AN ALLURING PERSPECTIVE: THE PURSUIT OF LIBERAL ARTS IN THE DIGITAL AGE
BY: DIANE LERMA
In Defense of a Liberal Education
By Fareed Zakaria
New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2015
When was the last time you read a book so intellectually provocative that you could not put it down, a book that challenged you to reflect on why you entered and have remained in academia? Fareed Zakaria, well-known author and editor of Newsweek, has a gem of a piece in which two-year and four-year scholars will find themselves reflecting about the state of academia today. As an educator with twenty-plus years in higher education, I felt validated and inspired by Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education. His writing style is engaging, and the book is a manageable read with only 169 pages. Academicians from all disciplines would benefit from reading this book because Zakaria champions the critical need for students to learn excellent reading, writing, and speaking skills necessary to succeed in life.
Many aspects of Zakaria’s book are alluring. Zakaria pleasantly weaves personal accounts from his childhood in India. But readers need not be concerned about a dry delivery of Zakaria’s youth, quite the contrary. The reader will, consequently, see how Zakaria utilizes India as a backdrop for his firm stance toward liberal education. As many educators know, a liberal education path is low in popularity compared to the skills-based paths that are currently trending in higher education. In Chapter One, Zakaria acknowledges that politicians decry a liberal education because of an urgency to acquire the tools needed in order to remain globally competitive. Such opponents ask, “Who really needs to study English in the age of apps?” (20). From a historical perspective, on the other hand, Zakaria highlights the brilliant statesman, Benjamin Franklin, among others, who established liberal education in our country.
For those of us who have not walked the hallowed halls of an Ivy League institution, Zakaria delightfully regales us with tales of his years at Yale University. In fact, Zakaria unabashedly reveals he chose Yale over Princeton on a coin toss. Moreover, the author confesses his own love for History that ultimately lured him to pursue a liberal education path rather than major in a technical field as his parents would have expected (39).
The audience should anticipate fascinating chapters in the pages ahead. However, be forewarned that Chapter Two will draw you in closer as Zakaria provides a historical synopsis of a liberal education in an intriguing manner. He states that the Romans used the Latin origin of liberal meaning, “of or pertaining to free men” (42). Zakaria alludes to the ancient Greeks and their search for truth while stating that Cicero first used the term artes liberales to combine truth and rhetoric (43). Scholars will be particularly attuned to Chapter Three where Zakaria vigorously defends reading and writing. He states, “The central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you to write and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill” (72). Zakaria cleverly includes some of the powerful individuals in America who echo similarities supporting liberal education. For example, the CEO of Lockheed Martin has publicly stated that in “advancement through the management ranks are individuals who are able to clearly express their thoughts in writing” (74). Zakaria commendably employs a quote by Steve Jobs who said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities, that yields us the result that make our hearts sing” (82). In the chapters that ensue, Zakaria eloquently establishes his argument that a skills-based degree is not better than a liberal education because society needs both (82).
I detected a weakness, however, in Chapter Three where he cites that in 1961, students spent forty hours a week studying; whereas, in 2003 students spent an average of twenty-seven hours a week studying. More background is needed here for the non-academic audience, in particular. Those of us in higher education are aware students are studying less because they are working more, at least at the community college campus. Perhaps Zakaria is biased toward Ivy League institutions, and community colleges may not be on his radar. Additionally, more students attend college part-time than in previous years, and this could be one viable reason for the decline in study time.
Overall, Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, is a must-read for scholars at all levels of academia. Zakaria packs an array of fascinating detail in his book to justify the fundamental aspects of liberal education. Moreover, I would even suggest Zakaria’s book be considered required reading for undergraduate students because of the wealth of information it contains and to help students understand the significance of their curriculum. Faculty at both two-year and four-year campuses will appreciate Zakaria’s candor and eloquent simplicity as he defends the virtues of reading, writing, learning, and thinking skills that a liberal education affords. Without reservation I recommend, In Defense of a Liberal Education, to the academy.