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Liberating Students From the Liberators

The "liberal arts" have come to mean the arts that turn people into liberals. Anti-Christians as early as Montaigne have played on the expression as the "liberating" arts. Montaigne must have known that artes liberales, translating directly from the Greek, refers to the skills and practices that distinguish the character of the free man from the servile classes of slaves, serfs, and employees.

For Greeks and Romans, the free man, however poor, owned his own land and maintained his economic independence; he took care of his own wife and children; he had the means and the willingness to fight in defense of his people. Beyond these basic requirements, the free man had the means to defend his religion and culture, which meant that he had to have some mental and social training. He had committed large chucks of Homer and other poets to memory; he knew how to conduct himself at a party, to drink moderately, to sing and dance; when called upon as a witness or defendant in court or to serve his country in some civil capacity, he could speak his language correctly, organize his thoughts, and persuade his fellow citizens.

As time went on, Greek sophists and philosophers claimed to have a monopoly on mental cultivation; practical parents, however, were more inclined to trust the teachers of rhetoric. Although Plato tried to give the rhetoricians a bad name, Aristotle took their craft seriously enough to...

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