EVENT Jan 09
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Session: Education for Freedom: The Liberal Arts and Popular Democracy in the United States. (Modern Language Association Conference)

New Orleans Louisiana
Event: Modern Language Association Conference
Categories: American, Pedagogy, African-American, Colonial, Revolution & Early National, Transcendentalists, 1865-1914, 20th & 21st Century, Miscellaneous
Event Date: 2025-01-09 to 2025-01-12 Abstract Due: 2024-03-17

The liberal arts, while ostensibly an education for freedom or for free persons, has always existed alongside or in the context of manifest unfreedom. It is not at all difficult to show the ways in which the liberal arts either actively promoted and underwrote this unfreedom, or simply accepted it. For the Greeks and the Romans, the liberal arts were for exercising freedom, but only for persons who were already free. This kind of exclusion shifts and changes forms over the centuries, but is relatively consistently maintained.  John Henry Newman, regularly cited as a champion of the liberal arts in the Idea of the University, maintained the exclusion of women and delivered sermons against abolitionism as late as 1863.  The architects of American democracy who were educated, were all educated in and championed the liberal arts, but agreed that African Americans were not citizens, existed as only 3/5’s of a human being, and were largely excluded from education of any sort.  Similarly, studies have shown the very broad degree to which German support for Nazism and antisemitism more broadly came from university chairs in the humanities and other areas of the liberal arts. Moreover, Nazis drew broad support from the German middle class educated in the German Bildung tradition, an equivalent to what we in the United States would call the liberal arts.

While there have been erosions of support for the liberal arts in recent decades, in many respects the contemporary United States is the most liberally educated country in the world. This is true because of the continued focus of universal secondary education on fields within the liberal arts, and the nearly universal and almost entirely unique inclusion of the liberal arts in almost every form of degree-bearing higher education in the United States through general education if nowhere else. 

Yet, the question remains, do the liberal arts function effectively as an education for freedom within the contemporary United States? Comparative work to other educational cultures and periods is welcome. 

Submit 300 word abstract and short bio by March 17th.



Peter Kerry Powers