April 8, 2018
BOOK REVIEW: In Defense of a Liberal Education
In Defense of Liberal Education
New York: W.W. Norton, 2015
208 pp., $16.00 hc
by Marvin Lansverk, PhD
Professor of English Literature
Montana State University Bozeman
“I understand that we need a certain number of philosophers, and I understand that it’s important to have a certain number of people who study history. But we’re not currently creating a lot of jobs in those areas. So we have to look at what curriculums we really need…. People who are getting degrees in philosophy and history, God bless them, it’s wonderful that they’re critical thinkers. But now they’re going back to a college of technology to get a life skill to get a job.” —Brian Schweitzer, Governor of Montana, 2005-2013 (Hechinger Report, 27 June 2012)—Marvin Lansverk
Perhaps I should start with a bias warning: I went to a liberal arts university. I teach English literature. I like the liberal arts, whether as a major or part of a broad-based undergraduate education. And I’m dismayed by the recent rhetorical turn in the media, along with legislative and policy initiatives, away from the liberal arts—as if they are suddenly passé or something to be feared your kid will become interested in, like drugs, especially when such expressions are accompanied by statements implying that the liberal arts don’t lead to employable skills. As an antidote, I like to read defenses of liberal education, whether John Henry Newman’s nineteenth century classic The Idea of a University, or articles from current CEOs explaining why they actually prefer to hire liberal arts majors, or statistics that show that the salaries of liberal arts majors stack up favorably against other majors, or books like this latest one by Fareed Zakaria, someone with a real job—if being a public intellectual, editor of Foreign Affairs and of Newsweek and Time, a TV host and commentator, a Washington Post columnist, a college professor, and an influential writer count as having a real job. Thus even before I picked it up, I expected I would like Zakaria’s recent In Defense of a Liberal Education, and I do: but not just because it validates my own views. Actually I disagree with a number of his views and am bothered by some of his analysis, which seems overly glib. But what I especially like about Zakaria’s modest book is that it isn’t simply another jeremiad about the ills of American higher education, nor an uninformed call for radical changes which too often tend to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, nor an ideological rant with more ideology than information. Instead, it’s a welcome call for balance, written with balance: balancing data, personal stories, social policy, and an understanding of the history of liberal education in America and the multiple purposes of higher education, all accomplished in the context of Zakaria’s deep knowledge of the present social and political global landscape.
The book started as a commencement address defending liberal education to the 2014 graduating class of Sarah Lawrence College—certainly preaching to the choir. Ten months later, the well-received address was expanded into this book, the best audience for which now might be said to be the skeptics, or cold-cruel-world realists who wonder if our students still have time for Chaucer when our global competitiveness is at stake. To them, Zakaria says yes, the liberal arts matter, using his own life story as an important perspective on the material, making the book partly a personal memoir, partly a history of higher education, and partly a call for more informed and data-driven education policies, especially by our leaders who should know better, whether President Obama’s “I promise you, folks can make a lot more potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree,” or the governors from Texas, Florida, North Carolina, and Wisconsin with their recent attempts to de-fund the liberal arts at their state universities, with Rick Scott of Florida’s: “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.”
Zakaria’s response is this book. It is actually a collection of six essays (the six chapters of the book) with a fairly broad focus. But what ties the chapters together is Zakaria’s personal story and his ongoing ethical authority on the subject: as someone who draws daily on his liberal education and the life skills it imparted.
Chapter One, “Coming to America,” tells Zakaria’s personal story, of being raised in India in its education system focused on memorization, content, and tests (steering children, boys especially, almost exclusively into science and business), then almost on a lark finding himself applying to and getting into Yale in the 1980s (when liberal arts institutions in the U.S. were barely on the radar of Indians). Zakaria then tells how at Yale he discovered the power of a liberal education and through it also discovered his future path in international politics and economics, majoring in history (subsequently earning a PhD in Government from Harvard). What makes the story powerful and contemporary is that it’s a version of the classic “American” story, in its Global 2.0 incarnation, of an individual making good through hard work, determination, and exposure to the American system of higher education. And the story itself is a necessary reminder to policymakers now, appropriately worried about American global competitiveness and statistics showing us falling behind in the educational attainment of our population. And the moral of the story is that our education system, with all its problems, is still the envy of the world. And still producing remarkable results.
Chapter Two, “A Brief History of Liberal Education,” though brief, covers a two thousand year history, starting with the Greeks, dashing through the establishment of medieval universities, with a glance at Britain, to an examination of the American system, with a focus on Harvard’s curricular innovations, the rise of electives, and the emergence of our standard liberal arts curricula—with a core curriculum, a major, and a healthy dose of exploration and free choice. Zakaria’s theme throughout is that societies have always struggled with balancing competing needs in their education systems, that curricula in this country have always been undergoing changes, that they aren’t frozen in the medieval past (which some critics continue to claim). Nevertheless, Zakaria recognizes that improvements still need to be made: especially in increasing the scientific literacy of all students. Zakaria again offers a personal example of change, of Yale’s recent joint venture (where Zakaria had become a trustee) with the National University of Singapore to establish a new liberal arts institution in Asia, Yale-NUS College, which opened its doors Fall 2013. Recognizing Singapore’s own need to develop more of the kinds of creativity and critical thinking and entrepreneurship characteristic of American higher education—and even more of the self discovery—it has made a recent bet on more liberal education, not less.
The value of this Chapter 2 actually lies in its brevity. It isn’t that the history Zakaria tells here is new, and it is developed in far less detail than in the sources that Zakaria draws upon (carefully citing the sources in this first book since his own citation scandal in 2012 that we have seen affect other public intellectuals similarly writing at speed with research staffs, and therefore sometimes not as careful about citations as the standards of academic research require). But overviews have their role as well. And many current skeptics or other busy people paying only occasional attention to higher education debates aren’t going to take the time to read the comprehensive histories of the liberal arts (such as Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth’s 2014 erudite Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, which Zakaria also cites). So there is value in quickly retelling the story, reminding us of how we got here, and reminding us what the liberal in liberal education means, which seems especially important for those made queasy by having any association with a term that also serves as a political label as well (Zakaria’s own political views have been variously characterized as centrist, moderate, liberal, and/or conservative). In this case, Zakaria reminds readers that the liberal in liberal education has its roots in a two thousand year history of liberation and freedom—and not in 21st century American politics.
Chapter Three, “Learning to Think,” finally gets down to the business of defending liberal education. And the lead-in is the question: but what about jobs? Thus, the arguments Zakaria makes become both philosophical and practical at the same time, matching the balance that characterizes the book. His specific arguments why liberal education must continue to be valued aren’t new, but the examples and topical asides are. In brief, what liberal education imparts, and what it did for him personally, is three things: 1) it teaches you to write, 2) to think, and 3) to learn. This bald summary isn’t that interesting but the balance of examples, anecdotes, quotes from CEOs and data that Zakaria compiles makes for compelling reading. And one of the more interesting threads Zakaria pulls on is the paradox of international test scores—such as the, the Program for International Assessment (PISA), on which the U.S. and other nations with educational systems more like ours tend to do poorly on, revealing an increasing lack of preparation and competence in a variety of subjects by our students, yet whose results don’t track with actual global competitiveness and success. While a highly complex issue, one lesson—relevant in an age of increasing testing regimes—is that not everything that matters can be measured. Quoting Singapore’s former minister of education comparing our system to theirs, Zakaria reports Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s comparative comments: “Yours is a talent meritocracy, ours is an exam meritocracy. There are some parts of the intellect that we are not able to test well—like creativity, curiosity, a sense of adventure, ambition. Most of all, America has a culture of learning that challenges conventional wisdom, even if it means challenging authority. These are areas where Singapore must learn from America.”
Chapter 4, “The Natural Aristocracy,” is an eclectic chapter continuing Zakaria’s theme of meritocracy and capitalism as effective and necessary backdrops for our education system (he takes the term natural aristocracy from Thomas Jefferson, indicating a meritocratic system based on talent rather than birth, wealth, and privilege). And he starts with a meditation on the founding fathers and especially on Ben Franklin as the poster child for the American system. Interestingly, this is also the chapter where Zakaria addresses some of the problems bedeviling higher education, including costs that continue to outpace inflation and the continued cost shifting from public sources to individuals, leading to increased individual debt. Zakaria doesn’t have a single solution to offer, but—experienced in the power of mass media to reach all parts of the globe as he is—he, like many others, is fascinated by the promises of technology and distance delivery of courses, especially MOOCs (still new enough to require an identification of the acronym: Massive Open Online Courses). Still in their infancy, they already are expanding access to information, to great teachers, and to American liberal education. One thing Zakaria finds interesting about MOOCs is that students worldwide aren’t just seeking out engineering and technical courses in this online environment; they are also interested in the liberal arts.
Chapters 5 and 6, “Knowledge and Power,” and “In Defense of Today’s Youth,” turn to even broader subjects, though are each short chapters. Chapter 5 addresses the power of knowledge to change the world, and Chapter 6 is Zakaria’s attempt to address the value of a liberal education in developing the individual life of the mind and ourselves as human beings. Though worthy subjects, both read a bit more like newspaper columns than book chapters at this point—and it’s not surprising that the most frequently referenced source in these latter chapters is New York Times columnist David Brooks, whom Zakaria sees himself in dialogue with here.
Ultimately, it is dialogue that Zakaria wants to promote with this book—informed dialogue. And his method of provoking it is to provide a “zoomed out” Google Earth view of American higher education, which—to keep the map metaphor going a bit—functions as a kind of Mercator projection with the importance of liberal education at the center. And as such, it is successful, bearing the strengths and weaknesses of such an intent. It makes effective use of Zakaria’s compelling success story, making his story emblematic of our times; it provides a good overview of issues in higher education; it provides a useful survey of many recent good books on the same subject (from Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (2012), to Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2010), and Excellent Sheep (2014)—all previously reviewed in Montana Professor, the latter in this issue); it’s written in a breezy, quick-reading journalistic prose, and it provides much concrete data to counter the recent public narrative that we’ve outgrown or can no longer afford our childish preoccupation with liberal education. As for its weaknesses, like an unfocused essay, perhaps, the book tries to do too much, thereby having to cover territory too quickly, occasionally relying on too many generalizations in the meantime. As such, it’s not always possible to tell what the generalizations mean (e.g., “Bill Gates was one of the first larger-than-life private figures in contemporary America”). Also, like many books on higher education, there’s a tendency to focus on and continue our culture’s obsession with our so called “elite” or “best schools” when much of the information is actually relevant to the whole education infrastructure—including the Montana University System. And sometimes Zakaria wraps up a survey of complex issues with a simple question as a conclusion, such as “Is this so bad?” That method, however, is a good indication of the purpose of the book. Its focus is on common sense, from someone with an uncommon biography, who is criticizing what is becoming too common: taking for granted the importance of a liberal education in this country that not only can we afford, but that we can’t afford to do without.
[The Montana Professor 25.2, Spring 2015 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>%5D