Like many commentators and candidates, Fareed Zakaria, the eloquent host of CNN’s GPS, has turned out a new book on higher education. In Defense of a Liberal Education laments that today’s students are pressured into thinking of college as a time to prepare for the global marketplace, discouraged from dreaming big, and told to acquire the skills they will need for the workplace. It is “openness” and “the ability for the mind to range widely and pursue interests freely” that Zakaria not only took advantage of as an undergraduate at Yale, but that he also sees as being “inherent in liberal education.”
Despite his aversion to the vocational drift of higher education over the past several decades, Zakaria’s recommended version of liberal education seems just as instrumental—a means to employment and viability in the new “global economy.” He maintains that what it does best is teach students skills—critical thinking and communication skills—how to write (which for him is a process of thinking), how to speak, and how to learn. It teaches them “how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas.” It teaches them new methods and approaches to problems “of the world we live in.”
At one point he sounds like an admissions counselor for a liberal arts college, claiming that fields like art history and anthropology are not a waste of time because they “require the intensive study of several languages and cultures, an eye for aesthetics, and the ability to translate from one medium or culture to another.” Such skills “could be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age” because they force a person “to look at people and objects from a variety of perspectives” and make him or her “more creative and aware.” He then pays customary tribute to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who studied Greek in high school and psychology at Harvard. So art history, perhaps the study most heavily derided as pointless these days, turns out to be unexpectedly useful for future employment.
Zakaria praises the “open-ended exploration of knowledge,” yet this exploration keeps showing up as a useful component of job training. “Technology and liberal education go hand in hand in business today.” So college graduates “have to be at the cutting edge of design, marketing, and social networking. . . . You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the word. But you can’t sell it for three hundred dollars unless you have built a story around it.” In other words, they should use liberal education to serve “capitalism, globalization, and technology.”
This argument is bound to grate on those with a less commercial view of liberal education. At its best such education cultivates intellect, judgment, good character and disposition, and above all else awareness of one’s ignorance and limitations. It is more concerned about asking the right questions than it is in finding the right answers–the antithesis of the outcomes-oriented, results-driven American mindset. If done well, it puts people on the path toward leading a good life. As Mark Van Doren wrote more than sixty years ago in Liberal Education—a more learned and convincing defense of the subject—its “prime occupation” is “with the skills of being.”
These skills are very different from the instrumental skills of writing, speaking, and learning that Zakaria maintains is the end product of a liberal education. I am not suggesting that they are unimportant; rather, that they are requisite for a liberal education and should be obtained in high school or through general education—which Zakaria confounds with liberal education.
To write well, students must know how to think; to learn to think, they must know how to read; to learn to read, not for amusement or for paltry convenience, but in “a high sense,” as Thoreau says, as “a noble intellectual exercise” they must possess curiosity and the desire to see and think beyond their immediate surroundings and concerns. Only then will they have been properly prepared and primed for what a liberal education has to offer: nuance, complexity, beauty, alternative models and examples of how to live one’s life.
The fact that today’s students are not “animated by big arguments” or do not “make big speeches about grand philosophical issues” or “stay up late arguing about Nietzsche or Marx or Tolstoy,” doesn’t bother Zakaria. “Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics. And that means there is less scope for grand theorizing, fewer intense late-night bull sessions, less stirring eloquence at the student forums and political unions”—which for Zakaria is the chief difference between the “complete experience” of a liberal education and taking “pre-professional and general education” courses in a MOOC.
Today’s students are simply products of our time—and it’s not their fault. They might be writing apps instead of poetry, “but that’s just an adjustment for the age.” Their icons are “entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are far more important symbols than any politician today, and they occupy the space that iconic political figures did in earlier eras. The young reflect today’s realities.”
Unfortunately these realities are the bourgeois concerns and values that dominate American life: making a living, creating a home, raising a family, worshipping technology, progress, and advances in medicine that make life comfortable and prolong our lifespan. Zakaria asks, “Are the issues that students today think about less important than those of war and peace? Are their heroes inferior to those of past ages?” Students who have never read Homer or Thucydides, let alone Nietzsche, Marx, Tolstoy, will never know. The idea of liberal education once meant taking students out of the cave. In Zakaria’s version, it is the cave.
J. M. Anderson is dean of the School of Business and Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Cobleskill