Bill and Kathy Martinak, former teaching colleagues of mine from John P. Stevens High School in Edison, insisted that I read In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria. I want to thank them for their recommendation and pass it along to those of you who enjoy intellectual discussions on the state of education in its contemporary global state.
Fareed Zakaria is well known as the Emmy-nominated host of CNN's Fareed Zakaria GPS, editor-at-large for Time magazine, a columnist for the Washington Post, and best selling author of The Post-American World and The Future of Freedoms.
Zakaria, who grew up in India, is able to compare the education that he received in his home country to the college experience that he earned at Yale in the U.S. The emphasis in the school that Zakaria attended in Bombay (now Mumbai) was on practical subjects. He states, “The assumption made by almost everyone at school was that engineering and medicine were the two best careers.” (p.21) The approach to learning in his classes was to memorize and regurgitate on tests. There were few writing assignments in Indian classrooms.
Due to the fact that his parents were broad minded, they encouraged both of their sons to attend American universities, with Fareed's older brother, Arshad, taking the plunge at Harvard, followed by Fareed attending Yale. “I had always been fascinated by America,”(p.33) Zakaria reports, and after reading through Harvard's course descriptions, he states, “I was falling in love with the idea of a liberal education.” (p.32)
The substance of In Defense of a Liberal Education, therefore, is Zakaria's observations and beliefs on the importance of maintaining a curriculum that not only includes the liberal arts, but emphasizes them. The foundation of his argument is that by studying the liberal arts, the brain develops and learns how to think, analyze, synthesize, and create.
Zakaria cites the three critical learning skills that a liberal education hones. He begins with the following statement, “When you hear someone extol the benefits of a liberal education, you will probably hear him or her say that 'it teaches you how to think.' I'm sure that's true. But for me, the central virtue of a liberal eduaion is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think.” (p.72) In order to write clearly one has to organize his/her thoughts and then convert them into language that communicates the ideas.
“The second great advantage of a liberal education,” states Zakaria, “is that it teaches you how to speak.” (p.75) Articulate communication is central to the intellectual experience because it is a skill that again teaches one how to organize his/her thoughts.
Zakaria notes that the British have continued to emphasize the relevance of public speaking, “the ability to thrust and parry verbally,” (p.77), which is why the British “sound intelligent and witty---it's not just the accent,” (p.77) Zakaria avers.
The third strength of a liberal education, according to the author, is that it teaches one how to learn, and ultimately, how to love learning. Skills such as reading an essay closely, searching for new sources, fiding data to prove/disprove a hypothesis, detect an author's prejudices, reading a book quickly and getting its essence, asking appropriate questions, presenting an opposing view, taking notes, and absorbing material from speeches and lectures are inculcated through the liberal arts. Zakaria concludes, “Most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure---and a great adventure of exploration.” (p.78)
Learning to love education is, to me, the key in what education truly should be. Many of our learners today appreciate their educations, but they see it as a means to an end. This is a topic Zakaria deals with heavily in the book as well. Students are pressured starting at a very young age to seek a skills based career that will gain them entrance to a lucrative career path. Our learners know how to do all the right things to get into the best universities; get good grades, be involved in community service, take part in co-curricular activities, participate in internship programs, etc., but many of them do this by rote; they do not love learning in the way that those of us who were trained in a liberal education mode relish studying.
Zakaria deals with two other fascinating topics regarding the state of getting a contemporary education. The first is the rising costs of college education in the last forty years. Zakaria states, “The average college tuition has increased at an eye-popping pace---over 1200 per cent since 1978.” (p.119) Various reasons are cited for why the cost of college is escalating so rapidly. The first is that “labor-intensive industries such as education can't replace human with machines or expand production lines in the way other industries can.” (p.121) The second is that it is nearly impossible to judge the quality of the product (the ability of the student who gets a diploma to enter the workplace). Are you really getting your money's worth with the education for which you are paying? With the continuation of rising tuitions, our country stands on the brink of creating an aristocracy of those who can ultimately afford the price of tuition.
This leads to the second topic with which Zakaria ends the volume. He includes a fascinating discussion on the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which began in 2011 with a company called Coursera. One of the founders of Coursera, Andrew Ng, predicted that online technology will expand massively the number of students globally who will be able to take classes with professors of international renown at very affordable prices. Zakaria concludes that MOOCs “will force teachers to do better, since they will now be measured against the world's best.” (p.129). MOOCs will benefit particularly those students in third world countries who do not have access to attending the finer universities around the world. Learning via the internet, points out Zakaria, is the first real shift education has experienced since Plato lectured his students years ago in Greece.
In Defense of a Liberal Education is only 169 pages long, but every page is like a crystal that needs to be held to the light and pondered. Zakaria has done masterfully in explaining why there needs to be a balance between teaching science, math, and technology along with the great masterpieces of literature, famous works of art, and universally recognized musical compositions. Whether you are a fan of the liberal arts or not, this little book is a readable, delightful volume.