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The Arts of Liberty

The liberal arts and authoritarianism.

September 23, 2020

“Liberal Arts Majors Less Drawn to Authoritarianism,” read the headline.

My first reaction: Well, I should hope so!

My second reaction: That means they’re working!

The term “liberal arts” wasn’t intended to contrast with “conservative arts.” It contrasts with “servile arts,” which are the techniques for producing goods for exchange. The terms are revealing. Aristotle’s notion of politics was based on the exclusion of people whose days are consumed with economics, whether that meant women or manual laborers; as he saw it, people who were too engaged with the muck of life couldn’t raise their sights enough to deal with public things. The trivium -- generally recognized as the source of our liberal arts -- was for those who had the time for it.

The literal meaning of “liberal arts” is the “arts of liberty.” They’re supposed to be the skills necessary for participation in a democratic society as a self-determining citizen. As historians of political thought (hi!) never tire of pointing out, the history of democracy as a lived idea is a history of exclusions, expansions and battles over who gets to be included. It’s also, globally speaking, a history of brief flashes. Although Americans like to think that representative democracy was ordained from on high, in the scope of history, it’s very much the exception. And even where and when it exists, it rests on exclusions. The concept of “us” only makes sense if there’s a “them” for contrast.

The story of American democracy that I prefer is of a series of battles over widening, or narrowing, the circle of who counts as “us.” In my view, we get better as the circle of “us” gets wider. Doing away with property qualifications for voting, banning the classification of people as property, enfranchising women, banning poll taxes: these were all (partial) moves in the direction of inclusion. Each move is conflictual in the moment, because those who were already in the “us” feel a dilution of their clout as the circle widens. People on the outside want in. Some on the inside fight back, often in brutal ways. Others on the inside unthinkingly accept that the way it is is the way it must always be -- the end of history, as some erroneously put it -- as if the entire march of human history culminated with … them. But some on the inside push to expand the circle. Even if they wouldn’t use this language, they’re the ones on the inside who understand the arts of liberty.

The arts of liberty are inevitably social. Free speech means nothing to one person on a desert island. Although Americans constantly misunderstand this, the purpose of individual rights is social. They are to enable us to live together in ways that allow an ever-greater share of us to be who we are, or who we want to be. They rely on reciprocity, or the recognition of the other. The greater the reach of reciprocity, the stronger the liberty.

In most countries, the study of the liberal arts is effectively confined to the economic elite, just as Aristotle had it. That was true here, too, for most of American history. Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class,” as well as his writings on colleges, offer an acerbic view of the function of “classical” education in the early 20th century. As he put it, the sheer uselessness of the liberal arts was what was appealing about them: if you could afford to study literature, you signaled that you were rich. “Useful” education was for those who had to be useful; status accrued to those who displayed what he called “honorific waste.”

Veblen was on to something, but only partially. Look at what got taught at the “agricultural and military” colleges open to Black Americans, and then look at what got taught in the Ivy League. Even now, “vocational” education carries clear class connotations.

Part of what makes public higher education in the postwar era so remarkable is that America, more than most other countries, decided that the liberal arts should be available to (nearly) everyone. Research universities in the U.S. were developed along the German model, starting with Johns Hopkins, but community colleges are distinctly American. They were built with inclusion written into their missions. They, and state colleges, too, were built to make the best of our culture available to those who otherwise wouldn’t have access to them. To steal a phrase from Ben Barber, America tried to create an aristocracy of everyone.

That’s an ambitious project on a good day. In a context of upward wealth distribution, it can feel almost countercultural. And I certainly won’t say that it always works as intended. It requires successfully pulling off at scale a balancing act that only even became thinkable in the last two generations: addressing the very real need to make a living while also inculcating the skills of democratic citizenship. The “comprehensive” community college -- with both vocational and liberal arts programs -- is a monument to inclusion. A robust public education system -- from pre-K through research universities --- is the single best generator of both prosperity and democracy that the world has ever seen. But it relies, as democratic institutions do, on people who don’t always understand it.

The point of teaching literature classes to someone who works at Jiffy Lube is recognition that working at Jiffy Lube isn’t all that person is. Dignity and talent are everywhere. We prove that we mean that by supporting the institutions that allow that dignity and talent to flourish.

Authoritarian logic also relies on an “us,” but it doesn’t want to expand the circle. It wants to fortify it -- put up walls, if you will -- and even shrink it. Rather than reciprocity, it relies on dehumanization; rather than equality, it leans toward domination. Authoritarians have no problem with the “servile” arts; it takes servility as the natural condition of “them.” But authoritarians are deeply afraid of change. They prefer not to be questioned. The arts of liberty strike them as threatening and even subversive. In the U.S., for a long time, it was against the law to teach Black people how to read. Widespread literacy was a threat to racial hierarchy. Engaging others in a spirit of reciprocity, rather than domination, strikes authoritarians as either insane or as an admission of weakness.

Throughout human history, authoritarian rule has been far more common than democratic rule. It has a simplicity to it that makes it easy to understand. (“It’s good to be the king!”) It makes a confusing world seem simple, with simple answers offered by simple men. Whether it’s “king and church,” “blood and soil,” or “God, guns and gays,” it offers the emotional payoff of loyalty and group solidarity. It leans towards pageantry, and away from debate. In many cases, it actually stigmatizes analysis as a form of trickery. That’s why authoritarians target writers. Authoritarians suspect, at some level, that their claims don’t hold up to scrutiny. Their answer is to shut down the scrutiny.

So, students who study the liberal arts are disinclined toward authoritarianism?

Good. They should be. And we need to share those liberal arts with far more people, so this brief and fragile flash of democracy doesn’t go the way of so many before it. Reciprocity and dignity are conscious choices that we have to make over and over again. History doesn’t end, but democracies do; if we want ours to last and flourish, we have work to do.


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