Liber, latin for freedom, is the root of liberal arts – originally, the studies in classical antiquity that were deemed essential for a free person to master in order to distinguish themselves from slaves.
A Roman free person is one who participates in a democracy, and is therefore expected to be well-informed about the world in which they share control and responsibility. Notably, the classical liberal arts – grammer, logic and rhetoric – were not studies aimed at accumulating content, but aimed at how to engage with knowledge itself. A free person is one who knows how to read the world intelligently, critically reflect and communicate skillfully.
A liberal arts education – once the backbone of American public education and now an endangered species – is about learning for the sake of learning, imparting knowledge and developing intellectual capacities without aim of financial reward or vocational purpose.
Yet the liberal arts are intimately entwined with class and privilege, and share this with another approach to education – education as a credentialing system.
N+1’s Death by Degrees recounts the history of organized education beginning in 605 CE China. Instead of relying on imperial connections to gain a position among the political elite, the Chinese emperor set aside a number of political appointments for applicants who performed well on a series of examinations. For the first time, any peasant (who could somehow accumulate the equivalent knowledge) could join the privileged class. Over the years as these scholar-bureaucrats became more plentiful and test-prep academies boomed, there grew to be more degree holders than there were positions, which threatened to create a politically dangerous class of educated and ambitious citizens without the ability to change their socioeconomic status. In response, to regulate the ambitions of the public, the tests were made more difficult so that just over 1% passed the first exam. These institutions effectively channeled and distracted the efforts of the peasants to change their situation into systems that supported the establishment.
Similarly, the original universities in the Western world organized themselves as guilds. A guild’s mission was not to produce learning but to regulate the production of graduates through long periods of apprenticeship, which served to keep the services of the guild in high demand, with their workers in short supply and their services expensive.
This is the history of learning as a commodity.
As social and education critic Ivan Illich points out, like any commodity that is marketed, it becomes scarce in order to regulate its value (Illich, 1975, p 73). The situation is the same for a B.A., M.A., or Ph.D. The N+1 editors summarize,
Like the market for skin care products, the market for credentials is inexhaustible: as the bachelor’s degree becomes democratized, the master’s degree becomes mandatory for advancement. Our elaborate, expensive system of higher education is first and foremost a system of stratification, and only secondarily and very dimly a system for imparting knowledge.
The contemporary dialogue around education – be it about tuition hikes, student loan forgiveness, fast-tracked degrees or more specialized degree programs – are focused on education-as-guild. On one hand, activists who want to democratize education are advocating for the guild to open up and make it easier to get credentialed. But credentialing still relies on rules as created by the established systems of power, and the entry fee to the privileged class will rise accordingly: a master’s degree or doctorate is no longer sufficient, unpaid internships are now de rigeur in many fields.
A fight for the right to education that continues to buy into this narrative is false.
Education defined as expedient practical training to gain credentials in an area of expertise is a lie that perpetuates institutions and systems of power, ransoms our own power as a collective creators in an information economy.
- It artificially limits access to the means of production at a time when technology permits unprecedented ability to localize production – protecting a model designed to maximize profit for corporate colonizers (while displacing environmental and social cost).
- It grants the false privilege of access to consumption (e.g. a consumer of credentials) as a stand-in for real power.
- It poses as a meritocracy, thus dismissing the realities of privilege and oppression and disguising poverty as a moral rather than social failing.
- It perpetuates the lie that work is that special and scarce.
- It perpetuates the lie that wealth is scarce and hard-earned.
There is a broad cost to our culture when we confuse institutional affiliations with learning / understanding / knowledge.
Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them. They school them to confuse process and substance. Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success. The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value. Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work. Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavour are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends. Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society (1973, p. 9)
We confuse allegiance to powerful institutions with real democratic power, which lies in the ability to have a collective discourse, to negotiate different perspectives, interrelate creatively and collectively join power. A functioning democracy depends on forming networks through discussion, dialectical thinking, etc. These are the aims at the heart of a liberal arts education – the art of learning is the art of having a meaningful and productive dialogue.
I think on a more fundamental level, the fight for universal access to education is a fight to focus education on people, not institutions (eg. curiosity, interest, experimentation), and on dialogue, not competition (critical thinking, confrontation with difference, translation). I think this is something that it actually possible. In a stable well-funded educational system these practices can be the focus, as opposed to a false state of economic emergency, imposing a sense of competition among students and administrators that limits risk-taking and challenge, and therefore encourages the most conservative path towards any economic foothold.
As someone who had the fortune of a liberal arts education, I recognize the privilege of choice that I have had. The threat and consequences of poverty and other forms of oppression are real, and for many, access to education under the guild model makes a real and hard-won difference. I don’t want to minimize that. Let’s also not minimize the liberal ideal as “elitist,” nor set these experiences up as an either/or opposition. We can think bigger.
I will write about my experience with a modern liberal arts education in an upcoming post.