Education for Freedom, Not for Slavery
The ancient Romans coined the term liberal arts to refer to the studies that they thought were appropriate for free men, but not for slaves. The liberal arts helped a young man think for himself and express himself persuasively. These studies helped the man become a better citizen and a more pleasant companion. They could even help him prepare for a career in the Senate. In contrast, women and slaves were not supposed to think for themselves or speak out for themselves. Instead, they were just supposed to shut up and do as they were told.
Slavery and Freedom
The Roman economy was based heavily on the exploitation of slaves. Like slave owners everywhere, the wealthy Romans lived in constant fear of slave uprisings, such as the Third Servile War, which was led by a former gladiator named Spartacus. Little is known about the historical Spartacus, but he has inspired many works of literature and cinema..
Slaves were not taught the liberal arts. Instead, they were taught the servile arts, to make them better servants. Other workers were taught the mechanical arts (baking and weaving and so on), to make them more productive as workers. However, society can do more than simply teach skills that people will need at work.
Separate and Unequal Education
Our social institutions, such as our schools, can have a far‐reaching effect on a child’s future by either fostering or stunting the child’s development in many different domains: intellectual, cultural, moral, and emotional, as well as vocational. By shaping the development of so many children, these institutions shape the future of the society.
Throughout most of human history, there has been a tiny wealthy elite whose children were well‐fed and had time for academic pursuits. Other people’s children were often malnourished, and their education was limited to on‐the‐job training, usually by their own parents. As a result, the wealthy people were generally taller and healthier and were often far better educated than lower‐class people. In ancient Greece, such people were called the aristoi, which means best people.
The aristoi have always felt superior to other people. Yet their explanations for why they were superior have changed over time. The traditional explanation was that the gods were simply more generous to the aristoi. Ancient kings were even believed to be blood relatives of the gods. Christian theologians developed Aristotle’s concept of a scala naturae—which ranked animals over plants and ranked the various animals according to their structural complexity—and developed it into the Great Chain of Being. This Great Chain was a hierarchy with God at the top. According to this theory, aristocrats are naturally superior to common people, just as silver is naturally superior to copper.
As Darwinian evolution came to be accepted among biologists, a British philosopher named Herbert Spencer developed an unscientific theory called Social Darwinism, which was used to justify social inequality at home and imperialism abroad. Spencer’s theory seemed to provide an atheistic justification for social inequality, at a time when the traditional Christian explanations were losing favor. Yet as the social sciences and the science of genetics developed, it became increasingly clear that the causes of social hierarchy are social, not genetic. Of course, such findings would be troubling to aristoi who wish to retain something resembling the traditional social hierarchy.
As long as the children of the lower classes remained uneducated and malnourished, it was easy to maintain the fiction that the children of the wealthy were naturally superior. But with the development of nutritional supports for the poor, compulsory schooling, and laws against child labor, even poor children theoretically have the chance to develop the kinds of thinking skills that have traditionally been reserved for the children of the aristoi. Various strategies and tactics have been used to prevent the children of the lower classes from getting too much education. One was to segregate the schools, to provide a better education for one class of children than for another. (In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas (1957), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that segregation of public schools is unconstitutional.
Yet even the Brown V. Board of Education decision did not mean that all children in the United States would get an equal opportunity to get a good education. Although de jure (by law) segregation was illegal, de facto segregation in the public schools remains a significant problem because schools are largely locally funded and locally controlled. As a result, the quality of schooling that is being provided can vary significantly, even within a given city. As a result, children from poor neighborhoods typically get poor schooling, while children from affluent neighborhoods get much better schooling. Meanwhile, the children of the elite go to elite private schools that differ markedly from even the better public schools.
In the United States today, the children of the wealthy get an excellent education in elite private schools. The children of the middle class may get an adequate or even good education in public schools. Meanwhile, the children of the poor are often badly underserved by poor schools in poor neighborhoods. In his novel Brave New World, Aldous Huxley warned us that the rulers of society can deliberately stunt the development of those who are destined for the lowest rungs of society, while reserving the liberal arts and the humanities for themselves.
Education for Equality
If you want to live in a democratic society, you need to ensure that everyone gets training in the liberal arts. However, it’s also good to provide instruction in the servile and mechanical arts. Without those practical arts, human beings would live like animals. However, even butchers and bakers and candlestick makers and people in the hospitality industry need to learn the liberal arts, so that they can think for themselves, speak up for themselves effectively, and play a meaningful role in democracy.
The classical liberal arts curriculum had been developed in ancient Athens, for the purpose of strengthening Athenian democracy. The classical liberal arts included seven subjects. There were three verbal arts (called the Trivium, which simply meant the three courses):
- Grammar: the study of sentences
- Logic: the study of arguments
- Rhetoric: the art of persuasion
The other four courses (the Quadrivium), dealt with number, space, and time:
- Mathematics: the study of number
- Geometry: the study of space
- Music: the study of number and time
- Astronomy: the study of number, space, and time
These seven subjects give the student the basic intellectual framework for thinking rationally and expressing him‐ or herself persuasively. They had to be taught in the proper order. Until you understand the basic principles of grammar, you cannot begin to study logic. Without training in logic, you cannot tell whether an argument is reasonable. Thus, you cannot even begin to study rhetoric. Without a grasp cannot even begin to study logic. Likewise, you cannot get far in the study of astronomy without a grasp of mathematics and geometry.
The liberal arts have always been highly valued by societies with a democratic or republican form of government, where political decisions are made through discussions among people who are more or less political equals. The more democratic a society is, the more broadly political power is distributed, and the more widely the liberal arts are taught. In an oligarchical society, the liberal arts are reserved for the ruling elite. In a true democracy, they are taught to everyone.
The liberal arts were neglected or even suppressed under feudalism, when society was being ruled by crowned heads instead of by the people. Interest in the liberal arts revived during the High Middle Ages, when an increasingly urbanized, increasingly sophisticated population started demanding a more sophisticated priesthood. At the same time, the works of Aristotle, which had been preserved in the Muslim countries, started to become available in Latin translation. Thus, the liberal arts were established as the core curriculum of the cathedral schools that gave rise to the first universities.
During the Renaissance, the wealthy ruling families of Northern Italian city‐states embraced the liberal arts. They also expanded this curriculum to include what they called the studia humanitatis, or studies of humanity. We call them the humanities.