to know how to think rationally and see through propaganda if you are going to fulfill your responsibilities as a citizen, a voter, and a juror.