Fareed Zakaria, CNN’s foreign policy touchstone, has officially entered what is passing for the “culture wars” in American education with his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. Zakaria argues that the mode of education known as the liberal arts is in peril, and purports to offer a robust defense. Were it not reflective of common opinion on the subject matter, this book would be better left ignored.
Like many contemporary proponents of the liberal arts, Zakaria believes that an emphasis on a classical or core curriculum misses the point. As he notes,
I still sympathize with arguments in support of a core, but I have come to place a greater value than I once did on the openness inherent in liberal education…After all, one can always read a book to get the basic information about a particular topic, or simply use Google. The crucial challenge is 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.
This is cautiously worded and, on its face, inoffensive. When read with the slightest care, however, one notices the superficial pride of place Zakaria reserves for the instrumentality of liberal education. Why undertake a deep study of Aristotle’s Ethics? We have Google! Need those critical thinking skills for your job at J.P. Morgan? Feel free to sharpen them on Plato -- but any book will do, really!
In fact, the instrumentality of a liberal education, and its close cousin, the long-term monetary reward of such an education, is of such concern that the Zakaria spends an entire chapter on three main professional uses of the liberal arts.
The primary benefit of a liberal education is knowledge of writing well, he says. That’s because writing well, Zakaria notes, helps you think well. It is also impressive at the workplace, and the author cites the testimony of the founder of Amazon and past CEO of Lockheed Martin in case there were any readers who were silly enough to believe good writing was an end in itself.
The second benefit of a liberal education is knowledge of speaking well. Speaking well is important because “in order to be successful in life, you often have to gain your peers’ attention and convince them of your cause, sometimes in a five-minute elevator pitch.” (Woe unto those who ignore the elevator speech!)
The third strength of a liberal education is that it teaches one how to learn. In author’s words: “I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. I learned to ask questions, present an opposing view, take notes, and, nowadays, watch speeches, lectures, and interviews as they stream across my computer.” Here one must really must pause and thank Zeus that many modern writers, like Zakaria, write with the level of profundity that enables such quick digestion!
It is tempting to praise Zakaria for such a utilitarian defense of a liberal education; economic considerations are not insignificant in this life. And the liberal arts are under attack from President Obama on down for their alleged “irrelevance. “And yet, the nobility of an education that cultivates what is most excellent in human beings is important in and of itself. Zakaria’s defense is thus no defense at all. Or rather, it is a defense of a type of learning altogether different from the liberal arts.