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[Review] 'In Defense of a Liberal Education'

August 07, 2015

Book_in_defense_of_a_liberal_education_for_PhilanTopicToday 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.

Looking at the American framework for liberal education in closer detail, Zakaria compares Benjamin Franklin's and Thomas Jefferson's concepts of higher education as embodied in the universities they founded — the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Virginia. Despite their philosophical differences, both Franklin and Jefferson "shared the view that education was a way to ensure that the new republic would be a place of merit, where birth, bloodlines, and hereditary privilege would not count for much." Zakaria then explores how, today, this core American value is challenged by the increasing cost of higher education, noting that "74 percent of students attending the most competitive colleges were raised in families in the top income quartile [while] only 3 percent come from families in the bottom quartile." And while he argues that online innovations such as massive online open courses (MOOCs) are expanding access to world-class college coursework for many students, he acknowledges that liberal education has always been an elite enterprise.

In any discussion of liberal higher education, a tension exists between the usefulness and immediate practicality of such an education on the one hand and the opportunity it affords to better understand, through the application of critical analysis, the human condition on the other. In a chapter entitled "Learning to Think," Zakaria explores this tension and credits American higher education's focus on the latter for the fact that the U.S. remains the dominant player in the global innovation economy even as it trails many other countries — China, India, and Singapore among them — in educational testing metrics. He later expands his brief, though not entirely successfully, in a subsequent chapter in which he explores the concept of knowledge as power within the Western narrative of progress.

Zakaria concludes the book with a defense of today's youth. Pushing back against the characterization of millennials as the "Me Generation," he dismisses the notion that "young people are somehow callow and morally unserious" as the complaint of every older generation, from ancient Greece to the present. He further notes that while millennials may care more about financial well-being than the pursuit of truth and are perhaps less questioning of the status quo than their parents and grandparents, their seeming passivity can be blamed on the increasing complexity of various global systems, the erosion of institutional effectiveness and authority, and the absence of grand ideological conflicts. All of which, Zakaria opines, makes them more self-reliant and self-involved.

The latter isn't necessarily a good thing. "Because of the times we live in," he writes, "all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life." As a proud graduate of a Jesuit liberal arts university, I couldn't agree more and would argue that the kind of reflection championed by traditional liberal education is both valuable in its own right and an antidote to the often ephemeral concerns promoted by the fast-changing and increasingly consumerist society in which we live.

For readers who haven't engaged the argument, In Defense of a Liberal Education serves as a reminder of the importance of the free pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. And for readers who want to explore the topic further, Zakaria cites a number of works that tackle it in more depth, including Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Michael Roth's Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, and Bruce Kimball's Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education.

If that is not enough to swing you to Zakaria's side, you might want to consider the words of the great Roman thinker and orator Marcus Tullius Cicero, who, in his Pro Archia Poeta Oratio, wrote of liberal education: "[T]hese studies are the food of youth, the delight of old age; the ornament of prosperity, the refuge and comfort of adversity; a delight at home, and no hindrance abroad; they are companions by night, and in travel, and in the country."

In other words, the stuff of life itself.

— Michael Weston-Murphy is the Lisa Goldberg Fellow at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public ServiceFor more great reviews, visit our Off the Shelf section.

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