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Liberal arts in a global age

By - May 17,2015 - Last updated at May 17,2015

In Defence of a Liberal Education

Fareed Zakaria

W. W. Norton & Company, 2015

Pp. 204


As a young man in the 1970s, Fareed Zakaria — now a well-known columnist, TV analyst and author — made what appeared to be an odd, even risky, decision. He decided to attend college in the United States, rather than in India or England. 

That may not strike a reader today as unusual: the United States, after all, educates thousands of international students each year, and the excellence of its colleges and universities is well known. According to the “Chronicle of Higher Education”, US colleges and universities enrolled almost 900,000 students last year, the largest number in American history.

Yet at the time, Zakaria’s decision to study in the United States defied expectations. In the India of the 1970s the path to success was clear: a young person of promise studied science, took the national exams at the end of grade twelve (the Indian equivalent of the Tawjihi), and then, if he did well, went to the Indian Institutes of Technology, the most prestigious colleges in the country. For a young man of Zakaria’s ability to head off to the United States to study something as fuzzy as the “liberal arts” was quixotic at best, foolish at worst. 

Zakaria’s short and readable new book, “In Defence of a Liberal Education”, is an explanation of that seeming quixotic choice, as well as a personal and professional history, and an impassioned argument for the relevance and value of the liberal arts in the 21st century. 

The liberal arts have been around for a long time. Zakaria sees its antecedents in classical Greece and Rome, in the great Islamic madrasas of the Middle Ages, and in the European Universities of Padua, Paris and Oxford. But it is in the United States, beginning in the 19th century, that the liberal arts found its most profound expression and where it was most fully institutionalised. 

As Zakaria points out, American colleges and universities differ greatly from their counterparts elsewhere. In contrast to Europe, Asia and other parts of the world (including Jordan), the US system of higher education discourages students from early specialisation; instead, students in the United States are required to take a broad and balanced course of study that includes mandatory courses in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. The latter often includes the required study of art and literature, philosophy and ethics, and history. Students in the United States generally do not specialise until the third of their four years in college when they declare their “major” discipline of study. 

According to Zakaria there is great value in such a broad study of the disciplines and in separating out undergraduate from graduate study. As he notes, the emphasis of the liberal arts is on methods of study, modes of inquiry, and learning as an end unto itself, where students have freedom to select from among a wide range of courses, pursue their own intellectual interests, and cultivate curiosity (Zakaria notes that the “word liberal in its original Latin sense means ‘of or pertaining to free men’.”). Of his own experience, he writes: “I now realise that what I gained from college, far more lasting than any specific set of facts or piece of knowledge, has been the ability to acquire knowledge on my own… I learned that learning was a pleasure — a great adventure of exploration.”

Zakaria writes at a time when the liberal arts are under attack in the United States. He quotes a number of political leaders in the United States who have questioned the economic utility and value of the liberal arts. These critics often cite the underperformance of American students on internationally normed exams, particularly compared to their peers in Asia and Europe, and they play off fears of economic decline and joblessness. 

Zakaria answers these arguments with devastating effectiveness. According to Zakaria, the United States’ commitment to the liberal arts largely accounts for the creative genius of American industry and its entrepreneurial strength. 

For Zakaria, an education in the liberal arts provide young people with a lasting and flexible tool-kit of skills — including the ability to write and speak, to formulate questions and to think critically — that will enable them to move fluidly across a rapidly changing economic landscape and to seize new opportunities as they arise. “Learning and relearning,” he writes, “[and] tooling and retooling are at the heart of the modern economy.” 

Countries that rely on high stakes standardised tests, Zakaria reminds readers, risk creating a “testing elite”, skilled at taking tests, rather than an elite of talent, who can synthesise information, think creatively, and formulate new questions — qualities of mind that are more difficult to measure but that are essential for success in an age of rapid change and economic transformation. 

Zakaria’s book offers testimony in support of the liberal arts from range of economists and business leaders, including Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Jack Ma, the founder of China’s internet giant Alibaba. He notes that Mark Zuckerberg studied Greek in high school and (perhaps not surprisingly) majored in psychology in college. He quotes the late Steve Jobs, who, while introducing a new edition of the iPad shortly before his death, explained: “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing.” None of their accomplishments, Zakaria suggests, would have been possible without broad exposure to the arts and humanities. 

Other countries have taken note. Even as the liberal arts are attacked in the United States, they have been embraced elsewhere in the world, particularly in India and Asia. Seoul National University and the University of Tokyo, as well Ashoka and Nalanda universities in India have established strong liberal arts programmes. Yale University has joined with the National University of Singapore to establish a new and innovative liberal arts college, Yale-NUS. And then there is the revolution in online education. Towards the end of his book Zakaria suggests that Massive Open Online Courses (known as MOOCs) — recently brought to the Arab world through Edraak, a pioneering partnership between edX and The Queen Rania Foundation — have the potential to make a liberal arts education available to millions of young people across the world. I hope he is right, but I am not sure that he is. It is not clear that the virtues of a liberal arts education that he identifies, particularly those of dialogue, discussion and debate, will translate well to online platforms. 

Of course the great downside to a four-year liberal arts degree is that it is time-consuming (four years, generally, rather than three, not including graduate school) and tremendously expensive. Yet for those who can afford it — or who can, like Zakaria, successfully compete for some of the millions of dollars in need-based financial aid that US colleges and universities offer to international students — a degree in the liberal arts is the best possible preparation for the 21st century.


John Austin


The writer is the headmaster of King’s Academy. He contributed this article to The Jordan Times.

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