Daily Book Review: 'In Defense of a Liberal Education'

By Hailey Middlebrook, Daily Arts Writer
Published April 13, 2015

Full disclaimer: I am an English major.

In Defense of a Liberal Education


Fareed Zakaria
W.W. Norton
March 30th, 2015


I’m the bookish oldest child who’s often referenced last in my mother’s conversations with her hospital co-workers when the topic of children comes up: “Yes, my college kids are doing well! My younger daughter is set on the pre-med track and my oldest is —” Always a pause. “Studying English. She likes to write.”

More than anything else, it’s the pause that gets to me. I don’t blame the hesitation on my mother, but on the environment we live in: one in which college is staggeringly expensive, where students are herded into STEM and business fields, compulsed to keep up with the technological race and scared stiff by the prospect of post-graduation unemployment.

Success (and therefore money) seems to be a byproduct of being business savvy, fluent in computer science, mechanically detail-oriented and charismatic enough to catch attention. When we think of billionaires, we picture Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg — all innovative geniuses who molded our visions of technology and corporations.

In his new book, “In Defense of a Liberal Education,” CNN host and bestselling author Fareed Zakaria proposes that students may be chasing success in the wrong way. Funneling undergraduates into business, engineering and other trade fields may lead to a good paycheck straight out of graduation — and for anxious students and their parents, this fact is certainly reassuring — but Zakaria argues that in our rapidly advancing world, the likelihood of someone holding the same job until retirement is outdated and obsolete. As technology evolves and corporations outsource more products, their efficiency elevates, eliminating the need for as many employees.

Zakaria argues that our generation is stuck at a crossroads. In his final chapter, “In Defense of Today’s Youth,” he illustrates common conceptions of millennials: labeled as the “Me, Me, Me” generation, we’re obsessed with screens, blatantly selfish and bored with serious conversation. At the same time, Zakaria observes, we are diminished for being too polite — we’re no longer the dazed waifs of the ’70s or the rock punks of the ’80s (rebels with a cause) — instead, we’re generally closer to our parents, more conscious about health and the environment, motivated to succeed rather than risk everything to make a statement.

Societal pressure, Zakaria says, makes career choices complicated. If we pursue science and technology, our intelligence may be praised and rewarded, but we run the risk of not being able to compete creatively — as Steve Jobs explained at the unveiling of a new iPad edition, “Technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

If we choose the liberal arts, Zakaria says, our creative thinking and analytic skills may be finely tuned, but contrary to Jobs’ statement, our degrees could be dismissed as “irrelevant” to future employers. Or even worse — a waste of a college education. Even President Barack Obama, who graduated from Columbia University with with a political science degree, voiced this in a 2014 speech: “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or trades than they make with an art history degree.”

Why do we think this way? In a country that steadfastly promotes individualism and thrives on diversity, why are students passionate about art history frowned upon? And if our nation’s future success is strictly correlated with our advancement in math and science, how is it that countries with more rigid curricula haven’t passed us in innovation? Zakaria tries to answer these questions by digging into the history of liberal education, examining stories from teachers and students as well as his own experiences.

For Zakaria, who grew up in India and received a scholarship to attend Yale University, one thing is clear: “The United States has poorly trained labor force in general, which is a disadvantage. But it makes up for it in several ways ... Good test scores are not enough to make the next Google.”

He arrived on the Yale campus set to pursue medicine, but instead graduated with a history degree. He was fascinated by the subject, stimulated by classroom debates and a desire to know how the world works — not just on the technical level, but the personal one.

“The crucial challenge (was) to learn how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas — and most of all to enjoy the intellectual adventure enough to be able to do them easily and often,” Zakaria writes of his experience at Yale.

“In Defense of a Liberal Education” emphasizes that innovation doesn’t come from scientific advancement alone — it comes from human ideas, set into motion. Zakaria forms his defense in six concise chapters, walking the reader through a liberal education timeline from ancient Greek teaching, through his school experience and to the challenges of today’s students. His argument draws on hundreds of references, detailed in 29 pages of citations — pulling quotes from scientific journals, Ivy League deans and corporate executives, Zakaria fleshes out his claims clearly and convincingly.

In the end, college is the place to find our passions. It’s where we absorb information and scheme up “the next big thing” in our dorm rooms, whether that be a social media phenomenon or an Oscar-winning screenplay. We succeed by learning from each other, by collaborating our strengths and weaknesses. Our passions in English or science or Art History are what empower us. We shouldn’t be scared to admit them.