Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Reviewed by James Booker, MA
May 27, 2015
Mr. Fareed Zakaria defends the liberal education. He explores its brief history and how it has changed over the years and how a liberal arts education has been under assault by politicians and others. Zakaria is unique in his approach because he is from India; he compares and contrasts how students are taught in America v. India. Indeed, his book not only provides good sources of information, but he writes from a personal point of view. However, it is not a scholarly book, it is a good place to start for anyone interested in what is a liberal education and what kind of education we have today. Since Zakaria often writes in first person, his book is prone to generalizing, especially at the end. He moves from specifics (e.g. statistics to opinions) that often has no bases in reality.
Perhaps, the best part of Zakaria’s book is how he shows the sheer assault on liberal arts have taken over the years. Even in the nineteenth century many would ask the question, “what is all this knowledge good for” (71)? I fact, in 1828 Yale College defended the liberal arts, they issued the classical curriculum, in that, a liberal arts education is to learn how to think. Today, colleges and universities largely focus on job-related courses; degrees that would develop skills with the aim of landing a good job or career. Zakaria seems to suggest that this is all fine and well, but the large body of graduates do not have the ability to communicate well – although he never stated as such. The assault on liberal education has been unrelenting. For instance, four states (Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Wisconsin) want to stop subsidizing liberal arts in state funded colleges and universities.
Many politicians today, both Republicans and Democrats, blame liberal arts education majors for the lack of a skilled work force — Moreover, for many of them it is a waste of tax-payer money. Yet, Zakaria brings out that the gap between those who are liberal art majors and skills/work oriented majors is huge. He argues, “Only about 1.8 percent of all undergraduates attend liberal arts colleges. . . . As you can see, we do not have an oversupply of students studying history, literature, philosophy, or physics and math for that matter. A majority is specializing in fields because they see them as directly related to the job market.” In other words, virtually every college student is majoring in courses that has a direct link to a specific job, and the lack of a good education cannot be blamed on students majoring in liberal arts.
Zakaria brings out the history of a liberal arts education, starting with the Greeks moving along to the present day. There are at least five qualities to the liberal arts education: (1) learn to think, (2) learn how to read critically, (3) learn how to write well, (4) learn to speak well, and (5) it teaches you how to learn. When a student majors in degrees that only focuses him/her on a specific skill or area, it deprives that individual of the broader disciplines of a well-rounded mind, with the capacity to communicate well and often without the desire to learn more.
Zakaria defends a liberal arts education with clarity. His book is well written, but at times he grossly over generalizes, especially close to the end of his book. For instance, he claims that students today are less concerned with theorizing (e.g. communism v. capitalism) than they were in the early nineteen eighties because of globalization and economic forces. I would be remiss if I did not raise an objection at this point. There are just as many major issues today than there were in the nineteen eighties: 9/11, the middle-east wars, direct existential threat to the United States, ideological issues between the west and the east. Furthermore, the main difference for students today than thirty years ago is that they have too many distractions. For instance, cell phones, computers, social networks, and computer games consume their minds and time.
In conclusion, Zakaria has written a thoughtful book on liberal arts education, past and present. It has many good quotes from quality sources. However, I would only recommend this book as a starter book (not a definitive book) on the history and the larger controversy of a liberal arts education. It has many gaps that need to be explored, for example, what are the major areas students are majoring in. Nevertheless, Zakaria proved his main thesis well: that the lack of well-educated graduates in America today is not the result of too many liberal arts majors, because very few students are majoring in this field.
©James Booker, MA