In Defense of a Liberal Education | Fareed Zakaria

Summary of: In Defense of a Liberal Education
By: Fareed Zakaria


In Defense of a Liberal Education, written by Fareed Zakaria, makes a compelling argument in favor of retaining the classical liberal education system in US colleges and universities. The book explores the increasing trend of focusing on vocational and job-ready skills in higher education, often overlooking the merits of a broad-based, critical thinking-focused liberal arts approach. Through historical perspectives and comparisons between different education systems and countries, Zakaria sheds light on the relevance and importance of a liberal education in stimulating creativity, innovation, and lifelong learning.

The Endangered Classic Education

The traditional liberal arts education in the US is facing an existential threat as policymakers and parents argue that students must only learn job-related skills. In contrast to other nations that prioritize technology and engineering, the US used to value a well-rounded education. Initially praised by commentator Fareed Zakaria, the current state of affairs presents a dilemma. While nobody disputes the importance of vocation, some believe that learning to think is equally important. The question then becomes, is a liberal arts education an unnecessary luxury or a fundamental pillar of American higher education?

Education and Democracy

The history of American education is entwined with democracy from the ancient Greeks to modern America. Greek elders believed that education was crucial for participation in a democratic society. Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, revolutionized US colleges in the late 19th century with his “elective system,” which allowed undergraduates to study their interests and narrow their field of study at the graduate level. Later, a “common core” emerged to structure broad and unfocused learning, inspiring a desire for learning in students. The benefits of a liberal education teach people to think logically and solve problems while emphasizing writing, speaking, and building a logical sequence of thoughts to produce compelling arguments. In essence, a liberal education establishes a framework for logical, disciplined thinking, opening doors for exploration while offering structured emphasis on critical writing, speaking, and thinking, which provide an adequate preparation for life and work.

Negative Impact of Research University Model on Liberal Arts Education

Most US colleges follow the research university model, whereby professors are incentivized to conduct research rather than teaching. This has led to undergraduate courses mirroring faculty research topics instead of offering broader learning. Liberal arts education, which relies on small-group teaching, has been most impacted. Harvard professors now hand out top grades at double the rate of a few decades ago to focus on research. A liberal education is supposed to equip people with skills for multiple jobs, not just their first. This book argues that the system of higher education in the US has worsened since Charles Eliot’s time.

The Value of Liberal Education

According to a recent survey, 74% of employers consider a good liberal education as the ideal option for students. The reason is that they seek individuals with critical thinking, problem-solving, and learning abilities, which are inherent skills taught in liberal arts colleges. However, many graduates fall short in showcasing these skills, and instead, firms tend to show a preference for hiring engineering majors or college athletes based on their discipline and work ethic. Regardless, the primary emphasis of liberal arts colleges continues to be character-building, rooted in their religious origins.

Jefferson’s Vision of Education for All

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams believed that a learned populace was essential for democracy. Jefferson, in particular, advocated for free education for all, as it creates a natural aristocracy of the brightest learners, regardless of background. He warned that failing to fund education from the public purse would lead to an unnatural aristocracy, where only the wealthy could afford a leadership education. Today, the US is moving towards this unnatural aristocracy, as college tuition fees have risen over 1,200% since 1978, with only the wealthiest students attending top colleges. The fear of unemployment and underemployment has led to the widespread belief that a liberal arts degree is of little value compared to a science degree. However, Jefferson argued that it is the rigor and discipline of science education that impresses employers the most – not the specific subject matter.

eLearning Revolution

The popularity of eLearning has led to the availability of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) at low costs, making it accessible to millions around the world. While universities focused on sports and small educational institutions, MOOCs generated real-time data for proper analysis of course adjustments, ensuring greater personalization for participants. The courses may not fully replace the overall college experience of attending an elite school, but they may provide high-quality, credentialed college education to millions globally.

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