In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria

The New York Time’s Bestseller In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria is a must read not only for college bound students but also for anyone interested in the history of education.

Zakaria’s advice to us at the Johns Hopkins 2010 Commencement was, “Go live your dream. If you don’t, someone else will.” Wise words that have stayed with me through every milestone of my career.

But what do these wise words have to do with a liberal education? A great deal, in fact. A liberal education encourages exploration into all fields, thereby creating the opportunity for students to find and follow their passion(s).

Zakaria starts In Defense of a Liberal Education by quoting E.O. Wilson, the American biologist and researcher. Wilson states that “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” This type of critical thinking is what I mentioned in last week’s post. Zakaria quickly points out that the liberal arts model of education has come under attack from both the left and right, however. With this criticism have come calls for a model of education that would lead directly to job skills. He explains that such a change would mean “abandoning what has been historically distinctive, even unique, in the American approach to higher education (page 21).”

He recounts his own educational experience as a high schooler in India. He describes the board exams, a “remnant” of the British model. At the age of sixteen, students chose either science, commerce or the humanities. He recalls that “The smart kids would go into science, the rich kids would do commerce, and the girls would take the humanities” (page 23). He states that this is an exaggeration, “but not by that much.” Such divisions are difficult for students of my time and place to imagine. For Zakaria, another set of exams at the end of twelfth grade weighed above all else. The economic turmoil in 1970s Britain gave rise to the American model of education because that’s where scholarship funds could be found. Zakaria says he and his siblings were fortunate in that their parents did not insist on early specialization.

He finally chose his specialization as a result of a class he took out of sheer interest. It was on the history of the Cold War. I can relate because I chose to follow my passion for languages after taking Spanish and French as a high school student at Hood College in Frederick, MD. Hood College is a liberal arts college so I had the opportunity to work alongside other students with different majors. It’s no surprise that when I began my own studies at Johns Hopkins in 1999 I chose International Studies and Romance Languages. International Studies is the broadest major available at Hopkins and includes classes in Political Science, Economics, History and Foreign Languages. My parents also encouraged me to follow my heart in the quest to expand my mind.

The history of liberal education is fascinating and Zakaria explains it beautifully. It finds its origins in the Greek word arete, which refers mainly to the memorization and recitation of Homeric poetry. It included physical training. The rise of democracy, especially in Athens, helped make the case for “broad” education. So there came to exist an enduring connection between liberal education and liberty. Plato and Isocrates disagreed on emphasis and Cicero came up with a middle ground that included both the search for truth with rhetoric.

He goes on to explain that Charlemagne continued the tradition in monasteries and how it came to travel outside them, eventually making its way to our shores. The reach of the liberal arts expanded due to Islam, particularly in Moorish Spain. By the late Middle Ages, we find the establishment of universitas. The first European university was established in Bologna in 1088. Others soon followed in Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and Padua. Colleges came to be established in England, with growing secularism by the nineteenth century. Charles Eliot, the president of Harvard, introduced electives, making the case for them in a 1885 speech. In 1930 the idea of a “great books” program emerged at the University of Chicago. It defended the classic curriculum but left no room for electives. Zakaria feels that that required classes “fade in the memory” when compared to those taken out of interest (page 61). He emphasizes, “The crucial challenge is to learn how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas-and most of all to enjoy the intellectual adventure enough to be able to do them easily and often” (page 61). He goes on to conclude that “the central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think” (page 72).

So how does one go about learning these skills? Seminars help students express themselves, thereby facilitating learning, which in turn becomes a pleasure. Zakaria observes that “What remains constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems” (pages 78-79), making these skills transferable. He aptly points out that “Engineering is not better than art history. Society needs both, often in combination” (page 82). He cites Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg as an example. Zuckerberg was a liberal arts student who took an added interest in computers.

So how has following the model of liberal education helped us as a nation? While our test scores remain less than stellar, American graduates are among “the world’s most creative scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, composers, and business people” (page 93). Sweden and Israel have yielded similar results. Why? Zakaria points out that all three countries are non-hierarchical and merit based, have open societies, and their people display confidence.

Which brings Zakaria back to the state of the American university today. He writes in defense of MOOCs, pointing out that despite skepticism among faculty, they bring the possibility of college seminars to people in developing countries. He touches upon the new pedagogical technique of flipping the classroom, where students watch the lecture at home and then go to class prepared to solve problems. He notes a disenchantment with politics amongst today’s youth but credits this change to the change of times. He observes that “The young reflect today’s realities. Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics…it’s a new world, and the young know it” (page 165). In my ten years of university teaching, I have certainly seen these changes amongst my students, even from the time I was a student myself.

Zakaria closed In Defense of a Liberal Education with the following words and I could not agree more: “This much I will concede: Because of the times we live in, all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life. We do not look inside of ourselves enough to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we do not look around enough-at the world, in history-to ask the deepest and broadest questions. The solution surely is that, even now, we could all use a little bit more of a liberal education” (page 169).

Sometimes we find meaning in unexpected places, when we are not planning on looking outside ourselves at all. I had such an experience while on vacation recently and I will be sharing it with you next week.





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