Our word “liberal” — as in the term “liberal education” — comes from the Latin root word for “free,” liber, via its derivative liberalis, meaning either generous or noble, or, more broadly, pertaining to or worthy of a free man. It is important to note, however, that the Roman class status of the free man (a citizen) was quite different from the class status of the freedman (a former slave). In literature, the most famous Roman freedman (libertinus) is the wealthy and hilariously vulgar Trimalchio of Petronius’s Satyricon, a character easily recognizable even today as embodying the most distasteful aspects of the nouveau riche: massive economic privilege combined with a complete lack of cultural sophistication. According to Harold Johnston’s 1903 The Private Lives of the Romans, “neither the freedman nor his son could attain true social equality with the free citizen,” despite the fact that
The free persons employed in the offices of the various magistrates were mostly libertini. They were paid by the State, and, though appointed nominally for a year only, they seem to have held their places practically during good behavior. This was largely due to the shortness of the term of the regular magistrates and the rarity of re-election. Having no experience themselves in conducting their offices, the magistrates would have all the greater need of thoroughly trained and experienced assistants. The highest class of these officials formed an ordo, the scribae, whose name gives no adequate notion of the extent and importance of their duties. All that is now done by cabinet officers, secretaries, department heads, bureau chiefs, auditors, comptrollers, recorders, and accountants, down to the work of the ordinary clerks and copyists, was done by these ‘scribes.’ (The “Civil Service”)
The libertini carried on the economic work of the Roman empire, and yet for that reason, they were considered not to have the quality of being “liberal”: according to Volume 1 of the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia, “The expression artes liberales [. . .] does not mean arts as we understand the word at this present day, but [. . .] are called liberal [. . .] because they serve the purpose of training the free man, in contrast with the artes illiberales, which are pursued for economic purposes” (Knight, Lafort, Farley). Precisely because the liberal arts have no immediate practical or economic utility, they are considered appropriate for those fortunate enough to have been born of high (free) social status, and inappropriate for those who have attained social status via upward class mobility: they are declared to be somehow above economic concerns because of the very way in which they are embedded within economic concerns.
After two thousand years, we still use the word “liberal” in describing the “liberal arts education” offered by many elite colleges and universities. Clark Kerr quotes Cardinal Newman’s vision of a liberal arts university education that “aims at raising the intellectual tone of society, at cultivating the public mind, at purifying the national taste, at supplying true principles to popular enthusiasm and fixed aims to popular aspirations, at giving enlargement and sobriety to the ideas of the age, at facilitating the exercise of political powers, and refining the intercourse of private life” (3). According to Kerr, such an understanding came out of Newman’s experience at Oxford, and constituted the historically English model of the university dedicated to providing education for men of culture. At less elite colleges and universities, we understand — at institutions perhaps unable to rise above merely economic concerns — the liberal arts are referred to as the “humanities.” This is the term used by Sharon Crowley, who remarks that “The point of a humanist education, after all, is to become acquainted with the body of canonical texts that humanists envision as a repository of superior intellectual products of Western culture” (13), or Matthew Arnold’s “best that has been thought and said.” In these characterizations of a certain type of education, we see still the Romans’ strange tension of declaring something free from the scope of economic concerns because of its very relation to those concerns.