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.
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.