“liberal” work, “servile” work, and plumbers–Professional Panel notes

In my last response to the 2017 Conference on Leisure and Labor at St. Gregory’s University, I discussed some questions that arose from the keynote speech, particularly as regards the terms “useful” and “useless” as used of an art or the goods it seeks.

Something mentioned in that talk, the late Roman and medieval distinction between “liberal” and “servile” arts, recurred in the Invited Scholars Panel on the second day and lingered in the air of the Professional Panel that afternoon.

benedictine_hall_shawnee

The “liberal” arts are, of course, those proper to the maintenance of a “free man” (and, where culturally conceivable, a “free woman”).  A “free man” stands without intermediary before the laws of the nation, owns property in his own right, participates in civic affairs in his own name, and is not a dependent of another in such a way as to render him obliged to give anyone payment or service without an equitable contract.  Those born or reduced to service–to slavery, or in better times to serfdom–were “servile,” that is, they had become dependents (voluntarily or involuntarily) to such an extent as to perpetually be obliged to offer service for subsistence, without any standing to insist on equitable terms by litigation, legislation, or direct action.

Now, as there was limited likelihood that most people in, say, 10th Century society could move between these states, there was little incentive to propose that the “servile” add “liberal arts” to their repertoire.  And as is so often the case, the urge to turn things into tidy exclusive sets seem to have made “liberal arts” and “servile arts” seem like two exclusive groups to most moderns.  The “liberal arts,” then, are often thought of as belonging to different departments–not just practically, but by necessity and by right–from what have variously been called “mechanical arts” or “practical arts” or “useful arts.”

Indeed, though it is far from obvious that this ought to be “just the way it is,” it is quite obvious that at least some moments in history–the 10th-12th centuries, though less the 13th-14th; the late 18th and 19th centuries, though less the late 20th–made it seem very expedient that those of “servile” status not be urged to waste their time on “liberal arts,” and those who could expect “liberal” lives eschew the “servile arts” altogether.

Even in times when economic incentive or egalitarian ideology, or some combination of these and other factors (such as the sudden need of many thousands of African Americans for education to live as free in the late 19C, or the need to re-integrate many thousands of soldiers after World War Two), have put a premium on “liberal education for all,” the troubling split between the two has often remained.  This divide–even where we are trying to erase or deny it–seems to emerge in, for example, radically flattened definitions of “liberal arts” or “servile arts” that turn one or both into a pragmatic adjunct of the other.

In my post about the discussion following the keynote written by Fr. Schall, I noticed with what difficulty we find language to articulate the difference between what is “truly useless” (miseducation, wasteful and destructive activity) and what is “useless” only under the influence of a pervasive utilitarian, pragmatist, instrumentalist understanding.  We often end up conflating such apparently “useless” activity with the “contemplative life,” and using that conflation to radicalize the division between the “useless” liberal arts and the “useful” merely utilitarian arts.  In so doing, we wrong the “active life” by treating it as merely instrumental, forgetting that study and teaching themselves properly belong to the “active life”; we forget that contemplation is both flower and fruit, and therefore also seed, of that which is nurtured and fed by activity, and neither merely a product of a process nor a purchase delivered.

The liberal arts, I therefore suggested, should be viewed as incorporating education that pursues both goods that could be taken for merely utilitarian goods (convertible only for other goods in the active life) and goods that could not be taken for merely utilitarian goods (strictly liberal goods).  I concluded that, from the perspective of the liberal arts so understood,

We are either growing and shaping our active lives so as to make it more possible for ourselves and others to enjoy the goods of friendship with God, and thus converting the mixture of true and false goods that are judged useful in the utilitarian sense into liberal goods that fructify in enjoyment of friendship with God (and being converted from a utilitarian to a liberal conception of what is useful); or we are stunting and misshaping our active lives so as to convert its goods only into others of its kind, while specifically treating as useless those activities that would make the true enjoyment of those goods possible, thus making those goods truly useless to ourselves and others.

In other words, a true liberal arts education will eschew some things that are truly “servile” in the worst sense, but will not make that distinction at the line of “knowledge worker” versus “laborer” or “white collar” versus “blue collar” or “theoretical” versus “practical” or “intellectual” versus “mechanical.”  A true liberal arts education will jettison whatever is contrary to human dignity, anti-realist, merely utilitarian, merely pragmatic, designed to bind us more completely to the powers of this world and make us more efficient subjects to secular tyranny; it will not train slaves, slave traders, or slave-drivers.

A true liberal arts education will include many things, then, that are often seen as on the “wrong” or “lower” side of these divides:  useful trades, especially those that can be taught from generation to generation, from craftsman to apprentice, farmer to farmhand.  These well-chosen trades will have two defining characteristics:  they will tend to make those who learn them capable of securing and enjoying the purely liberal goods, the leisure for contemplation; and they will tend to make those who learn them more capable of securing these goods for others, and teaching them to enjoy them.  It is necessary, then, that those who will be thought masters (fit to teach) or doctors (fit to devise programs of study, to teach teachers) be able to articulate the relationship of these chosen trades, and other fields of study, to the liberal goods and the contemplative life.

A liberal education, that is, aims at true conversion, not to be confused with a bare grasp of a concept or a temporary redirection of one’s aspirations.  This is a conversion of the goods of life, that is, a materially real and thus thoroughly personal commitment of one’s ability to gain a subsistence, to work and to learn, to a way of life that pursues the truly good and promotes the common good; that eschews the truly servile, wasteful, and destructive; that refuses to permit goods to remain merely earthly, consumed and being consumed, but cooperates with grace to heal and perfect nature.

To do that, it is probably practically necessary that there be three tiers of training, and these correspond readily to the traditional bachelor, master, doctor system:

  • the bachelor gains a trade and also studies the liberal goods in a way that orients his trade toward securing, enjoying, and sharing those goods;
  • the master continues in study of the liberal goods sufficiently that he can teach these through the bachelor’s level;
  • the doctor commits his life to the ongoing study of the liberal goods sufficiently that he can devise and refine courses of instruction, taking responsibility for the cultivation of these goods at all levels of society as his profession.

Now, I would contend that much of the bachelor’s training in a trade (and also much of liberal education) should be completed well before and probably through other means (here again I mention apprenticeship) than what we consider “college education” these days; honestly, the resources currently spent giving so many such a poor education through high school, and then through most four-year programs, are not only wasted but turned to positively destructive ends.  But whether achieved before, around, or through any particular educational organization, it is the aim of the liberal arts educator that every person who is willing and able should leave the family home to start a new life, likely a new family, equipped with the ability and understanding to secure, enjoy, and share the liberal goods–though we have to recognize that we, too, will have limitations in ability (and in will, though we ought to overcome these).

meeting_of_doctors_at_the_university_of_paris

All these reflections, swirling in my head over the years and intensified in the last few years, were coming into fresh clarity as I heard the formulations of others at St. Gregory’s last week.  It was with some disappointment, then, but not much surprise, that I kept hearing the Professional panel talking about “critical thinking” and “problem-solving skills,” all too often exemplifying “character” only through literally servile traits like regarding inefficient use of on-the-clock time as “stealing” from one’s employer.  Even “empathy” in management, though certainly not negligible (no more so than punctuality, at least), was justified in terms of its capacity to make the workplace more efficient, for the most part.

Over the course of the question-and-answer period, however, some well-considered and even pointed questions and comments from the audience started to tease out of these presenters their better reflections about the relationship of the spiritual life to work, including not only the useful-to-employers traits they began with but the common understandings of what is good for humans that workers at all levels of organization must share if they are to produce real, truly durable, even eternal goods.

The problem, though, was that even in the context of such a conference, it was evident that the participants in the “Professional” division were initially primed to regard merely utilitarian goods as self-justifying and necessary, “tangibles” that were enhanced and optimized by the addition of “intangibles” superadded by the “liberal arts.”  When engaged in discussion, however, in most cases elements of their formation were drawn out that indicated their ability to understand–indeed, at some level, the basically human need to understand–that the liberal goods are not “intangibles” at all, not luxuries or even highly desirable option packages, not optimizations or class upgrades, but tangible human goods made ready for conversion, cultivated to the point of fructification.

This difficulty was, as evidenced above, the occasion of a number of reflections on the nature of the liberal arts.  Let me suggest one final thing it suggests, though:  it suggests that those who are already basically capable of gaining their subsistence, of acquiring utilitarian goods by work, can and should be prompted to consider again the need to sort these goods and convert them to “liberal goods”–to those goods that are, either mediately or immediately, convertible into the goods of contemplation, the fruit of leisure and a well-furnished mind.  It suggests that we can and should teach our friends and neighbors, “in the middle of life,” to commit themselves to securing and enjoying these goods in a way that also helps others to secure and enjoy them, that shares these goods and teaches others how they are to be enjoyed.

And that, friends, is worth a lot more than another cooking video, or another course in critical thinking.

It is the difference, not between a job and a career, but between a career and a life.

It’s what I was put here for.

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