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Liberal Arts and Servile Arts

Christian and classical school often find themselves in a dilemma in regard to what they should offer by way of classes. A school must make a multitude of choices concerning curricular, co-curricular and extra-curricular offerings. Recovering a basic understanding of classical education as a liberal arts education will assist in helping schools with these decisions.

The pre-modern educational models made a clear distinction between the liberal arts and servile arts. The two models are different in regard to the goals that they pursued. The goal of the liberal arts was to cultivate a wise and virtuous man. The goal of the servile arts was to cultivate skills for a given trade (like blacksmithing). The liberal arts focused on producing the student that had the general skills that apply to all studies (such as thinking) and the servile arts focused on specific skills that only applied to one vocation. Today, our universities, colleges, and high schools have succumbed to the influence vocational and servile training.

C.S. Lewis contrasts liberal arts education with what he calls “vocational training,” – the educational model prepares one for employment. Such training, he writes, “aims at making not a good man but a good banker, a good electrician, . . . or a good surgeon.” Lewis does admit the importance of such training–for we cannot do without bankers and electricians and surgeons–but the danger, as he sees it, is the pursuit of training at the expense of education. “If education is beaten by training, civilization dies,” he writes, for “the lesson of history is that civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost.”

Many schools seek to add courses such as computer science to their curriculum. While I have no problem with students having a basic understanding of computers, especially in this day and age, schools must understand that they are providing a course that is not a liberal arts offering. Also, with a school’s limited time and resources, we must understand that such servile courses are taking the place of other core curricular liberal arts training in the schedule of each day. We should focus on providing a strong, quality liberal arts education first and then, if we have left over time and money (which we probably won’t), we can offer other “extra” curricular courses.

As Lewis reminds us, it is the liberal arts, not vocational training, that preserves civilization by producing wise and virtuous men.

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