Book Review – “In Defense of a Liberal Education”

Zakaria coverIn Defense of a Liberal Education

Fareed Zakaria

204pp. Paperback $15.75

Zakaria is an American author and journalist, a contributing editor of the Atlantic and a columnist for The Washington Post. Zakaria has authored four books including international bestseller The Post-American World. He is best known as the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS.

A review by Stacey Harper

Liberal Studies is under attack, and everyone from Obama to my mother-in-law seems to have an opinion on its usefulness. Have you seen that meme “The only thing that can stop this asteroid is your Liberal Arts degree”? No? Let me paraphrase: NASA employs a barista to head a team of astrophysicists attempting to nuke an asteroid hurtling to Earth …. Because they “need someone with four years of broad-but-humanities-focused studies and the ability to reason across multiple areas of study… When you’re lowering a hydrogen bomb into a craggy mass of flying astronomic death with barely any gravity, you’re going to need to draw on all the multidisciplinary analysis you’ve got”.[1] As far from the point as it is deliciously sarcastic, this kind of barbed criticism is part of an entrenched trend in post-secondary to devalue the Liberal Arts. When did literature, philosophy and history become so useless to our lives? Isn’t that what we would be saving the world for?

It was nothing short of heart warming to see best-selling author, intellectual heavyweight, and popular television commentator Fareed Zakaria take on the fight.

Zakaria presents a concise, well-defended argument, traversing the revolutionary (and of course uniquely American), nature of the Liberal Arts. He takes us through the history of how Americans have funded and valued higher education. He speaks eloquently on the polarization of knowledge—the way science and the arts have become somehow mutually exclusive. Zakaria highlights the need to see these two aspects of general education meet again in some common forum—as symbiotic aspects of grooming future minds. Liberal Studies is guilty of failing to teach its students even the basics of scientific principals and Science students need to develop the values, political literacy, and familiarity with the humanities that can give an ethical framework to technological development. And I heartily agree with his proposition of a “common core” for all undergraduates, giving a strong basic framework that students can specialize from within.

Zakaria argues his points well and would make fast work of my friend David who likes to crack jokes about Liberal Studies and “platonic dioramas” at my dinner parties, but I will admit that I found Zakaria’s defence more of a pandering appeal to business than an incisive cutting defense of literature and philosophy. He easily devotes 26 pages to dropping the names and opinions of American CEOs like Jeff Bewkes, Time Warner (69) or Jeff Bezo’s founder of Amazon (74), or Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, or Norman Augustine CEO of Lougheed Martin (74).  I assume because all things considered, it is Zakaria says, economically useful to “have a well-trained population“ (97).

As a Liberal Studies major with technical training in business I am constantly defending my educational choices: “Why Liberal Studies instead of Commerce, for example, or a Bachelor of Business Administration?” I regularly trot out many of Zakaria’s arguments:  I have learned how to learn. On top of my technical skills, I am skilled in research. I am an excellent writer and communicator able to present, defend ideas, and collaborate with co-workers. “I am a flexible thinker,” I tell those potential employers, “I have not simply learned that A=B and memorized a sequence of transactions—I can think on the ground and work well in ambiguous situations where I must use judgement and weigh possible outcomes.” I also argue that Liberal studies allowed me to develop a strong ethical sense; an increasing concern in business these days – as the Enron scandal and the 2008 financial crisis might highlight.

I have managed to become gainfully employed despite my degree’s lowly coinage … but when did this become the point of higher education—managing to trade your labour for the necessities of life? The increasing commodification of education, the transformation of Universities into trade schools, is a disturbing trend. I flicked through the pages of Zakaria’s defence desperate to find some dazzling logic and cutting social commentary that I could flay Dave with when he next comes over. But it just didn’t arrive. I was downright puzzled by Zakaria’s discussion of MOOC’s (Massive Open On-line Courses) as a viable alternative to well-funded and valued public education system.  I see MOOCS as the fodder of canned program types—for the study of accounting, let’s say, or software programs, typing, and basic economics. Liberal Arts entails the exchange of ideas, reading and arguing in groups, honing one’s writing, and a certain amount of personal transformation—the development of a community of thinkers—not just acquiring basic skills and jumping through credential hoops. Zakaria paints himself as a man of a new age of technology. He argues that we can embrace MOOCs as a way of levelling the playing field and engaging new audiences with the technology youth are so addicted to. However, I can’t help but feel we would lose the skills of readership, debate, and community. And wouldn’t we end up with the monotone and prescribed opinions of the few celebrity ‘greats’ chosen to present?

Zakaria’s take on what constitutes a Liberal Education, and the failings of teaching from a ‘Canon’ of texts, run contrary to my own view. Zakaria tells us “those [courses] I took out of genuine curiosity or because I was inspired by a great teacher have left a more lasting and powerful impression. After all, one can always read a book to get basic information about a particular topic, or simply use Google” (61). Seriously? Uncovering and rediscovering the greats works of our cultural, philosophical, and literary history seem to me to be key to the Liberal Studies project. I disagree with the suggestion that a “Great Books” education clutters young minds with “antique furniture” and a patriarchal imposition of “moral authority” (59). Even when I felt this was the case I was driven to pull the text apart. I thought of a John Stuart Mill quote when reading these passages: “it is only by the collision of adverse opinions that the remainder of the truth has any chance of being supplied.”[2] Smashing into texts like Plato’s Republic, unearthing and exposing new interpretations, or uncovering weaknesses and discarding old ideas is a hallmark of the Liberal Arts. I would also argue that these are “Great Books” because they have stood the test of time. They are the thoughts and writings that have built the world around us; they contain the history of our political, social, and ethical development. Sure, a canon of texts should always be added to, critiqued, and edited. I think the process of having students pick them apart and challenge them, fight about them in seminar, has had great intellectual usefulness … and the process has created a more inclusive and broad range of core texts. I also feel that there is something in the reading of “Great Books” that creates a common language—it moves up the starting point for many difficult conversations by becoming reference points and summations of incredibly complex ideas. Moreover, I depended on my professors to guide me through a series of texts that built upon ideas and understandings. I needed to be shown the pitfalls of relativistic thinking, and the shades of grey in ethical positions I once thought absolute. I learned to vigorously defend my position, which is best done when fully understanding another’s. The kind of “free exploration” Zakaria describes as an alternative strikes me as vastly inferior.

The economic precedence placed on utility versus quality in education is an important debate. Yet, Zakaria’s defence of Liberal Studies occasionally feels like a hollow appeal to commercial viability rather than that of becoming a well-read and thoughtful citizen. However, he does have his moments of real clarity. In a discussion about virtue Zakaria raises a concern that we have become morally inarticulate. He finally points to the true heart of the matter: Doesn’t an educated and thoughtful population have intrinsic value? Good and healthful citizens seek to live together in a just, safe, inclusive, and mutually profitable ways. I think we lose something very valuable in instrumentalizing our youth as factors of production.  Are our societies tools to benefit business and economic value? Or the other way around? Zakaria relies too much on arguments based around global economic positioning and employment forecasting and far too little on the true meaning of the Liberal Arts, which ultimately seeks to answer the question of “Where are we going?” and “How should we live”? When the asteroid hits—is the iPhone 7 the most valuable thing we are going to lose? Is the production of technology what will describe the apex of human potential?

All in all Zakaria’s book was worth the read, and it is excellent prep for Liberal Studies students come job search time—but don’t expect salvation.

[1] http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/the-only-thing-that-can-stop-this-asteroid-is-your-liberal-arts-degree

[2] On Liberty