social welfare

Why “the liberal arts” has nothing to do with being left-wing

And why hating them is pointless and wrong


WARNING! This is an essay. I’ve tried to keep it pretty simple for a newcomer to understand, but it’s an essay and a slightly long one at that. However, I do think it’s important stuff!

BUT, I know that the Internet has a short attention span so there’s a TL;DR at the end!


To the majority of the English speaking world, the term “liberal” has come to be associated with the left wing, with welfare, with social policies favouring the working classes over the upper classes and aristocracy, and at the extreme end with communism and other non-capitalist economic systems. The notable exception is Australia where, due to the presence of the conservative Australian Liberal Party (ALP), the term “liberal” means “conservative or right-wing”, but even here we understand what’s being said when non-Australians talk about “liberals”. 

But one thing recently has been really irritating me, and it’s Americans talking derisively about so-called liberal arts degrees. As a medical scientist I study those things that are firmly within the realms of the natural sciences, but I’m also a student of ancient history, anthropology, mythology, and many other areas often considered parts of the liberal arts. Right-wing Americans often refer to “liberal arts” degrees as being the “product of feminism and communism” (whilst wrong, there’s nothing wrong with a bit of lot of both of those), and think that because they’re liberal arts this must mean they’re left-wing arts.

The thing is… the term has nothing whatsoever to do with this. In fact, it’s actual root is something that almost all Americans, and indeed Westerners, would support wholeheartedly - freedom. Specifically, the term Liberal Arts originated during the Renaissance (from rinascimento, literally “rebirth”), a period of reformations in the studies of the sciences, arts, humanities and other areas of intellectual and philosophical pursuits. The Renaissance primarily originated in the city-states of Italy, France, and other continental European powers. Whilst it spread to the UK and other areas later, this was it’s true birthplace and this really showed in the terminology of the day. Pre-Renaissance ways of thinking were described as “Old World beliefs”, and the Renaissance men (though women were often involved, 1500s men most certainly would never include us) preferred to describe themselves as “New World thinkers”. The language of the day was primarily Italian but since most of the Renaissance thinkers were educated academics communicating with other academics in potentially new countries, they instead chose to speak almost entirely in Latin and Ancient Greek to “aid comprehension” (and help keep the plebeians from understanding too). 

Two such Latin terms for new branches of knowledge were two of the most general branches of which Renaissance thinkers could conceive. These were Artes Mechanicae, and Artes Liberales - literally “the mechanical arts” and “the liberal arts”. I’ll explain both, though I’ll only explain the Mechanicae briefly.


The Mechanical Arts 

The Mechanical Arts dealt with those features of the world that were considered “mechanistic” or… well, for want of a better word, menial. They were basically all of the things that the aristocratic Renaissance thinkers described as being necessary for the world to actually function, but were “unbecoming” for a gentlemen. Basically, the things people actually needed, but didn’t necessarily want to do themselves. They were classified into seven rather arbitrary categories:

  1. Agricultura - Agriculture, farming
  2. Architectura - Architecture, building
  3. Coquinaria - Cooking
  4. Mercatura - Trade
  5. Metallaria - Metallurgy
  6. Militia et venatoria - Warfare and hunting
  7. Vestiaria - Tailoring

Anything that wasn’t something an aristocrat wanted to do? Mechanical art. 


The Liberal Arts 

The Liberal Arts dealt with those features of the world that were necessary for free men to understand. That’s the reason they’re called the artes liberales, literally the Free Arts - because they were the subjects (artes) that free-thinking and politically free aristocrats (classism is inherently built into the Renaissance) were expected to understand in order that they might rule the lands effectively. The terms are a little more complex than the seven above, but I’ll explain.

Prior to the Renaissance, the Medieval concept of the artes liberales was divided into the trivium, and the quadrivium. Later, subjects derived from the trivium became the early bachelor of arts, and the more ancient quadrivium became the early master of arts. 

Trivium (”the three paths”):

  1. Grammar - “Why is the world the way it is?”; understanding the world through the senses and through observing. A tree is a tree, and not a cat.

  2. Logic - “How can I think about the world?”; understanding logical conclusions, avoiding logical fallacies, and coming to accurate conclusions. A tree is a tree because it has leaves and cats have 4 legs and no leaves, therefore it is not a cat.

  3. Rhetoric - “How can I tell others about the world?”; conveying, through appropriate language, what you have discovered through observation and logical thought. I will tell you that a tree is not a cat, and this is how I know.

This kind of underlies what the ancient people, especially the Greeks, thought about the world - that it could be understood entirely through thought, and that experimentation was not required. 

Quadrivium (”the four paths”):

  1. Arithmetic - Basically, mathematics as it deals with numbers. 

  2. Geometry - Mathematics as it deals with shapes. This is important, because the Greeks and the Medieval people did not believe that numbers and shapes were necessarily the same thing, and geometry was taught FIRST.

  3. Music - The study of music, but also of songs and poetry, and of how they shape human understanding and thought. 

  4. Astronomy - And also often astrology; the study of the stars, constellations, and often of divination through the stars.

One was taught the quadrivium only after one was first taught the trivium - the ancients believed that before we taught people how to learn about the world, they must first be taught how to learn. 

These subjects formed the basis of the Liberal Arts, and thought the later Renaissance thinkers replaced studying logic and grammar with studying history and ethics, it was basically the same. 

As a result… basically all Liberal Arts degrees from that point onwards were about those things. Liberal Arts were considered the things you needed to know in order to be a free-thinking human being, nothing at all to do with “liberalism” and “left-wing politics”. In fact, many arts students in the first days of universities and further education considered politics to be a sort of modern Mechanical Art - necessary for the world to function… but ultimately, not something that “freethinking” people should concern themselves with. 

Ultimately the liberal arts today are much more diverse and much less classist than they were at the time of their first conception. Subjects such as literature, archaeology, linguistics, history, philosophy, logic, morality, theology, psychology, musical studies, and a huge array of other disciplines are included under the banner of the Liberal Arts, but I think that it’s always important to remember what the “liberal” in “Liberal Arts” truly stands for.

It stands for our
Freedom To Be People

– Juniper Wildwalk


States Spend Hundreds Of Thousands On Welfare Drug Testing, Turn Up Barely Anything

As state legislatures convene across the country, proposals keep cropping up to drug test applicants to the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, or welfare. Bills have been introduced so far in Montana, Texas, and West Virginia, with a handful of others also considering such a move. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker ® has gone further, proposing to drug test applicants for food stamps and unemployment benefits. They follow recent bills put into action in Maine, Michigan, and Mississippi.

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Food Stamp Program Helping Reduce Poverty -

A new study by the Agriculture Department has found that food stamps, one of the country’s largest social safety net programs, reduced the poverty rate substantially during the recent recession. The food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, reduced the poverty rate by nearly 8 percent in 2009, the most recent year included in the study, a significant impact for a social program whose effects often go unnoticed by policy makers.

The true face of social services.

For all we know, the client in question could be disabled or on medication that makes it difficult for them to wake up easily. They could have worked late at their job and been dead tired. Even if that’s not the case with that particular client, how many more clients does this disgusting dude take pleasure in denying food who do have these issues? And how does the DSS get away with calling people at 7am on a Saturday when it’s illegal for telemarketers to even do that??

This guy works at the Springfield, Mo DSS, a place I myself am all too familiar with (though I no longer live in the area). This only confirms what most people living there have already assumed for years: these social workers do not care about the people in their community who need assistance!

I encourage everyone who cares about the dignity of people in poverty to speak up by contacting the Missouri Department of Social Services about this matter:

Address: 101 Park Central Square, Springfield, MO 65806 Phone:(417) 895-6000Twitter: @MissouriDSS Facebook: Mo DSS
Poor People Deserve To Taste Something Other Than Shame - The Establishment
My family was entitled to the dignity of eating Boston cream pie.
By Ijeoma Oluo

When we talk disdainfully about poor people buying lobster and steak, or nice phones, or new clothes, we are saying, you are not sorry and ashamed enough. You do not hate your poor existence enough. Because when you are poor, you are supposed to take the help that is never enough and stretch it so you have just enough misery to get by. Because when you are poor you are supposed to eat ramen every day and you are supposed to know that every bite of that nutrition-less soup is your punishment for bad life decisions.

I was talking with an able-bodied person the other day about how it is often best for disabled people to put their worst-face forward during a health assessment and she asked, “Like fake being sicker than you are?” and I said, “No, like, DON’T fake being healthier than you are.”

Because, yeah, sure, you might be having a good day that day and want to show it off, but it could end up making you lose out on services you really need for being ‘too healthy’. Showing our best side is only showing one side and often is showing a side that is unsustainable for us. And then the salt on the wound will be that you have to spend the entire day after the assessment curled up in bed in misery, because you used every ounce of energy you have just making it through the assessment in the first place.

Disabled/Chronically ill people, as a group, are often taught by society to put their best-face forward. To put on our brave-faces. No, our healthy-faces. And not only is that not necessary for us to have to do, but it could end up losing us the help that we really do need.


“The IRS turned over to congress most of Lois Lerner’s emails. You rarely hear that in news reports; they turned over most of her emails, including ALL of the emails from the period that congress is most interested in: the months preceding and the months during the last [2012] presidential campaign.

How many of Lois Lerner’s emails have been turned over to the House of Representatives?

The answer is 67,000 emails, but America mostly does not know that because the news media simply doesn’t have the time to add a sentence about those 67,000 emails in their IRS scandal stories.

Another fact rarely included in the news reports of the IRS news scandal is that not one Republican political group that applied for 501c4 status was denied 501c4 status. Not one Republican application was denied. The one political organization that managed to somehow get denied 501c4 status was a liberal organization called Emerge America. For most of the American news media that remains one of the secret facts of the IRS scandal.”

[Excerpts from The Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell]

Aren’t the poor comparatively rich? The fallacy of faulty comparison.

By Jay Livingston, PhD

Opponents of government aid to the poor often argue that the poor are not really poor. The evidence they are fond of is often an inappropriate comparison, usually with people in other countries: “Thus we can say that by global standards there are no poor people in the US at all: the entire country is at least middle class or better” (Tim Worstall in Forbes).  Sometimes the comparison is with earlier times, as in this quotefrom Heritage’s Robert Rector: “‘Poor’ Americans today are better housed, better fed, and own more property than did the average US citizen throughout much of the 20th Century.”

I parodied this approach in a post a few years ago by using the ridiculous argument that poor people in the US are not really poor and are in fact “better off than Louis XIV because the Sun King didn’t have indoor plumbing.” I mean, I thought the toilet argument was ridiculous. But sure enough, Richard Rahn of the Cato Institute used it in an article last year in the Washington Times, complete with the 17th century portrait of the king above.

Barry Ritholtz at Bloomberg has an ingenious way of showing how meaningless this line of thinking his. He compares today not with centuries past but with centuries to come. Consider our hedge-fund billionaires, with private jets whisking them to their several mansions in different states and countries. Are they well off?  Not at all.  They are worse off than the poor of 2215.

Think about what the poor will enjoy a few centuries from now that even the 0.01 percent lack today. … “Imagine, they died of cancer and heart disease, had to birth their own babies, and even drove their own cars. How primitive can you get!”

Comparisons with times past or future tell us about progress. They can’t tell us who’s poor today. What makes people rich or poor is what they can buy compared with other people in their own society.  And you needn’t sweep your gaze to distant centuries to find inappropriate comparisons. When Marty McFly in “Back to the Future” goes from the ’80s to the ’50s, he feels pretty cool, even though the only great advances he has over kids there seem to be skateboards, Stratocasters, and designer underpants. How would he have felt if in 1985 he could have looked forward thirty years to see the Internet, laptops, and smartphones?

People below the poverty line today do not feel well off  just because they have indoor plumbing or color TVs or Internet connections. In the same way,  our 1% do not feel poor even though they lack consumer goods that people a few decades from now will take for granted.

Originally posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.