Liberal education is not typically prized by parents. “What you are not supposed to do is study the liberal arts. Around the world, the idea of a broad-based ‘liberal’ education is closely tied with the United States and its great universities and colleges. But in America itself, a liberal education is out of favor.” This is a sad and even ironic state of affairs. In the wonderful, well-researched, short but stout book In Defense of a Liberal Education, noted columnist and historian Fareed Zakaria, called “the most influential foreign policy advisor of his generation” by Esquire, laments that the humanities are no longer as popular as they were in America’s more prosperous decades. As manufacturing is under severe threat and jobs are increasingly lost to foreign countries or automation, Zakaria maintains that “to succeed today, you need creativity, lateral thinking, communication skills, and, more than anything, the ability to keep learning – precisely the gifts of a liberal education.” What follows is a summary and review of chapter one of this engaging book.
I will intersperse this review with some short encapsulations from the website Goodreads.com. Here is a 3-star review:
“A short, lucid book that articulates Zakaria’s thoughts on the significance of a liberal education. This is not “liberal” as in politically left and squishy of thought, but “liberal” in the sense of the Yale report he quotes: “the essence of a liberal education is ‘not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all.'” There is nothing in the book to disagree with. Studying subjects such as literature, history, and philosophy will make you a more humane, more interesting, much smarter scientist, physician, or mathematician. The total disregard of these subjects because they are not directly tied into lucrative professions will – I think – make the world a very poor place indeed.”
When I went to the University of California, Irvine, in 1995-1997 (I had gone to junior college for three years prior to that), tuition was probably $5,000 a year. Some great professors – teaching and research – were there. The school has since moved up in the rankings (tied with the University of California, San Diego, in case that means anything to you!), but tuition has skyrocketed. In 20 years it is over $12,000. This is not terribly relevant to liberal education per se, because I studied psychology. The point I am trying to make is that a) education is very very expensive (I know Johns Hopkins is almost $60,000 a year!); and b) some of the wonderful patina that many top schools used to have has kinda worn off. I suppose the “Ivies” and “mini-Ivies” still have the prestige, but if universities and colleges are out of range for many and not particularly supported by the state in which they reside, this does not augur well for America’s future.
But I digress. The point Zakaria makes on p. 16 is that parents, businesspersons, politicians, and even educators urge the youth to “stop dreaming and start thinking practically about the skills they will need in the workplace.” Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is just not seen by many in the U.S. as useful, proper, and advantageous.
Majors in philosophy and English are down, and business majors are on the rise (20.5% of undergrads). Zakaria states that: “A classic liberal education has few defenders. Conservatives fume that it is too, well, liberal (though the term has no partisan meaning).liberals worry it is too elitist. Students wonder what they would do with a degree in psychology. And parents fear that it will cost them their life savings.”
“In the 1950s, students saw college as more than a glorified trade school,” he writes. History and English were popular majors, then. I would note, also, that the society was not perfect (e.g., “separate but equal”, women should remain in the home, etc.) but it wasn’t as off-kilter and decadent as it currently is. Maybe that is related to education in some small way. Now, a mere 1-2% of students get their education from a “traditional liberal arts college,” such as Amherst or Gonzaga. I place this sad statistic in the same category in which I do union membership being horribly low and income inequality being extremely high. These are bad signs, my friends.
“The chapter I most liked is the one entitled “Learning to Think.” This chapter is about writing as central to thinking. I enjoyed the wonderful quotes Zakaria wove into his narrative and especially the one story about the columnist Walter Lippmann, who was once asked for his opinion on a topic. “He is said to have replied, ‘I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.'” It’s this chapter that shows the strongest correlation between a liberal education and learning how to think. Although I was never very good in mathematics (my mother despaired of me and farmed me out to tutors), I’m certain that all the classes I took that I knew were “irrelevant” to my future forced my brain to grow in ways I could not perceive.”
Many, especially those wont to keep citizens disengaged and undereducated workers/drones, are not on board. “The governors of Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin have announced that they do not intend to keep subsidizing the liberal arts at state-funded universities,” Zakaria notes. Major clown Rick Scott said: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” I suppose the fair answer to his premise would be “No.” But his premise is screwy. I mean, his ilk is so undereducated in ways that count it’s not even funny. Talk about chasing money and power! Indeed, it will be forever seared in my brain – that scene of Governor Rick Perry on stage in the GOP primary debate not remembering the name of a couple cabinet positions. And then he later is appointed by Trump to head one of them! You can’t make this shit up. It’s that bad, folks.
There seems to be a wholesale lack of respect for science, the humanities, and especially sociology, gender studies, African American studies, and the like by many in power. It feels that they would prefer us to be relatively dumb, quite in hock to some bank, working hard for some corporation (who later dumps us for a robot or a Malaysian), totally politically ignorant and inactive, and very separated (e.g., a lack of solidarity). An attorney, President Obama said: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” It was glib, if somewhat true. It bespeaks of the realistic issues of competitiveness, outsourcing threats, and automation/A.I. threats that America really does face.
However, Fareed’s book points out that a) one is not necessarily going to be unemployable or just some liberal professor of the humanities (my words) if they study liberal arts, and b) do we really want to live in a kind of society in which everyone is acquisitive, poorly educated, and cynical? Does not psychology, history, and literature make for a better society? Indeed, the best societies always encourage literacy, arts, creativity, and wisdom in addition to industriousness, conformity, and math/science literacy.
If liberal education leads to knowledge, insight, and wisdom, as I would argue it does, then how dangerous is that for the knuckleheads, sociopaths, and whores running the government (and the shysters running the majority of corporations). If the people are the largest and most significant force in American society, which I think they are, it is not in the interests of those in power to facilitate a true education – one which enlightens, prepares, and disillusions the people.
Joe Robles gives such a solid review, I thought to paste it at length so that you get to read his full thought:
“I remember watching Jon Stewart interview Marco Rubio and Rubio was arguing for sensible education. Words to the effect of, “Do we need more Greek History majors?” The argument is that people shouldn’t go to college for knowledge, but to acquire a marketable skill. The insistence is on learning a trade of some sort. I come from a poor family, but I went to college primarily to learn something. All my life I dreamed of learning for learning sake. Not taking classes where I had to fill out some stupid worksheet, or regurgitate some information, but discuss big ideas.
… I’m really good at my job, because of the reasons that Fareed Zakaria lays out in this book. I was taught how to study, learn, interpret data, conduct experiments, and love learning. I wanted to make films, but I felt getting a degree in film would be like learning a trade. I wanted to expand my mind and learn things I never knew before, which is why psychology was so fascinating. I minored in English, again, a discipline that requires you to make compelling arguments in written form. To defend a thesis by supporting it with research. Why would you ever need that in business?
To the opening question of Marco Rubio, “Do we need more Greek History majors?” I say, “yes.” If we do not help people learn about Greek History, or American History, then only the elite will have access to this knowledge. Essentially what Rubio and other politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are saying is that if you’re poor, you don’t deserve to learn anything that would enrich your life. You don’t deserve to have your mind expanded. You should have been born to a rich family if you wanted to study art, what were you thinking? Turns out this idea I had of everyone having access to the education they want is not new, Thomas Jefferson had it first. He, too, was afraid of only elites having access to education and forming an unnatural aristocracy of birth, wealth, and privilege.
I believe Mr. Zakaria makes a compelling case for the need for a well-rounded liberal arts education. I know I’ve benefitted well from mine, and so have my bosses, and the many employees who benefit from the revenue I’ve helped generate. But most importantly my life is much enriched by the knowledge I gained at U.T. and the love of learning it left me with.”
Kids are chasing a buck – maybe in large part because of a) the thought that money brings power, security, and happiness, and b) they realize if they don’t give a pound of flesh to some multinational financial services sector corporation, they might forever be behind the 8-ball (debt repayment, the cost of healthcare, and wages that have only risen 3-4% in real dollars in the last decade. We are only now seeing a bit of an uptick in wages after decades and decades of wage stagnation. Yet productivity has climbed.
It seems like we are becoming a society that wants less to read and become truly educated, but to pursue material interests. Happily, this disillusionment may lead somewhere with millennials (or whatever the latest gen is termed) and society will become more progressive and less dominated by corporations and their lackeys in Congress.
Some cynics would probably suggest that society is different now, and just like we don’t teach horsemanship, swordsmanship, oratory, and agriculture much anymore, we also don’t need handwriting, English literature, or Greek history. As Zakaria puts it: “Does it really make sense to study English in the age of apps?”
He continues, though, and gives us native-born Americans a splash of cold water to the face: “In a sense, the question is un-American. For much of its history, America was distinctive in providing an education to all that was not skills-based.” Indeed, as Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz maintain that Britain, France, and Germany have tended to assess their youth early on and determine who is going to partake of a narrow, skills-based education that leads very directly to a profession. It is probably much of the reason that Germany is very technically-savvy and excels at engineering (and keeps wages high, incidentally). They write that: “The American system can be characterized as open, forgiving, lacking universal standards, and having an academic yet practical curriculum.” America simply didn’t have the traditional, historical trade-based and geographically-situated needs with everyone coming to cities to find work. As well, there was so much rapid advancement in technology, and it was so dynamic, that narrow specializations were not necessarily good for society. Think of how the cotton gin or the factory changed industry very quickly. A farrier or a blacksmith were simply less needed.
“I began this short book with the intention of not liking it and disagreeing with the premise. However, I found myself nodding my head at different things and thinking perhaps it isn’t so bad a “Liberal Education.” I guess what I really absorbed is the point of a liberal education is to teach one how to think. And of course I am a huge fan of thinking. But also a liberal education is a way to make society more cohesive – think of the “One City, One Book” programs ten or so years ago. In a society where we idealize the individual and finding your own path (which I support) this is an avenue that could help unite our nation and become a stronger community. Please note: I am still a fan of STEM and practical skills and aptitude testing but let’s not just do that and let’s not just have liberal education.”
In Zakaria’s native India, there were three academic tracks, and “the smart kids would go into science, the rich kids would do commerce, and the girls would take humanities (obviously I’m exaggerating, but not by much).” Zakaria appreciated the liberality of education in America. He immigrated to America because the country was offering foreign students generous scholarships (and there is a lesson there!) and his brother had taken a gamble and come here for school. He was of course pressured by his very well-educated parents to become a lawyer or a doctor or an engineer – as his brother did. He started out in the sciences, but he studied history, eventually earning a Ph.D. He never regretted it.
“The idea of [majoring in] just one subject at Oxford or a narrow set of subjects at Cambridge seemed less interesting when compared with the dazzling array of opportunities at the Ivy League schools. And of course, there was the allure of America. I had always been fascinated by America,” Fareed wrote. He got into Yale and was bowled over by the rigorous first-year academic program, “Directed Studies.” He read classics in this “sweeping survey of the Western literary and philosophical tradition from ancient Greece to modernity.” Alas, I’m afraid there is less to be enamored with, nowadays. Indeed, once Zakaria took a class about the history of the Cold War. He loved politics, as anyone who watches his program Fareed Zakaria GPS or reads his columns and books can easily see. He wrote the following:
I had assumed that I would major in something that was practical, technical, and job oriented. I could always read newspapers on the side. H. Bradford Westerfield’s course, however made me realize that I should take my passion seriously, even without being sure what it might lead to in terms of a profession. That Spring, I declared my major in history. I was going to get a liberal education.
His mother traveled here to see if America was the drug-addled, lazy, permissive place high-class Indians thought it was (in the 1970s). Fatima Zakaria came to believe that:
America is an open society as no other. So they expose their ‘failings’ too as no other. [Americans] cheerfully join in the talk of their own decline. But the decline is relative to America’s own previous strength. It remains the world’s largest economy; it still disposes of the greatest military might the world has known; refugees from terror still continue to seek shelter in this land of immigrants. It spends millions of dollars in the hope that someone, somewhere may make a valuable contribution to knowledge. America remains the yardstick by which we judge America.
If you are interested in another blog, perhaps try this one featuring quotes about liberal education.
If you are considering college for yourself or your teenagers, here is an informative site.