This is a summary of chapter three of Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of A Liberal Education. It is entitled “Learning to Think.” The main takeaway from this enlightening third chapter of an impressive book is learning to think. There is a fundamental difference between the teaching and learning of facts such as names, dates, formulae, and vocabulary on the one hand, and the more basic, utilitarian, fundamental approach of critical thinking. Indeed, learning to think is a profoundly valuable asset we would do well to inculcate in our children. To facilitate understanding of this precious outlook on learning and life, I will intersperse this review of chapter three with trenchant quotations by an array of philosophers, psychologists, and experts. As well, it is recommended you buy the book, and this summary is only meant to whet your appetite for the real thing.
It is recommended you buy the book, and this summary is only meant to whet your appetite for the real thing.
Put simply, as Zakaria did on page 72: “…the central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill.” He agrees that thinking is very valuable, but he sees writing as equally valuable, and more fundamental. That may sound a bit odd –writing prior to thinking – but he does explain himself.
He was “pretty good at taking tests and regurgitating things [he] had memorized. His freshman year English teacher got after him with a red pen, and he really had to question himself. In India, he was smart enough to do well just taking multiple choice tests and the like. American education, at its best, requires writing. Writing requires thinking, and good liberal education foments both skills.
“Teaching people to think rationally and critically actually can make a difference to people’s susceptibility to false ideologies.” ~ Jonathan Glover
This paragraph makes his point very clear: “Being forced to write clearly means, first, you have to think clearly. I began to recognize that the two processes are inextricably intertwined. In what is probably an apocryphal story, when the columnist Walter Lippman was once asked his views on a particular topic, he is said to have replied, ‘I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.'” Zakaria points out that learning to think is inextricably connected to understanding how to write well.
Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com and the owner of The Washington Post, really values written communication as well. “Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages…” and meetings often consist of employees quietly reading for 10, 20, even 30 minutes! Good writing is clear, jargon-free, and persuasive. No tricks, no smoke and mirrors, just black and white. It looks like learning to think and write can pay dividends, as Amazon execs make decent money, and Post reporters and editors obviously have to write excellently.
The CEO of Lockheed Martin, Norman Augustine, believes that “the firm I led at the end of my formal business career employed some 180,000 people, mostly college graduates, of whom over 80,000 were engineers or scientists. I have concluded that one of the stronger correlations with advancement through the management ranks was the ability of an individual to express clearly his or her thoughts in writing.” Liberal education is a great way to learn to think and express oneself in written form.
“The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak,” Zakaria maintains. Perhaps more akin to philosophy and rhetoric than something you’d find on Youtube or the nightly news, it “doesn’t mean spouting anything and everything you’re thinking at any given moment. It means learning to understand your own mind, to filter out underdeveloped ideas, and then to express to the outside world your thoughts arranged in some logical order.”
“Critical thinking begins with the assumption that our beliefs could be in error, and if they are, that we will revise them accordingly. This is what it means to be humble. Contributing to a culture where humility is the norm begins with us. We can’t expect people to become critical thinkers until we admit our own beliefs or reasoning processes are sometimes wrong….” ~ Peter Boghossian
This can really pay dividends, as Cicero would certainly have maintained. Indeed, oration, or public speaking, was a critical skill in ancient Athens and Rome. Modern-day philosopher Alain de Botton says this: “When we begin to scrutinize the opinions of others, philosophers have long noted, we stand to make a discovery at once saddening and curiously liberating: we will discern that the views of the majority of the population on the majority of subjects are perforated with extraordinary confusion and error.” That is a skill worth the price of tuition!
Though public speaking is reportedly peoples’ number one fear, “If freedom is participation in power, as the ancient Roman orator Cicero defined it so well over two thousand years ago, it is time for the American people to engage each other in conversations concerning what to do about such control – for themselves, their freedom, and their democracy,” indicates sublime thinker,
Zakaria goes on to note how “this emphasis on ‘articulate communication’ is reinforced in the many extracurricular activities that surround every liberal arts college – theater, debate, political unions, student governments, protest groups.” To be a success and rise to meet one’s lofty goals, it certainly helps to “gain your peers’ attention and convince them of your cause,” and often time is not unlimited. Clear, concise, persuasive verbal communication is a wonderful complement to excellence in written communication, and both are mutually-reinforcing to and reciprocally related to learning to think.
John Ford said that “You can speak well if your tongue can deliver the message of your heart,” and that seems true at first glance. But it must be noted that one cannot blurt out some emotion just as one can’t eat an unbaked cake. I find that thinking, speaking, and writing are all intimately connected. One’s heart can help one’s mind to be aware of what one is feeling; what one wishes to communicate. But it takes the refinement of education to help one formulate feelings, beliefs, and intuitions into a succinct and accurate expression. “90% of how well the talk will go is determined before the speaker steps on the platform,” maintains Somers White.
“Eloquence may exist without a proportional degree of wisdom,” claims storied British Lord and quasi-philosopher, Edmund Burke. I’m not sure how much I agree with this. I mean, I suppose I can picture a glib, glossy individual who is more of a “talking head” or a “sophist” than a bona fide thinker. But I think Zakaria’s point in referring to Britain’s House of Commons, where one lives and dies by one’s ability to think on one’s feet, and be articulate, is made well by this statement: “That’s why so many Britons sound intelligent, lucid, and witty – it’s not just the accent.”
“To be rational, we must know when to override our default thinking, then we must do it. Knowing when to override involves intelligence and knowledge, but the will or motivation to do so is another thing altogether. That requires more than critical thinking, more than problem-solving ability. It requires us to hold our current world view in a kind of escrow while we consider an alternative view in an open-minded fashion.” ~ Barbara Drescher
Zakaria transitions then to conversation, “the oldest form of instruction of the human race” according to Yale’s former president, A. Whitney Griswold. No less a philosopher and scientist than Alfred North Whitehead believed that “outside of the book-knowledge which is necessary to our professional training, I think I got most of my development from the good conversation to which I have always had the luck to access.” I, too, believe that in discussing, dialoguing, and simply conversing with people about what I believe, what I think I know, and what I am not sure of, is invaluable.
On page 78, a transition is made to “the third great strength of a liberal education: it teaches you how to learn.” Indeed, learning to think is inextricably intertwined with knowing how to learn. Zakaria developed a love of learning that powers his deft mind to this day. His ability to ask the right questions, know what he doesn’t know, entertain a dialectical stance, considering opposing views to his own, note-taking, and critically viewing lectures, interviews, and speeches are powerful, indeed. He writes:
“I now realize that what I gained from college and graduate school, far more lasting than any specific set of facts or piece of knowledge, has been the understanding of how to acquire knowledge on my own. I learned how to read an essay closely, search for new sources, find data to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and detect an author’s prejudices.” I would agree wholeheartedly that detecting another’s prejudices is not only helpful, but a supreme challenge. Why? Because it is elegantly and reciprocally related to one’s own prejudices!
As a friend says, learning to think has much to do with knowing that we perceive the world not as it is, but as we are. Only a foolish therapist believes he or she is perfect and the other is faulty, mistaken, immature, or sick – so I have learned. Further, in today’s world, all manner of junk can come across one’s screen, and stopping short of simply being tribal, one needs to critically assess another’s angle. It’s a veritable crucible when it comes to self-knowledge and learning to think, but one that I think pays dividends.
An element of this book I quite like is the author’s pointing out that learning is not something one does at a particular point in life, and then one is done, and it’s then time to go out there and make some MONEY! No, no, no. That is the opposite of wisdom. Learning to think and knowing how to learn are crucial skills that must be honed early, but utilized henceforth.
“Much of my life has been a pilgrimage – constantly learning, changing, growing, and maturing,” Learning is the very essence of humility; learn from everything and from everybody. There is no hierarchy in learning” When I was young I was sure of everything; in a few years, having been mistaken a thousand times, I was not half so sure of most things as I was before; at present, I am hardly sure of anything”
“Critical thinking is a skill that can be learned and that can be reinforced by habit. The scientific approach to critical thinking is empirical; it is a way of testing our beliefs systematically against the real world. Once we develop our critical thinking skills and begin to examine our beliefs systematically, it can be very empowering. It is, in fact, a defense mechanism against all the machinations that are trying to deceive us — whether for ideological, political, or marketing reasons. Critical thinking also liberates us from being weighed down by the many false beliefs (and perhaps mutually-incompatible beliefs) we tend to hold because of our psychological makeup.” ~ Steven Novella
Zakaria wisely points this more practical fact out about learning to think: “Whatever job you take, the specific subjects you studied in college will probably prove somewhat irrelevant to the day-to-day work you will do soon after you graduate. And even if they are relevant, that will change. …What remain constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems.”
It reminds me of my development as a writer. At one point when I was 19 or 20, going to junior college, I bought a set of 24 CDs by Charles Harrington Elster — a vocabulary-building program called Verbal Advantage. It was word after word after word. It was hard for me to go through them over and over, just like it might challenge you to go through a dictionary. But it made a difference in both my ability to speak and my ability to think.
Learning to think has much to do with developing excellent diction, vocabulary, and so on. I put great vocabulary and diction up there with reading when it comes to a simple activity that invigorates one’s brain, assists greatly with exposition and communication, and frankly, it makes one appear smart! I’m not really a show-off, but there are times when it really helps to be able to know how to think using and how to correctly use words. As Elster wrote: “A large and precise vocabulary is a speaker’s greatest asset. It is the foundation of eloquence. If you aspire to speak well — and write well, and think well — you must build your knowledge of words.”
But I digress. Zakaria goes on to develop briefly the idea of multiple intelligences, vis-à-vis the work of Howard Gardner, a well-known psychologist and theorist of intelligence. If you have never considered that being intelligent is more than just one particular skill — math, or vocabulary, or quickness — then you are in for a treat. I believe that learning to think has much to do with discovering what you are good at, burnishing it, and improving what you are not! The author is pointing out that one of America’s strengths is/was that one could experience and experiment with various kinds of intelligence. Indeed, Gardner wrote: “There is a joke in my trade that one should go to infant school in France, preschool in Italy, primary school in Japan, secondary school in Germany, and college in the United States.” Well done, indeed.
“In the end, the best defenses against fake news are critical thinking; taking in news from a variety of sources, including those that don’t confirm your own biases; being skeptical about information that sounds too good (or bad) to be true….” ~ Bruce Bartlett
Page 80 finds Zakaria using an analogy developed by Thomas Cech, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist (and an alumnus of a classic liberal arts college, Grinnell). “Just as athletes do exercises unrelated o their own sport, so students should study fields outside their academic area of focus,” Zakaria reveals. Cech also believes that “Cross-training may exercise key muscle groups more effectively than spending the same amount of time working out in the sport of interest.” It is starting to really gel by this point in the book that learning to think well involves the kind of integrative and broad education a liberal arts degree can offer.
Cech is cited as having said: “Analogously, a liberal arts education encourages scientists to improve their ‘competitive edge’ by cross-training in the humanities or arts. Such academic cross-training develops a student’s ability to collect and organize facts and opinions, to analyze them and weigh their value, and to articulate an argument, and it may develop these skills more effectively than writing yet another lab report.”
I couldn’t agree more, but I’m biased. I was inducted into America’s oldest honor society Phi Beta Kappa twenty years ago. The society is comprised of undergraduates who engage in a course of study that is considered an excellent example of “liberal scholarship.” What that means is: not just “getting As,” which is hard enough, but earning top grades while going outside of one’s academic department more than just a couple times. I took an experimental psychology course from the School of Cognitive Science, did research with a psychiatrist at UCI Medical School, and studied sociology in a number of courses. It is formative of learning to think, I would imagine. That kind of breadth, in a way, provides a kind of depth.
“Wisdom is not what some guru, leader of stature, or self-appointed spokesperson for the Almighty says it is. Wisdom is (at least, in part) critical thinking. It is the willingness to examine our own assumptions, our own narrow views, and our own presuppositions and biases.” ~ Gary E. Kessler
“Even technical skills by themselves are a wonderful manifestation of human ingenuity. But they don’t have to be praised at the expense of humanities, as they often are today. Engineering is not better than art history. Society needs of both, often in combination,” Zakaria wrote in the part where he extolled the marvels that technology and engineering entail. Visionary perfectionist Steve Jobs sounded a similar note: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”
Perhaps most interesting, considering the ignominious beginnings of Facebook and the power it possesses, Fareed believes that learning to think can begin in a very fundamental and liberalist way: “Mark Zuckerberg was a classic liberal arts student who also happened to be passionately interested in computers. He studied ancient Greek intensively in high school and was a psychology major when he attended college. The crucial insights that made Facebook the giant it is today have as much to do with psychology as they do technology.” Zuckerberg also said: “Facebook is as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.” Unfortunately, it has been recently confirmed by this head-shaking disclosure:
“The thought process that went into building Facebook was all about ‘How do we consume as much of your time and conscious attention as possible?’ That means we need to give you a little dopamine hit once in a while because someone liked or commented on your post or photo. …It’s a social-validation feedback loop, exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology. God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains”
Try this on for size: “Some [graduate school] courses … are narrowly framed by design. Such programs provide technical training and job skills, but little insight into the larger issues of science, society, human community, global cultures or the values and institutions that provide the foundation of democracy. Such programs may enable graduates to acquire jobs, but they by no means prepare students to navigate a world in which whole industries and whole sectors of the economy are being rapidly upended and rapidly recreated”
“One of the worst crimes of our educational system against young people is that principles of critical thinking are not part of every school curriculum” ~ Nathaniel Branden.
On page 83, Zakaria goes further into the ways in which “technology and liberal education go hand in hand in business today.” In 2005, Bruce Nussbaum, an innovation and performance expert, wrote in Businessweek that: “The Knowledge Economy as we know it is being eclipsed by something new — call it the Creativity Economy…. What was once central to corporations — price, quality, and much of the left-brain/digitized/analytical work associated with knowledge — is fast being shipped off to lower-paid, highly-trained Chinese….” He adds: “It isn’t just about math and science anymore. It’s about creativity, imagination, and, above all, innovation.”
Indeed, as Susan Adams enlightened the reader in Forbes, “Here are the 10 skills employers say they seek, in order of importance:
1. Ability to work in a team
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others.”
The MIT economist David Autor, who is well-informed on the way that globalization is related to technology and jobs, believes “Tasks that have proved the most vexing to automate are those that demand flexibility, judgment, and common sense — skills we understand only tacitly — for example, developing a hypothesis or organizing a closet. In these tasks, computers are often less sophisticated than preschool-age children.”
Video games, music, television, book publishing, and entertainment in general are up, up, up —recession or not. “Between 1995 and 2009, the number of feature films made worldwide more than quadrupled,” Zakaria points out. He adds: “So there is a value to writing and music and design and art.” He is pointing out that the skills required by majors in the realm of history, philosophy, or art “could be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age.” The author points again to Howard Gardner’s research which shows that using an integrated, flexible, mutable mindset require one to view things and people from multiple angles and perspectives, which, in turn, “trains various kinds of intelligence, making you a more creative and aware person.” Learning to think is richer, more rewarding, and perhaps more beneficial than learning one skill, such as computer programming, or accounting.
“By judgment, I mean the exercise of sifting information objectively and rationally, in the service of the good for self and others. Judgment in this sense is synonymous with critical thinking” ~ Martin E. P. Seligman
“Rounded” or “lateral” thinking is very helpful to learning how to think. Zakaria points to the interesting example of using art criticism and appreciation to enhance medical students’ acumen in their specific field, such that Ivan Braverman of Yale Medical School found, according to Fareed, thusly educated diagnostics students “performed better at diagnosis after taking the class….” He also cites a survey by the American Association of Colleges and Universities which found that “74 percent of employers would recommend a good liberal education to students as the best way to prepare for today’s global economy.”
Much of this is really amazing, since “conventional wisdom” would hold that if you want a career, you focus as quickly and work as hard as possible. Dame Anita Roddick, famous social activist, author, and founder of The Body Shop says this: “We have to rethink some of our institutions. What are we teaching young people in American business schools? Are they just developing the same status quo, this belief that maximizing profits and accumulation of wealth is all that matters? Maybe what is needed now is a real change in education that embraces not a religious education, but a spiritual education.” She has also shared that “My mother’s bottom line was truth to her values. It meant bringing your heart and your humanity to work. I learned at an early age that these are as essential for business as they are for life.” It is definitely true, in my opinion, that allowing a student to follow their heart will undoubtedly generate more Mozarts, Freuds, Kellers, and Angelous than it will Hitlers. Recall that he wanted nothing more at one point than to be an artist. Wicked fate derailed him, determining him to be a sub-par student, and a failure. Oh, if we could turn back time….
Again, Norman Augustine, former Lockheed Martin CEO, asks: “Who wants a technology-driven economy if those who drive it are not grounded in such fields as ethics?…” He continues: “Certainly when it comes to life’s major decisions, would it not be well for the leaders and employees of our government and our nation’s firms to have knowledge of the thoughts of the world’s great philosophers and the provocative dilemmas found in the works of great authors and playwrights? I believe the answer is a resounding ‘yes.'”
“Critical thinking is essential to the examined life. Without it, we wander aimlessly through life following wherever the herd leads and worshipping ‘the idols of the tribe’ (as Francis Bacon so aptly put it).” ~ Gary E. Kessler
As well, Edgar Bronfman, formerly the CEO of Seagram’s, felt compelled to offer this as his most important piece of advice to business students: “Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.” He believes that the number one skill required for business leaders is “how to evaluate raw information — be it from people or a spreadsheet — and make reasoned and critical decisions.”
That seems to me to be an amazing vote of confidence for the primacy of learning to think. It is as though, in the case of, say, human resources, a company wants to eventually have an employee who can fulfill the function of the role of managing human resources. Clearly. But I think what distinguishes a person who is liberally-minded and who has taken all manner of subject at the undergraduate level from a person who majored in human resources is the following: a company would rather find a capable person to train than to find someone who has been trained in H.R., but who isn’t as high-quality.
Think of NASA: they are quite content to take the right individual and train them long and hard to be able to successfully perform the function of an astronaut (or whatever). I believe the worry is that a person can overfocus, and hide certain liabilities and weaknesses, when they get stellar grades in a narrow, technical, relatively solitary job (e.g., engineers). My mother was in marketing at a space electronics company, and she noted how “different” and “odd” some engineers could be; she had to virtually translate what they said and what they heard in order to assuage and compensate for the foibles and personality issues that often accompany that individual as they emerge from adolescence. It’s probably only gettting worse with online, multi-player games. Heck, in the era of virtual reality, a person who can carry on a normal conversation is going to be sought-after! In the kingdom of the blind, even the one-eyed man is king.
Pn page 91, Zakaria goes into the fact that according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the skills required for capable workers to work well in today’s economy are: literacy, technology, and numeracy. “The United States performed terribly, scoring below average in literacy and technical proficiency, and third from the bottom in numeracy.” He adds that the test assessed real-world problem-solving, not rote memorization. He further points out that “If rankings across the three subjects are averaged, the United States comes in twenty-first, trailing nations like the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, and Estonia.”
It’s not that simple, though. Americans never seem to do well on such tests. The author sums up with: “Overall, America’s test scores are disappointing, particularly given the United States spends more per capita than almost any other country on education.” I was surprised to hear that, indeed. Are we failing, and is our economy flagging? No. How is it, in fact, that Asian students don’t turn out the most creative businesspeople, composers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and scientists in the world? It would seem like they would simply nail it.
Zakaria tells a story about this phenomenon with Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Minister of Education in Singapore at the time. Not only does Singapore score very well on measures such as these, it actively tries to inculcate innovation and entrepreneurialism in its youth. This was the gist:
“Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well — like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are the areas where Singapore must learn from America”
“You learn that it takes brainwork, a lot of mental energy to find truth, and that self-criticism is necessary for self-improvement. You learn to make decisions based on critical thinking, reflection, and insight. Having the intellectual humility to admit you’re ignorant frees you to grow and improve in a way that arrogant people can’t” ~ Judith Barad.
One of the world’s most creative and independent thinkers was, of course, physicist Albert Einstein. He has said many notable things relevant to education, such as: “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge,” and “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” It’s true, he did know his stuff; it’s not as though he didn’t study science and mathematics. He just went beyond those and opened his mind to new possibilities. Learning to think, for Einstein and the rest of us, is partially about knowing “stuff,” but also about how we develop and mature.
Think of those rare cases of children who have been found having endured exceptionally unstimulating environments — perhaps due to abuse, or solitary living. They just never develop normally. In the absence of proper stimulation, education, and socialization, their brains don’t nearly reach their potential. In such cases, learning to think creatively, laterally, or critically is just unachievable. And yet, in someone like Einstein, when one marries that kind of intelligence with a nurturing environment, incredible things can happen.
Bertrand Russell said this: “Education should have two objects: first, to give definite knowledge—reading and writing, languages and mathematics, and so on; secondly, to create those mental habits which will enable people to acquire knowledge and form sound judgments for themselves. The first of these we may call information; the second: intelligence.” Wisdom is one of humanity’s highest goals, and it is elusive, but clearly not about memorization and obedience. “The strengths that wisdom encompasses are those entailing the acquisition and use of knowledge into human affairs, such as creativity, curiosity, judgment, and perspective”
Page 94 finds Zakaria notes that “When considering the world’s most innovative countries today, in addition to the United States, in Europe one often hears about Sweden, which seems to have all the new technology companies outside Silicon Valley. And then there is Israel….” There are more venture capital investments in Israel than in the United States! Though, America does have more high-tech companies than any other. Israel, though, spends the highest percentage of GDP on “development expenditures.” In all these metrics, you tend to find Israel, America, and Sweden. This is probably more than mere correlation. “What is honored in a country will be cultivated there”
If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” I give great credit to Sweden, which is a democratic socialist country, and yet innovation and creativity are obviously valued as integral aspects of learning to think. “To an imagination of any scope, the most far-reaching form of power is not money; it is the command of ideas” Necessity is the mother of invention, it is true – but its father is creativity, and knowledge is the midwife”
“As a professional educator, I have long been troubled by the many students who enter university without ever having been educationally challenged to engage in critical thinking – in fact, they seem afraid to do so.” ~ Gerald A. Larue
Where this leads is interesting. When Zakaria asks what the three countries have in common, one that stands out is: “none of them do particularly well in the PISA rankings. Sweden and Israel performed even worse than the United States on the 2012 assessment.” This is amazing, in fact. He asks the right question: “What do these countries have in common, other than bad test scores, that could explain their real-world success?” I would, as an aside, note that in a country with 330,000,000 people,
I would, as an aside, note that in a country with 330,000,000 people, obviously some are going to rise to the top; the cream that invents, innovates, and excels. However, with the glaring poverty, sickness, unbridled capitalism, and classism/racism that mark the United States, clearly not everyone is succeeding — or even subsisting. It is as though America communicates to its people: “Getting rich is priority number one; that is primarily how you obtain power and success in this society. Some of you will have the goods, and you are urged to have at it! Knock yourself out! You will get to keep the vast majority of what you can get the market to bear. After all, the market knows little else besides profit. It’s dog-eat-dog, so you’d better get up early and buckle your belt. If you fail, you fail. But some of us will make it, and that is really what we value. Rugged individualism. Overcoming obstacles. Succeeding against all odds. It’s like a lottery game here; we will publicize the winner and make him or her rich, and all the other suckers who lost will recede back into obscurity or even oblivion. With three individuals holding the wealth that 160,000,000 do, you really want to work if you don’t want to get left behind.” But that is a digression from this topic.
Indeed, Zakaria notes that “in all three places, the work culture if non-hierarchical and merit-based.” Hmm, I thought America was a country that just abolished the estate tax, and doesn’t insure all citizens against sickness and disease, and in which women and ethnic minorities have vastly different outcomes than men. Here is a critique that is out of context, but which I assume the imaginative reader will understand: “How is this girl to understand her poverty? Since history textbooks present the American past as 390 years of progress and portray our society as a land of opportunity in which folks get what they deserve and deserve what they get, the failures of working-class Americans to transcend their class origin inevitably get laid at their own doorsteps”
The historian, professor, social critic, and author of the history book Lies My Teacher Told Me, Dr. Loewen, writes further in this vein: “But when textbooks tell the immigrant story, they emphasize Joseph Pulitzer, Andrew Carnegie, and their ilk — immigrants who made supergood. Several textbooks apply the phrases rags to riches or land of opportunity to the immigrant experience. Such legendary successes were achieved, to be sure, but they were the exceptions, not the rule. Ninety-five percent of the executives and financiers in American around the turn of the century came from upper-class or upper-middle-class backgrounds. Fewer than 3 percent started as poor immigrants or farm children.” I am happy to acknowledge America’s strengths, but I wouldn’t want it to be forgotten or obfuscated that we have some very serious problems, and if we just look up at “the shining city on the hill,” as Reagan advised, we will be doing great moral wrongs to many.
“This is how we were warned it would be. President Reagan told us from the very beginning that he believed in a kind of social Darwinism – survival of the fittest – government can’t do everything we were told, so it should settle for taking care of the strong and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.”
Zakaria points out that: “all three operate like “young” countries, with energy and dynamism. All three are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods, and services. And finally, they are all places where people are confident….”
I guess the kids who don’t get three squares a day and who are under threat of prison for some drug charge — with penalties and likelihoods of being convicted are highly correlated with the race and socioeconomic status of the accused. Being relieved of one’s right to vote after a prison sentence is probably not included in measures of “confidence,” or being killed by the police when unarmed, or dying earlier if one is not white. I don’t imagine a lot of gay 17-year-olds outside of major cities are particularly confident, even in the “land of the free.” Indeed, as William Bennett, Reagan’s culture warrior and secretary of education under Reagan, said: “This country is a lot better at teaching self-esteem than it is at teaching math.” Call me a social critic!
Call former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich a social critic as well. This kind of lionization of corporate raiders, tough men in Brooks Brothers suits, and “me-me-me” mentality has certain social costs, and I’m not really getting that from Zakaria in this part of the chapter (or the book). Reich writes: “This growing divergence between CEO pay and that of the typical American worker isn’t just wildly unfair. It’s also bad for the economy. It means most workers these days lack the purchasing power to buy what the economy is capable of producing and contributing to the slowest recovery on record. Meanwhile, CEOs and other top executives use their fortunes to fuel speculative booms followed by busts.”
Zakaria also notes this: “South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and now China — with their high rates of growth in recent decades — are living proof of a connection between strong test scores and economic success. But growth and innovation are supported by many factors, some of which are wholly outside the realm of tests and skills.” He adds: “The country has a poorly trained labor force in general, which is a disadvantage, but it makes up for it in several ways.” He points to a flexibility and dynamism in the American economy, laws and “a good regulatory structure” (I am not going to go there), incredible research-oriented universities, venture capital firms flush with cash, and “a vibrant entrepreneurial culture.” America is rife with capitalism, as it were.
Echoing the statistics-oriented perspective I mentioned, Zakaria points out that “Scholars Heiner Rindermann and James Thompson have found that the performance of a country’s top 5 percent, as measured by IQ, is closely correlated with economic growth.” Clearly, America’s ability to attract top talent was or is a strength. Learning to think is correlated with, but different from, raw intelligence, I believe. He continues: “America’s top 1 percent intellectually, which works out to over three million people, has an outsized effect on growth, according to Jonathan Wai of Duke University.”
Finally, on page 99 he strikes a liberal and humane tone: “America has many Bill Gateses and Warren Buffetts and Googles and Facebooks to bring up its averages. But top performers and a handful of technology behemoths do not translate into rising incomes for most Americans. For that, the East Asian-northern European model of good education for all is crucial.” Indeed, critic of capitalism, Thomas Piketty, agrees that “Over a long period of time, the main force in favor of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.”
“The philosophic tradition of Greece is essentially a movement of enlightenment and liberation. For it aims at freeing the mind from the bonds of ignorance. It removes the fear of the unknown by presenting the world as something accessible to reason. Its vehicle is the logos and its aspiration the pursuit of knowledge under the form of the Good. Disinterested inquiry is itself regarded as ethically good; through it, rather than through religious mysteries, do men achieve the good life.”
Intelligence theorist Howard Gardner agrees: “Whether I am traveling in the United States or visiting Europe, Latin America, or the Far East, I find a surprising consensus: the belief that the quality of a nation’s educational system will be a chief—perhaps the chief—determinant of its success during the next century or so.” He also points to the primacy of learning to think, and of society’s proper role in molding youth toward prosocial and aspirational ends (a goal that reminds me of Aristotle’s teleological approach to virtue): “In the end, education has to do with fashioning certain kinds of individuals—the kinds of persons I (and others) desire the young of the world to become. I crave human beings who understand the world, who gain sustenance from such understanding, and who want…to alter it for the better.”
Philosopher Tom Morris shapes this idea of teleology, and it shows how education and, as this chapter extols, learning to think, can benefit all in question: “In every case, the good thing does successfully what it was intended to do. It hits the target, serves its purpose, fulfills its mission. It has a function, and carries it out well. Using the Greek term for an archery bullseye, telos, we can call this the teleological conception of the good.”
Zakaria notes that one of the reasons American children do not perform as well on tests is not perhaps simply “They’re two years ahead in math because they’ve taken at least two more years of math! It’s not Chinese genes, not a better system, not a magic formula — just more work.” Though hard for the young to grasp, this is good and apt advice: “Instead of thinking about where you are, think about where you want to be. It takes twenty years of hard work to become an overnight success”
Indeed, Zakaria notes that “A 2010 research paper found that the average number of hours college students spend studying outside the classroom a week declined from forty in 1961 to twenty-seven in 2003.”
“Education is the taming or domestication of the soul’s raw passions – not suppressing them or excising them, which would deprive the soul of its energy – but forming and informing them as art.”
here. The upshot? Howard Gardner: “Learn from Finland, which has the most effective schools and which does just about the opposite of what we are doing in the United States.” If you think that Finland has a hard-core program of drilling and drilling 10 hours a day, you’d be wrong.Read about why Finland has the highest-performing children in the world
The author of the article I just referenced puts it like this: “In Finland, children don’t receive formal academic training until the age of 7. Until then, many are in daycare and learn through play, songs, games, and conversation. Most children walk or bike to school, even the youngest. School hours are short and homework is generally light.” Color me wowed!
It is a bit nuanced, I think. I mean, on the one hand, American schools are flagging, and many districts are simply awful. One would want to point to Asian countries working harder than we here do, but obviously Finland’s results would seem to contradict that. Zakaria believes that an important new study drew on survey data, transcripts, and a learning assessment to answer the question of what high-quality American colleges teach their students.” He was not impressed with the findings! Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa say this in their study’s findings: “Large numbers of four-year college students experience only limited academic demands, invest only moderate levels of effort, and demonstrate limited or no growth on an objective measure of critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication.” I think that learning to think is absolutely essential and, it seems, found wanting when it comes to American public education.
It seems the issue is one of rigor, and that that is separate from the nature of the studies (e.g., STEM vs. greater number of electives, or liberal education vs. a more core-oriented, Great Books-style basis). I suppose it could be laid out on a quadrant with Full Time/Less Than Full Time on the y-axis, and Nature of the Curriculum on the x-axis. Here is one potential characterization of American education: “In many colleges, the subjects that often define the liberal arts — the core humanities — have in particular become less structured and less demanding. That might be why employers have become more suspicious of majors like English and history,” Zakaria asserts.
I believe we want to steer a course between “tiger mom/all-math-all-the-time” on one side, and “airy-fairy, don’t tax yourself” on the other. Zakaria points to social science as a hybrid between curriculum extremes (e.g., art vs. physics) and hazards that “It is the rigor and discipline of a science degree that might impress employers the most, not the specific subject matter.” That seems to make sense; employers are probably rightfully fearful that they are going to hire a 23-year-old who has always been told that he or she deserves a trophy for simply participating, who might have breezed through squishy classes with little writing requirement. Rigor has much to recommend it, and “hard sciences” imply rigor was inherent in the 15-20 classes required in the upper division to qualify for one’s major. Learning to think is related but different. What I mean is, rigor is exemplified by difficulty and the fact that one could really receive a D or an F in the class; learning to think is not as much about difficulty as it is about discipline. One needn’t be harsh on a dog who is training to be a service animal or a military or police dog, but one does need to train very specifically.
This seems to be the pith here: “An excessively loose structure, diminishing work levels, and low standards are flaws in the implementation of a liberal education, not characteristics of it. The solution is not that people need to major in marketing in college, but that their liberal education should be more structured and demanding.” Anyone who has tried philosophy or Shakespeare knows that you can’t just “call it in,” but many pursuits that could be considered “the humanities” could be criticized as “not very difficult.”
But truly and deeply and passionately pursuing what interests one is not to be dismissed as fluff. Consider this point of view on learning to think and experience one’s true potential in a nurturing environment, in this case a school based on the Waldorf model of education, by Kenneth Chenault, the former chairman and CEO of no less a capitalistic enterprise than American Express:
“My parents were looking for a school that would nurture the whole person. They also felt that the Waldorf school would be a far more open environment for African Americans, and that was focused on educating students with values, as well as the academic tools necessary to be constructive and contributing human beings. … I think the end result of Waldorf education is to raise our consciousness. There is a heightened consciousness of what our senses bring us from the world around us, about our feelings, about the way we relate to other people. It taught me how to think for myself, to be responsible for my decisions. Second, it made me a good listener, sensitive to the needs of others. And third, it helped establish meaningful beliefs. In all the Main Block lessons — in history, science, philosophy — we really probed the importance of values and beliefs. In dealing with a lot of complex issues and a lot of stress, if that isn’t balanced by a core of meaningful beliefs, you really will just be consumed and fail.”
Zakaria notes on page 105 the example of athletes — how going to a decent school and participating in a sport tends to denote one who has grit and determination (athletes at some sports-dominated universities getting a lot of extra help and a bit of handicapping, aside). He wisely points out that “If you want to succeed in life, most often you need to put in the hours, develop good habits, work well with others, and get lucky. That is true whether you study English, physics, history, engineering, or business.”
The chapter concludes with an interesting example of rigor and philosophy (e.g., credo). The United States feared Japan in the late 1980s. Remember the movie Gung-Ho? Or heck, another Michael Keaton movie that demonstrates American ingenuity, self-sacrifice, hard work, and lateral thinking, The Founder. “McDonalds can be the new American church, and it ain’t just open on Sundays, boys!” Keaton tells the inventors of the first McDonald’s burger joint, in a bid to get them to turn over control and spawn a thousand franchise locations.
Anyway, Zakaria points to the James Fallows book, More Like Us to indicate that the way we bested the Japanese was not to become more like them, to outdo them at the Japanese business model. Rather, it was about “emphasizing the distinctive strengths of the United States — its openness, innovation, decentralization, laissez-faire attitude, and entrepreneurial culture — but do so even better than in the past.” Arguments I might have with honoring capitalism at the expense of noticing its weaknesses aside, I see what Fallows and Zakaria are getting at. I endorse it. It also seems to have worked, because Japan foundered and America is at the top of the pack, economically. We need to do better in many ways, but that is probably a different blog for a different day. He presciently ends the chapter with: “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more — and better —
Arguments I might have with honoring capitalism at the expense of noticing its weaknesses aside, I see what Fallows and Zakaria are getting at. I endorse it. It also seems to have worked, because Japan foundered and America is at the top of the pack, economically. We need to do better in many ways, but that is probably a different blog for a different day. He presciently ends the chapter with: “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more — and better — liberal education.” Indeed, learning to think is greatly assisted by a liberal education at a great school, as long as rigor is part and parcel of the experience.
“What is needed to make democracy work as it is not now working—to bring into reality a sound conception of democracy? The mass liberal education of the mass electorate. Not just schooling, but an education that involves moral training as well as the training of the mind.”
“The method of liberal education is the liberal arts, and the result of liberal education is discipline in those arts. The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand, and think. He learns to reckon, measure, and manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict, produce, and exchange.”