August 07, 2015
Today the word liberal is encumbered by partisan connotation. Viewed through a broader lens, however, its meaning is more expansive. Derived from the Latin root liber, the word's etymology has been associated with freedom and liberty, whether political, economic, or social. In many ways it is a very American word, both in substance and style. In his classic Democracy in America, the French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville posited, "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom." To which Fareed Zakaria might add, learning to exercise one's freedom in a responsible way is the raison d'être of "liberal" education.
In his latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Indian-born Zakaria explores what this very American concept has meant in the past — and what it means in the increasingly globalized world of the twenty-first century. The book's main arguments were born out of Zakaria's 2014 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. In that address, Zakaria acknowledged that his deeply held views on the subject were grounded in his own journey — one that took him from a childhood in Mumbai to Yale University, to national acclaim as a columnist for Newsweek, a host for CNN, and a respected author. The result is both a summary of the ongoing and often contentious debate about the value of a liberal arts education in a world obsessed with technology and anxious about its consequences as well as a very personal meditation on the ways in which liberal education has shaped his life.
Zakaria begins the book with a brief history of liberal education, from the Greeks and Romans, through the Islamic Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the development of the modern American university, itself a hybrid of the British collegiate and German research models. From the development of the "quadrivium" (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in late antiquity and early Middle Ages, to the Yale Report of 1828 (a document written by Yale College faculty in defense of the classical curriculum), Cardinal John Henry Newman's publication of the Idea of a University in1852, and Charles Eliot's transformation of Harvard into America's premier research university in the early twentieth century, Zakaria provides a solid context for understanding the evolution of the liberal arts in America.