You may have seen that the College of Liberal Arts at Penn State Tweeted an assurance of welcome to students, specifically extending the warm hand of friendship to students from groups that may feel, or that may pretend to feel, unwelcome in a College of Liberal Arts. I cannot read the name of every one of these groups, but along with Black students, Muslim and Jewish students, Latino students, and LGBTQ students, the Tweet extended the warm hand of friendship to “conservative students.” This naturally sparked outrage among the students whose identities are sufficiently important to be capitalized, and the warm hand of friendship was quickly withdrawn.
In his apology for the Tweet, the Penn State Director of Strategic Communication said that the College of Liberal Arts had intended the Tweet “to express the inclusive, democratic and participatory values of the liberal arts.” This goes to show that he, and perhaps the entire College of Liberal Arts, either does not know or will happily lie about the history and meaning of the phrase “liberal arts.”
The liberal arts take their name from the fact that those who pursue them are free of the need and desire to work for a living, and thus of the need and desire to obtain vocational training in some mechanical art. The liberal and mechanical arts can be combined in a balanced curriculum, and their respective students do not always divide on class lines, but there is no getting around the fact that the liberal arts are inherently elitist and exclusive because many students, owing to either circumstances or temperament, need to get a job and have no time to think about anything else.
Of course many students nowadays discover after it is to late that they actually had no time for the liberal arts, or at least not as much time as they gave them, and that they have become that saddest of all beings, a shabby proletarian drudge with a useless gentleman’s education. An education in the liberal arts is, after all, precisely that: a gentleman’s education. This is why a College of Liberal Arts could just as well be called a College of Playboy Scholars.
Before it was the name of a magazine of gateway smut, playboy was the name of a young man of ample means who did not work and lived a life of play. This young man was also called a “sport,” sport being a synonym for play, and the natty little roadster in which he sped from country club to cocktail party was therefore called a “sport’s car.” When he sped off to college in that natty roadster, a playboy pursued a gentleman’s education in the liberal arts, which is to say philosophy, appreciation of the fine arts, and the most impractical branches of science and mathematics. If he found these studies pleasurable, he became a gentleman or playboy scholar, possibly going on to play—excuse me—work in the comfort of a private study, or possibly joining in the elite and exclusive fellowship of a College of Playboy Scholars.