Review: In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria
New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2015

When I returned to college a few years ago to follow my heart’s desire and study philosophy, one of my ethics professors opened the first class session with this question: ‘Why are you here?’ It was not meant as that ubiquitous and difficult-to-answer metaphysical question which would be the topic of so many future course discussions (difficult because it’s not well-formed, many of us would object, being too nebulous). He meant, why where we there in his class, and why were we attending college at all?

I was sitting there, aglow with satisfaction at having resumed my pursuit of a higher education after spending so many years working for others, then struggling to keep my own small business afloat in the 2008 recession era. I was feeling that the daily tasks of my working life were taking up an inordinate amount of time while failing to satisfy my curiosity about the world, so I reduced the size of my business (I’m happy to report it continues to thrive to this day) and returned to school.

In answer to my ethics professor’s question, a few hands went up. ‘To get a good job?…’ one student offered, hesitatingly. ‘I want to get rich! That’s what we’re all here for, really’ said another, with bravado. Others chimed in in assent, with a few objecting that while that’s really what they were here for, too, that’s not the only reason. While some lip service was paid to the intrinsic value of education, the instrumental view of college, as a means to the end of achieving wealth and status, won out in that particular discussion.

In the idealistic mood I was in, I was disappointed. I was here because I was sick to death of the struggle to get ahead, and was thrilled at the prospect of pouring most of my energy into learning and thinking; making money was now relegated to the periphery of my life, and good riddance. For awhile, at least, I would be thrifty and work enough to pay the bills and save a little for emergencies, and that was it.

Why open this review with an anecdote? I’m inspired to to do by Zakaria himself, who opens his excellent little book with his own story: how he, like his brother, came to America and received a liberal education, and what it did for him. In fact, his book is all about what education can do to make each individual’s life a much richer one, in every sense of the word. When I say ‘little book’, I only mean it’s not long, just six chapters and less than 200 pages. It’s really a very big book when it comes to the ideas he explores and the wealth of information and evidence he supplies in support of his arguments. I’ve long admired Zakaria’s ability to express important ideas clearly, succinctly, and with personality, and with this book, he accomplishes all of these to the highest degree.

A liberal education, as Zakaria describes it, is not only generous in its rewards; it’s liberating. It frees the mind narrowed by a lack knowledge and experience, of deeply exploring other points of view. It expands and strengthens the mind as it becomes more elastic, ever ready to take in more information and process it in light of what you’ve learned so far. The more art and culture you take in, the more developed your aesthetic tastes become, and the more you’re able to appreciate. The more you’re practiced in critical thinking, the better able you are to take in new ideas and explore them for quality and for beauty, for strengths and weaknesses. When done right, a liberal education should not make you a ‘know-it-all’; it should make you more open, more ready and able to constantly learn more as you go through life, and more keenly aware of how little anyone can really know about this fantastically rich, complicated, and endlessly fascinating universe we find ourselves in.

A liberal education also makes you a better citizen. You learn about important and influential political theories, and critiquing them logically as well as comparing how they fare throughout history, you learn what works, what doesn’t, and how to judge what might work best in the future. You learn about those who made a big difference in the world, how you can make a difference too, and why you should try to do so. It’s also a quintessentially American innovation: by the people, of the people, and for the people. It’s a great equalizer, open to anyone (or at least intended to be) who has the basic skills and the desire to learn, no matter what socioeconomic class they come from. It presents the best ideas from all over the world for the students to critique and compare on their own merits, though instructors who themselves came from all manner of backgrounds.
Zakaria compares liberal education to skills-based training, which is now winning favor in public and political discourse as the more practical way to help people improve their lives. Many politicians are decrying public education as too ephemeral and calling for more public money to be spent on job training, if spent on education at all. Even President Obama, in favor of free junior college for qualified applicants, recently took a crack at a humanities major. While agreeing that skills-based training is very important, Zakaria explains why it’s not only not enough for a democracy, it’s not enough for a nation that wants to stay innovative and competitive. A person whose talents are honed and locked into one narrow set of skills may be very good at one particular job, but when changes in technology and in the market render that job obsolete, that person’s training is no longer relevant, and they’re left poorly equipped to pursue other options. Consider an entire population educated and trained this narrowly, and you see the problem. As Zakaria points out, a liberal education, which focuses on instilling a broad base of knowledge and generally applicable critical thinking skills, does much more to help people become more informed, flexible, and equipped to take in new information and apply it in new ways.

When I reconsider that ethics class discussion in light of Zakaria’s book, I realize we were talking past each other. There’s no reason to choose between the instrumental side and the intrinsic value of college. A liberal education, which as undergrads we were all pursuing, helps us accomplish all of our goals in a way few other social institutions can, and can be essential for helping us become the best human beings we can be.

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