In my previous posting on historian and political analyst Fareed Zakaria’s book In Defense of a Liberal Education, I introduced the topic, shared how it was that the author came to value a true and deep kind of education, and extolled America’s great history of “an education to all that was not skills-based.” The “Great Books” approach found fertile soil in the United States in the 1930s and in the ensuing few decades. Now, in an era of iPads, Slurpees, and 300-horsepower cars, most students want to study business, psychology, or marketing. Fareed Zakaria and I believe that skills, such as STEM learning, are useful, but that it is not the entirety of what a distinguished and wise strain of thinkers from Socrates on thought was going to make the best, most well-rounded person. In this blog, I will review and summarize chapter two in the book, which is essentially a history and encapsulation of the approach to education known as liberal education/liberal arts.
It is recommended you buy the book, and this summary is only meant to whet your appetite for the real thing.
“For most of human history, education was job-training. Hunters, farmers, and warriors taught the young to hunt, farm, and fight. Children of the ruling class received instruction in the arts of war and governance, but this too was intended first and foremost as preparation for the roles they would assume later in society, not for any broader purpose. All that began to change 2500 years ago in ancient Greece.”
That is how Fareed Zakaria, a distinguished and fecund thinker, begins chapter two in his book In Defense of a Liberal Education. Here is a 4-star review of the book from that page:
He goes on to note that prior to the change he references, “education in Greece had centered on the development of arete…” which can be likened more or less to virtue and excellence. They tended to memorize and recite Homeric poems, such as The Illiad and The Odyssey. In this relatively pre-literate period, the oration and recitation served a function: inculcating in the youth the values and expectations of society.
I will share a few reviews from the website Goodreads.com to help you determine if you want to buy the book. I would recommend it, as you may have imagined.
“If you are going to read just a single book about liberal arts education, this is the most approachable. This is a pithy little contribution to the list of books endorsing liberal arts education. Zakaria is an interesting non-university voice in the conversation. The internationalism of his experience adds another dimension. It’s not quite as intellectual a book as some of the others on liberal arts education (Nussbaum, Roth, etc.), but it’s worth two and a half hours of your time.”
However, “Around the fifth century BC, some Greek city-states, most notably Athens, began to experiment with a new form of government,” Fareed Zakaria points out. The time of Pericles, democracy began to flourish as the city-state did. There were still oligarchic elements to leadership, but ostensibly, eventually (tragically, perhaps), it moved in the direction of popular rule. “The link between education and liberty became important to the Greeks,” he shows. Indeed, the Romans named it: “liberal” education, as the word has its root in liberty: freedom. A free people must be educated, lest they ruin the responsibility for governing. “The point of the liberal arts and sciences, the point of your liberal education, is to liberate you,” believes professor
“Plato and his followers, including Aristotle, considered education a search for truth.” Isocrates, a contemporary, however, was more of a proponent of arete (virtue). As Zakaria puts it: “He and his followers believed a person could best arrive at virtue and make a good living by studying the arts of rhetoric, language, and morality.” He points out that this dialectic of liberal education as instrumental and constitutive of other goals (e.g., virtue) (in other words, a means) and those who envision it as a good in-and-of itself (e.g., flourishing, wisdom) (in other words, an end) is still very much alive today. Today, however, both views of the highest good for humanity are distinctly different from (and I think, superior to) the more pedestrian, practical view of education: skills training for job performance (e.g., a business major).
So, to clarify, within this ancient tradition of person-building one can find a more practical element (e.g., rhetoric helps build character and bring about the potential for civic virtue, one of the Greeks’ most highly-prized goods) and a more “education for education’s sake” approach, embodied in the belief that wisdom is the highest good, and that flourishing is really about study and self-development because it immerses one in that intangible, supremely valuable aims of enlightenment and self-fulfillment.
“An enlightening, entertaining, short but powerful argument for the role of humanities and other liberal arts in a balanced college curriculum. (The chapter on MOOCs seemed a bit off-topic). The humanities are a tough sell today, but unless we are willing to convert our colleges into vocational schools, the humanities must be embraced and valued as vehicles for imparting not merely information, but skills like critical thinking, analysis, and problem solving. Studying the humanities also help students develop the ability to communicate effectively, both orally and in writing, to form informed opinions, and ultimately, impart wisdom. I look forward to sharing several of the points made by Fareed Zakaria with my students.”
Interestingly, in ancient times through to maybe 1550, science and geometry were so inchoate and abstract that “the reason to study it was the precise opposite of what it is today. In the ancient world, and for many centuries thereafter, science was seen as the path to abstract knowledge. It had no practical purpose,” Fareed Zakaria notes. On the other hand, oratory and civics and history were useful because one could function well in that society at that time if one was so equipped. Oh, how times change. But not as much as you might think. As he notes later in the chapter, today, many corporate leaders value the broad, flexible, basic preparation for the workplace a liberal education can inculcate in a student. The better phrase may then be: Oh how times change, but one thing remains the same: the value of an education in making persons free, capable, and possibly, wise. Edward Everett Hale believed that “Education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.”
“The seven liberal arts” is a classic scheme, and included the trivium – grammar, rhetoric, and logic – and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. One can see a bit of that practical/science and basic/humanities dualism here. Two of the most notable promulgators of the knowledge-transmission/training of the clerical class (as well as the children of God who were the workers/peasants/merchants in society), were eighth-century Frankish Emperor Charlemagne and his scholar appointed to be master of education for the realm, an Englishman named Alcuin.
Further, “Even during the Dark Ages, the medieval monasteries kept alive a tradition of learning and inquiry.” In fact, if it weren’t for the Arabs – who very early on were excellent with subjects such as mathematics, philosophy, music, science, and law – and the Christian monks, we would know very little of the Ancient Greeks (and a bit more about the Romans). Considering how much of antiquity has been lost over the centuries, it was truly remarkable how much pre-printing-press copying, transmission, and use of manuscripts, plays, and civic documents were accomplished. Indeed, Aristotle was so foundational he was simply known as “The Philosopher,” and Thomas Aquinas and Augustine knew him well. Aquinas sought to meld Christian dogma with Aristotelian logic, metaphysics, and ethics.
“As someone with two degrees in subjects that aren’t related to most of the jobs I’ve ever had, the premise advanced by Fareed Zakaria rings true. Over the years I have repeatedly said, “What I learned in college was how to learn.” The variety of, and seemingly unrelated, things I studied have provided me with a base of knowledge that allows me to approach problems with lateral thinking. As Zakaria points out, this is not a path that everyone should take, but generally, a liberal education is an essential component of what drives creativity and innovation. It provides a broad base for all other learning and should not be abandoned in favor of pragmatism.”
Zakaria points out how Europe’s stagnation was ending as the Renaissance was taking center stage. Trade and travel led to a greater emphasis on useful knowledge and a liberality of knowledge profused. Francis Bacon and Vasco da Gama were exemplars of scientific knowledge being put to good use. As we saw from the Church’s treatment of astronomer Galileo and the so-called heretic Giordano Bruno, not every institution was thoroughly in favor of academic freedom, enlightenment, and rationalism.
The term university began when Italian “nations” began to need scholars, administered examinations, and educated graduates, and comes from the Latin, universitas. “These organizations sought and were granted special protections from local laws, thus allowing them necessary freedoms and autonomy. The first university in Europe was in Bologna, established in 1088! Oxford, Padua, and Paris followed. Two hundred years later, there were nearly twenty universities.
By the 1300s, however, “the balance between practical and philosophical knowledge shifted again. Some Italian scholars and writers believed that universities had become too specialized, and looked to return European education to its Greek and Roman roots.” Paul O. Kristeller points out that these scholars lobbied for “a revival of arts and letters, eloquence and of learning that led to a new and intensified study of ancient literature and history.” This was the beginning of humanism in Renaissance Europe.
It was actually colleges where the idea of liberal education really began in earnest. Colleges as we know it is a fundamentally English idea, says Columbia University professor Andrew Delbanco. Though they began with a relatively religious bent, they became more secular by the 1800s. European universities were primarily focused on research, especially Germany. Zakaria points out that “the residential college originated in England and spread to the Anglo American world, where it remains the distinctive form for undergraduates.”
Indeed, colleges “have come to be seen as possessing certain qualities that enhance the experience of liberal education beyond the curriculum.” The characteristics of the residential college is described by Samuel Eliot Morison:
“Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, and close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.” Zakaria adds that “the emphasis on building character, stemming from the religious origins of colleges, remains the aim of liberal arts colleges almost everywhere, at least in theory.”
It is said that originally, America’s colleges emphasized a curriculum of “God and Greeks”, in other words, the classics and theology. Modern languages eventually were incorporated into the curriculum. Obviously, that was a step in the practical direction. Early educational star Yale was considering which way to go in the “practical vs. liberal” dichotomy, and commissioned an 1828 study that created support for the classical curriculum, which “outlined a central tension in liberal education that still persists till now.”
According to the report, liberal education’s true purpose was “not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; want to lay the foundation which is common to them all.” The faculty distinguished between learning specific content on the one hand, and developing the framework for learning liberally and in general on the other:
The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it knowledge. the former of these is, perhaps, the more important of the two. A commanding object, therefore, in collegiate course, should be to call into daily and vigorous exercise the faculties of the student. Those branches of study should be prescribed and those modes of instruction adopted which are best calculated to teach the art of fixing the attention, directing the train of thought, analyzing a subject proposed for investigation; following, with accurate discrimination, the course of argument; balancing nicely the evidence presented to the judgment; awakening, elevating, and controlling the imagination; arranging with skill the treasures which memory gathers; rousing and guiding the powers of genius.
Fareed Zakaria reflects on the Yale curriculum and vision by noting that the goal, in general, was to tout the more classic and basic and theoretical curriculum (i.e., the furniture of the mind), and shows that “the Yale report’s broader argument was that learning to think is more important than the specific topics and books that are taught.”
He points out that fifty years later, a dynamic man named Charles Eliot, who eventually became president of rival Harvard, was very important in the history of liberal education. This professor of mathematics and chemistry (not a minister, like Yale’s, Princeton’s, and Harvard’s leaders were) traveled to Europe “where he saw firsthand the rapidly changing state of higher education on the Continent and the rise of the great research universities in Germany.”
He returned, landed at the powerhouse M.I.T., and noted that Harvard was under some pressure by various groups in society to be more “vocational” and practical, in order to play a positive role in helping Americans better prepare for the post-Civil-War era industrial climate. It was a new time and required new citizens. Eliot’s take on this situation was “Americans needed to combine the best developments of the emerging European research university with the best traditions of the classic American college.” Fusing the practical, the research-orientation, the liberal, and the progressive.
Eliot felt that undergraduate education would best be suited to a more open, flexible, student-determined, individualized approach to education, and graduate schools serve the research function. “He wanted colleges to distinguish carefully between a skills-based and a liberal education – the latter of which he considered more important,” Zakaria writes. Eliot was hired on at Harvard as president, and served for four decades! He was very influential both at the college and in the country at large.
“Eliot made so many transforming changes at Harvard that they are impossible to recount – he essentially established the modern American university.” The thing Fareed Zakaria sees as most influential was the stance that at Harvard, students were relatively free to follow their instincts, to pursue what really motivated them (in a time before the answer was, reflexively, “money“). They were required to take few particular classes, for example. The faculty were not this liberal. Indeed, there was kind of a system that resembled a free market: “…let faculty members offer what they want, and let students take what they like” was how Zakaria put it.
“To the question posed by 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.” ~ Joe Robles
As well: “Eliot believed that American liberal education should allow you to choose your own courses, excite your own imagination, and thus realize your distinctive self.” One can see the influence of the immensely popular Ralph Waldo Emerson, and his idea of “self-reliance” was truly salient here. Emerson eloquently said: “To map out a course of action and follow it to an end requires courage.”
This is really rich in my opinion. It’s one of the true, aspirational merits of liberal education that students can self-select and enter the profession they are really meant for. As one can tell from this scene in the apt and remarkable movie Dead Poet’s Society, it is a tall order, and not everyone is able – for internal or external reasons – to become an actor, writer, or history professor. Nowadays, there is a pressure to enter a profession that is remunerative and instrumental – which is why fully 20% of undergrads are business majors. Business is meant to convey “I want to get hired at a big financial services firm and make $100,000 to start,” not “I want to own a business.”
Here it is in Eliot’s own words. It’s very aspirational and laudable: “At eighteen the American boy has passed the age when a compulsory external discipline is useful. A well-instructed youth of eighteen can select for himself – not for any other boy, or for the fictitious ‘universal boy’, but for himself alone – a better course of study than any college faculty, or any wise man who does not know him and his ancestors and his previous life, can possibly select for him.”
He also said this, which is notable as well: “Liberal education develops a sense of right, duty, and honor; and more and more in the modern world, large business rests on rectitude and honor as well as on good judgment.” Again, Eliot’s stance was not necessarily the norm, and many of his peers would disagree. The “Great Books” movement would certainly tout the strength of introducing students to certain authors and books as a solid base. Kind of a “common core” for that era. When conservatives decry universities as “too liberal” I think they mean some of this (in addition to professors’ political stripe).
“Eliot’s ideas, however, were more in sync with American culture and its emphasis on individualism and freedom of choice,” Fareed Zakaria claims. It has held sway in colleges and universities for the most part. The universities of Chicago and Columbia do have a mandatory core that involves The Great Books’ philosophy. This idea was, for example, used by Columbia University English professor John Erskine as a way to “provide young people from different backgrounds with a common culture, something he thought was already thin in the United States,” writes Louis Menand, a scholar from Harvard. Great books hold great ideas, but they also can seem stultifying, as anyone who was required to read Shakespeare in Elizabethan English can attest to.
“…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.” ~ Jane Dugger
Mortimer J. Adler and Robert Maynard Hutchins were prominent proponents of the Great Books idea. Again that holds a lot of weight with a philosophical thinker like myself, but “reading classic accounts that were, in many ways, outdated or had been superseded. The program left no room for electives,” page 58 notes. Out of vogue, about 150 schools (out of more than 3,000) offer this kind of common core, classical, one-size-fits-all approach to learning. Hutchins believed the following in 1952: “Until lately the West has regarded it as self-evident that the road to education lay through great books. No man was educated unless he was acquainted with the masterpieces of his tradition. There never was much doubt in anybody’s mind about which the masterpieces were. They were the books that had endured and that the common voice of mankind called the finest creations, in writing, of the Western tradition.” As a lover of quotations, I realize that much that has been written in the past – even as far back as Thales or Homer – still pays dividends when read and understood today. As an admirer of Socrates, the ability to self-direct and question any man, even those who have reputed wisdom or clear authority, appeals to me too, though.
Dr. Zakaria points out that the common core and grounding in the recommended basics has some merit, though he didn’t end up studying in that manner. He writes: “When teaching undergraduates in the 1980s, I was struck not only by how bright they were but also by how little they knew about, say, the basic outlines of American history.” He discloses that if he asked them to analyze something, they could well; but if asked to place events in chronological order – like which came first, The Korean War or the Vietnam War – they were found wanting. I think the idea of STEM is meant to shore up Americans’ general weakness in foundational knowledge. It is worth noting, though, that ingenuity and creativity are strengths that ought to be inculcated, too. America, Sweden, and Israel have the most free-thinking graduates, and it is reflected in the utter novelty some young creative types can demonstrate – often to marvelous result (like selling a dynamic and stellar company to Google for millions before you even sell one dollar worth of product). When the Chinese can teach students to out-innovate us, our goose will be cooked.
Now I would like to share a number of apt quotations about liberal education which ideally will elucidate this dichotomy a bit:
“The teacher is like the farmer or the physician. The farmer doesn’t produce the grains of the field; he merely helps them grow. The physician does not produce the health of the body; he merely helps the body maintain its health or regain its health. And the teacher does not produce knowledge in the mind; he merely helps the mind discover it for itself”
Contrast with the more specific, determined, classical, basic, and rigorous point of view: “The great books of ethics, political philosophy, economics, history, and literature do not yield up their secrets to the immature. In the United States, if these works are read at all, they are read in school and college, where they can be only dimly understood, and are never read again. Hence Americans are unlikely to understand them fully; we are deprived of the light they might shed upon our present problems” …if he asks, ‘What does the tradition have to teach me about human life, in my particular time and with my problems?’ he is using the wealth of wisdom accumulated through historical tradition for his own enrichment and guidance as a free person”
The following shows a kind of synthesis of knowledge (accumulated facts) and wisdom that is hard to beat: “The facts are indispensable; they are not sufficient. To solve a problem it is necessary to think. It is necessary to think even to decide what facts to collect. Even the experimental scientist cannot avoid being a liberal artist, and the best of them, as the great books show are men of imagination and of theory as well as patient observers of particular facts. … critics have themselves frequently misunderstood the scientific method and have confused it with the aimless accumulation of facts”
Perhaps social critic and conservative commentator David Brooks charts us through the middle course: “These days we live in a culture that is more diverse, decentralized, interactive and democratized. The old days when gray-haired sages had all the answers about the ultimate issues of life are over. But new ways of having conversations about the core questions haven’t yet come into being.” His colleague at the New York Times, David Leonhardt, strikes a sobering tone, too: “At its top levels, the American system of higher education may be the best in the world. Yet in terms of its core mission — turning teenagers into educated college graduates — much of the system is simply failing.”
This may be the most salient analysis: “I still sympathize with arguments in support of [a common] core, but I have come to place a greater value than I once did on the openness inherent in liberal education – the ability for the mind to range widely and pursue interests freely” In the case of great books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you” The lamp of history illuminates the very commonalities that constitute human nature itself. History teaches that wherever you find human beings, certain lessons are worth learning. There is a root humanity that is reached by certain events and that allows us to predict how we are likely to behave under certain conditions and how those conditions, therefore, should either be promoted or shunned”
“Nothing really new to the argument between “vocational” education and a “liberal” education … but well-stated and fairly concise. I believe American society has become so polarized that when the word “liberal” is heard, many minds turn to a political philosophy/position. Zakaria asks us to remember “liberal” has its roots in the Latin word relating to freedom. The education system set in place in the US was intended to produce citizens who could maintain their freedom and make choices in their lives based on their liberal education. Very different from education systems in other countries.”
In general, on page 61, Zakaria extols a prime virtue of liberal education. He is referring to two different types of classes he has taken over the years. The first type is those he took to gain knowledge in a subject for personal or professional reasons “or to acquire cultural literacy” did not leave much that he can still access today. It’s as though the formulae from geometry we all study just doesn’t have the relevance for most of us needed to keep those memories alive. Perhaps the passion is missing, or they fall out of memory due to disuse.
However, Zakaria writes: “Those that I took out of genuine curiosity or because I was inspired by a great teacher have left a more lasting and powerful impression.” He notes openly that he can simply use Google to find many facts per se. A-squared plus B-squared equals C-squared will always be easily found in today’s world. Critical analysis of reading material is invaluable, as are data analysis and idea formation, “and most of all to enjoy the intellectual adventure enough to be able to do [those three things] easily and often.” I agree with him that those tools are the saw, hammer, and plumb bob that will allow a great craftsman to craft almost any house, given the materials and the time. “Teach the young people how to think, not what to think,” Sidney Sugarman believes.
Dr. Zakaria goes on to note how challenging it can be to teach kids to love to learn: “I’ve watched my children grow up surrounded by an amazing cornucopia of entertainment available instantly on their computers, tablets, and phones.” He worries that “modern entertainment can turn something that demands active and sustained engagement, like reading and writing, into a chore.” Indeed, “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner” How often do we seem to be either obsessed with technology or so focused on the experience of the here-and-now that the issue of wisdom appears to be virtually ignored?”
But Zakaria also says that he doesn’t “decry or condemn new forms of entertainment and technology. They open up new vistas of knowledge in ways of thinking. Our children will be smarter and quicker than us in many ways. But a good education system must confront the realities of the world we live in and educate in a way that addresses them, rather than pretend that these challenges don’t exist.”
A real proponent of old-fashioned reading, Zakaria adds that “reading books remains one of the most important paths to real knowledge. There are few substitutes to understanding an issue in depth than reading a good book about it. This has been true for centuries, and it has not changed.” Indeed, Mark Twain is reported to have said: “The man who doesn’t read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.” Let us take this counsel from one of the most fecund minds history has produced: “Indeed, no amount of mere reading will of itself improve one’s understanding of anything. What is required in addition to the acquiring of information is some measure of intense reflection upon the several matters thus gathered in”
We all know the idea of following your heart can lead down the primrose path, and that doing so won’t necessarily produce a well-rounded and deeply educated individual. I know I hated math and would have tried to avoid any of it, save for statistics, if I could have. “There are those strange college courses on, say, “transgendered roles in East-African poetry” that infuriate conservative critics of higher education.” That seems fair enough. He points on out on page 63 why this probably occurs. It is basically the phenomenon of research-oriented professors at competitive, standard universities developing an expertise in some graduate-level topic (minutiae?) being more interested in teaching about that sub-subject than to teach the basics. Hence the strength of a liberal arts college, where education is job #1.
Zakaria also decries the tangential issue of “the abandonment of rigor, largely in the humanities.” He believes that “grades have steadily risen in almost all American colleges in recent decades.” Now, the modal grade in a Harvard College class is an A. He believes that “the greatest shift in liberal education over the past century has been the downgrading of subjects in science and technology.” I see his point, but on the other hand, no student in four years is going to be able to have a major which they have studied well and in-depth if they must learn about every single subject. I myself took two science classes with a lab in college, but they were not physics and chemistry, they were physical anthropology and environmental science. An argument could be made that that was a wise decision for me. As well, learning computer programming or a third language is just not going to be practical for most individuals. I think it might be folly to provide too much structure and breadth. There must be what, thirty subjects in most colleges and universities?
Fareed shows that “Science was relegated to scientists – a huge loss to society as a whole.” Perhaps that is being remedied now with the popular STEM approach to education. I guess I would say that learners should be scientifically literate, but I would also say that a survey course heavy on the philosophy of science (e.g., Karl Popper and Francis Bacon) would suffice. Physics simply doesn’t help enough graduates enough in life to mandate it. Meaning in life was altered with the scientific revolution, and probably helped create the schism between science and religion. He believes science “lost its central position in liberal education,” still tied to religion during the time of Darwin, and that, again, science was relegated to scientists. This is central to the scientific illiteracy that has been shown to exist in the U.S. I believe half of Americans believe in a Biblical explanation for the origins of life, and consider creationism a reasonable theoretical alternative to evolution.
A British writer and physicist, C. P. Snow, penned a famous essay entitled “The Two Cultures,” in which he decried the “polarization of knowledge into two camps,” creating “mutual incomprehension…hostility, and dislike.” Further, there are divisions between scientific disciplines. For example, psychologists get derided by some biologists, chemists, and physicists are not being scientific enough. There have been some interesting examples of the fusion of genetics and psychology, called behavior genetics, and psychology with economics, termed behavioral economics. Here is a write-up on that integration if that interests you.
Biologist E. O. Wilson wrote a neat book called Consilience, in which he attempts to unify and synthesize and mend the schism between sciences: “From Apollonian law to Dionysian spirit, prose to poetry, left cortical hemisphere to right, the line between the two domains [or cultures] can be easily crossed back and forth, but no one knows how to translate the tongue of one into that of the other. Should we even try? I believe so, and for the best of reasons: the goal is both important and attainable,” …to asking whether, in the gathering of disciplines, specialists can ever reach agreement on a common body of abstract principles and evidentiary proof. I think they can. Trust in consilience is the foundation of the natural sciences. For the material world at least, the momentum is overwhelmingly toward conceptual unity. Disciplinary boundaries within the natural sciences are disappearing, to be replaced by shifting hybrid domains in which consilience is implicit.”
One thing I know for sure, we do not want kids being educated in science, math, and technology and turning out ignorant of the humanities. That could be a disaster. Think of Ted Kaczynski, “the Unabomber,” or sociopaths who know quite well how to do bad things to people if they can only trap them without scaring them off. Here are some of the most trenchant quotes on the dangers of science bereft of a moral sensibility:
Neils Bohr famously quipped: “Every instrument that man has invented, discovered, or developed has been turned toward destruction.”
“But does science tell us how we should control the power we have, how we should use all the machinery and the utilities that science with its technological applications gave us? Clearly not. In fact, we live in a world in which, made dangerous by this fact, science has given us the untold power of atomic energy. But does science tell us how to use atomic energy, either in peacetime or in war, how to use it for the benefit of mankind instead of the destruction of mankind? In fact, the same scientific skills in medicine or engineering that help us to cure and benefit can also help us or enable men to kill and destroy”
“Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men,” pointed out Reverend
Zakaria points to an interesting new program jointly launched by Yale and the National University of Singapore called “Yale-NUS College.” He believes “The Yale-NUS report is radical and innovative. First, the school calls itself a college of liberal arts and sciences, to restore science to its fundamental place in an undergraduate’s education.” Departments per se do not exist. There is a core curriculum that comprises the first two years – as is typical in the U.S.’s best schools, like the University of California – but doesn’t go in the same direction that Chicago and Columbia do. He writes:
“The focus of the Yale-NUS core is to expose students to a variety of modes of thinking. In one module they are to learn how experimental scientists conduct research; in another, how statistics informs social science and public policy. There is a strong emphasis throughout on exposing students to scientific methods rather than scientific facts so that – whatever their ultimate major – they are aware of the way in which science works.”
“A very interesting read from a man I admire. He provides a unique perspective on higher education in the US while providing a great chronological narrative on education from ancient times to the modern day. The first third of the book is his personal experience moving stateside in pursuit of a liberal arts degree from Yale. I enjoyed the worldly commentary regarding a collegiate experience from an American university – it forces American readers to feel more fortunate for our access to higher education in comparison with the rest of the world. While other countries may test better in standardized scenarios, Americans are more creative, Zakaria argues. We start businesses which involve risk, build brands/companies on a set of principles seen in companies such as Apple, Inc., and Amazon.com, and, to submit to the cliche, we “think outside the box.” Asian students, who perform tremendously on tests, are taught not to set themselves apart – something strongly encouraged in American education. This is why we’ve been successful in the world’s economy. Zakaria argues that it is that style of liberal education seen in the US that allows us to maintain that creativity and explore our curiosities and pursue our passions.”
Zakaria notes that “the Yale-NUS core does include courses on the great books, but it does not treat them as simply a canon to be checked off on a cultural literacy list.” They are more like useful looks at glimpses of wisdom, if you will, and not “part of a ‘required’ body of knowledge.” He also points out that “the curriculum requires students to take on projects outside the classroom, in the belief that a ‘work’ component teaches valuable lessons that learning from a book cannot.” I have absolutely no problem with that, much as I like spectacular works of fiction that yield sublime lessons and remarkable insights.
Check out this take on the idea: “A book is as material as a plum pudding, but the good that we expect to derive from it is mental. It is not easy to devise any sound principle upon which even the wisest authority could decide what books deserve to be printed” It’s not a multiple-choice world, employers say. Don’t send us graduates who only know how to solve multiple-choice problems. They are asking for what educators call a modern liberal education. ‘More big-picture thinking,’ as one business leader put it, but with more ‘real-world applications.'”
Zakaria really appreciates the blending of the two cultures, a kind of integration that Values of the Wise can also herald. “Students not only study Plato and Aristotle, but also in the same course Confucius and the Buddha – and ask why their systems of ethics might be similar or different.” The comparative approach does have much to recommend it. As long as it is based on fact and rationality, I say blending two academic or theoretical positions can be fruitful and insightful. “The principles you accept (consciously or subconsciously) may clash with or contradict one another; they, too, have to be integrated. What integrates them? Philosophy” There’s no recipe, there’s no simple rule which I’m going to give you — or anyone else should give you – to try to order these priorities or try to resolve all conflicts by a simple rule. You have to learn in life how to integrate and harmonize different values.”
Warning: This book has been improperly titled. The title should be “In Defense of a Progressive, Secular Humanist Education.” I was SO disappointed in this book. It is largely a weak push-back against calls for increased technical training and other “useful” education. However, Zakaria’s definition of “liberal education” is a mushy, vaguely 1950s version of college that is mostly about having lots of electives, definitely not about humanities over sciences, and whose best selling point seems to be enhanced critical thinking and communication skills.
The key aspect of truly liberal education, namely formation in virtue, is entirely absent his curricular ideas. In fact, if anything, he is an advocate of a hodgepodge – er, excuse me – liberal education that samples from all religious and philosophical traditions without making judgments about any of them. Sorry, but postmodernism hasn’t proven a great foundation for a thriving society, and calling for a revival of pluralism and multiculturalism makes it seem you are just stuck a few decades behind rather than being a cultural visionary.
Zakaria adeptly leads into the next (3rd) chapter of the book, entitled “Learning to Think,” with the following: “But what if liberal education done well still doesn’t get you a job? In 1852, Cardinal Newman wrote that a student of liberal education ‘apprehends the great outlines of knowledge’ for its own sake rather than to acquire skills to practice a trade or do a job.” He points out that skeptics still question the practicality and applicability of a broad and integrative kind of undergraduate curriculum. Newman indicates that indeed, persons would ask him, “To what then does it lead? Where does it end? What does it do? How does it profit?” He ends the chapter with: “So, what is the earthly use of a liberal education?” Read Chapter 3 in the book, or await my summary!
Here is a blog about Mortimer J. Adler’s book, The Great Ideas
Here is a blog regarding quotations about liberal education