Charlie's Blog: Arts: Liberal and Servile


Arts: Liberal and Servile

The more people who are humanely educated, the better. But the more people we have who are half-educated or quarter-educated, the worse for them and for the republic. Really educated people, rather than forming presumptuous elites, will permeate society, leavening the lump through their professions, their teaching, their preaching, their participation in commerce and industry, their public offices at every level of the commonwealth. And being educated, they will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power and money and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look forward to posterity and backward toward their ancestors. For them, education will not terminate on commencement day.

Basket weaving majors have always had a hard time and had to endure much derision for pursuing a field of study that was considered to be a waste of time and money. But I have to point out that basket weaving is not a liberal art like history or philosophy but a servile art yielding a skill more marketable than anything you will find in a transgender studies curriculum. In today's world of inflated tuition and crushing student loan debts, all majors short of a medical degree are foolish. I have lived long enough to see a man who majored in English lit and get a master's degree in art go on to make more money than a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Clemson University who was lucky to get the job he has now.

The student loan bubble in higher education has wreaked a great deal of havoc. The ultimate rotten fruit of this catastrophe is that we have educated a generation primed and ready to embrace socialism if for no other reason than to escape their student loan debts. The reality is that higher education has always been a gamble for people, but the stakes were smaller in previous decades. Today, those unlucky bets will hamstring a graduate for the rest of his or her life.

Much of the blame for this debacle is misplaced. No one looks at the federal government tossing out student loans like raindrops in a monsoon, or the bloated university administrations who act as giant sponges for those raindrops. The blame is placed on students for majoring in the wrong fields of study. These kids should have majored in STEM subjects which really means computer programming--a field open to anyone willing to buy a few books on coding from Amazon and work through them. Credentials don't matter in a field that changes yearly.

The sad thing in this gigantic mess is that people now miss the purpose of education. Originally, universities grew out of religion and the need for an educated clergy to serve believers. In those days, being hunched over a book seemed superior to being hunched over a plow. And this is where the divide between the liberal and the servile arts appeared.

The liberal arts served the higher ends of man such as the spirit and the intellect while the servile arts served the lower needs of man such as his need for food, water, clothing, transportation, and shelter. As such, these two arts were put in an antagonistic relationship. Without the servile arts, the scholar would not eat or even have a book to etch his thoughts or the candle to see his work in his cloistered cell. Likewise, without the higher ends of the liberal arts and religion, the servile arts amounted to nothing more than what ants do to survive. Surely, men are worth more than ants.

Both the liberal arts and the servile arts are of vital importance. You can't have one without the other. The engineer's profession relies upon mathematics which is a liberal art. And a poet's work would matter little if it was not for the printer putting those beautiful words on the page. But despite the fact that the two arts need each other, one thing should be established. The liberal arts are superior to the servile arts. There would be poetry without the printer, but there would be no printing without the poetry. The servile arts have always been and always will be the servant to the liberal arts. This is why they are called "servile."

The relationship between the liberal and servile arts has become fractured and distorted. This comes as a consequence of atheistic materialism, science, industrialization, technology, and capitalism. In ages past, the stone mason knew that his work was for the sake of the work of the priest. In a secular age, that work has been reduced to the bricklayer building something mundane to house something even more mundane. The skyscraper has replaced the cathedral, and it has descended into mediocrity and absurdity as the centuries have become increasingly material and secular.

The liberal arts have given way to the humanities and social sciences which sees religion as merely a cultural phenomenon. The arts being just another cultural phenomenon has descended into the sort of play you find in a kindergarten, and I mean that literally. Take a trip to any modern museum of art and compare it to what you see in a preschool program. At least the preschoolers don't descend into making art from their poop. This is left to the grown ups.

When they were informed by Christianity, the liberal arts were awesome. Now, they suffer from the taint of guilt by association with the cultural marxists and queer theorists who have infiltrated their ranks. The real liberal arts can only be found now in small colleges devoted to classical education. The staff at these schools tend to be conservatives and Christians. They represent the Alamo of Western Civilization.

Once upon a time, art was beautiful. Music was sublime. History mattered.  Philosophy was wise. And literature elevated its readers beyond mere entertainment. They reflected the permanent things which are the things that really matter. These things are not lost. They are simply forgotten waiting to be rediscovered by people today. And when you discover them, their value becomes self-evident.

It was Russell Kirk who revealed to me the treasures of the liberal arts and made me unashamed to be a liberal arts major. In his essay "The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education," this is how Kirk put it,
Our term “liberal education” is far older than the use of the word “liberal” as a term of politics. What we now call “liberal studies” go back to classical times, while political liberalism commences only in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By “liberal education” we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called “career education.”
Kirk points out the difference between the liberal arts and the servile arts. You should never be ashamed to be intelligent or wise even if you are not necessarily wealthy or well remunerated. Today, a video game playing surgeon with a six figure salary is seen as superior to an English professor at a private college. Yet, both pale in comparison to the millionaire basketball player who has no cultural enrichment beyond the latest rap song currently popular on the urban contemporary stations. If money is the only signifier of value, the drug dealing hood rat is superior to the adjunct professor scraping by on his meager salary.

Kirk predicts our own times in this telling quotation, 
If all schools, colleges, and universities were abolished tomorrow, still most young people would find lucrative employment, and means would exist, or would be developed, for training them for their particular types of work. Instead, a highly beneficial result of liberal education, conservative again, is that it gives to society a body of young people, introduced in some degree to wisdom and virtue, who may become honest leaders in many walks of life.
Our educational apparatus has been rearing up not a class of liberally educated young people of humane outlook, but instead a series of degree-dignified elites, an alleged meritocracy of confined views and dubious intellectual and moral credentials, puffed up by that little learning, which is most truly described by that mordant Tory Alexander Pope as a dangerous thing.
Russell Kirk was a greater prophet than he realized because the schools have been abolished and replaced with a wing that teaches moral relativism and marxism and another wing that is an overpriced trade school. Both look for the credential and neither care for actually knowing anything unless it will earn them a large paycheck. The result is that we do not produce intelligent people but merely clever people doing tricks for money. They are the human equivalent of a chicken who plays tic-tac-toe for pieces of corn.

The chicken has no idea what he is doing except the cause-and-effect relationship between his action and his reward. Likewise, so many intelligent people occupy that spot where if they turn out the right code or pull off the right trick or mouth off on the correct talking points, they will receive financial compensation. This class represents what I call the "clever idiots."

A clever idiot would be the nuclear bomb scientist smart enough to split the atom but not smart enough to figure out that his work will result in the deaths of millions of people. Another example would be the socialist technocrat that pushes communism while ignoring the last century of history or current events in the newspaper showing that Marxist delusions always end in tyranny and failure. What these clever idiots share in common is an inability to see the larger picture. They are hyperspecialized and deprived of the wisdom a classical liberal arts education provides.

The clever idiocy reaches its zenith in that queer creature on the autistic spectrum known as the Asperger's Syndrome geek. Asperger's is not a real condition derived from genetics. It is a condition created in the vacuum of the liberal arts. Basically, someone with Asperger's Syndrome is mentally retarded on everything except their one special trick. This could be anything from doing mathematical equations, coding, or playing the piano. Some people claim that Glenn Gould was on this autistic spectrum except when the man spoke. He was very erudite possessing a superior vocabulary and a profound knowledge of things. He also had a deep emotional connection to his music which became deeper with age. This man was no idiot savant.

Thanks to the public library and the internet, the world of the liberal arts is open to anyone with basic reading comprehension and the time to explore this valuable world. This means turning off the television set and the video games and committing to reading books found on the list of classics. This vein of gold will last anyone a lifetime and enrich them far more than watching endless reruns of Friends. If Abraham Lincoln could avail himself of his meager opportunities and scant time, you can do the same or even better.

It is a tragedy if a man or woman goes through life without this deeper knowledge that the liberal arts offers virtually free of charge. Yet, even people possessing advanced degrees do not avail themselves of this knowledge. They can tell you who won last night's wrestling match but not who won at Waterloo.

If Russell Kirk elevated my understanding and appreciation of the liberal arts, philosopher and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford did the same for me in appreciation of the servile arts. Crawford is that rare bird who has a foot in both worlds. He has advanced degrees but also can turn a wrench. He writes books and builds custom parts for motorcycles. I think that is pure awesome.

There is deep satisfaction in losing yourself in a real world project. Servile work of skilled and unskilled varieties requires its own knowledge and proficiency. It takes one set of skills to play the violin but a very impressive set of skills to make a violin as well. A relationship exists between the builder and the performer. Their relationship is one of mutual appreciation.

Somewhere, our society developed a disdain for blue collar work and the trades. This coincides with its disdain for the liberal arts. Matthew Crawford is a man despicable on both counts because he is a philosopher with dirt under his fingernails. But I like him because he shows that you can be blue collar and brilliant. It also shows how those with a love for the liberal arts can also make a decent and satisfying living when they can't find a career in the modern academy.

I also have a great love for St. Josemaria Escriva who taught his followers that the ordinary work of life can be elevated to the spiritual plane as we offer our labor done well as a gift to God. We are all laborers in the fields of the Lord. That field can be a lecture hall, a laboratory, a garage, a kitchen, or even a literal field.

The problem of our age is that we have become divorced from God and reality. This is why the liberal and servile arts have fallen into their present state. We can blame it on the pursuit of money or a disdain for the ordinary. But the rejection of both come from the rejection of the Christian religion that gave dignity to both arts. In a world of atheism and materialism, I don't see how they will ever recover.