In Defense of a Liberal Education | Fareed Zakaria

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


In ‘In Defense of a Liberal Education’, Fareed Zakaria delves into the evolving landscape of education, particularly within the United States. While a classical liberal education once reigned supreme, the focus has now shifted toward degrees that are perceived as vocationally beneficial. Zakaria takes readers on an historical journey exploring how higher education progressed and the benefits it holds, while also shedding light on the contemporary challenges faced by colleges and students. The book talks about the vital importance of learning to think critically and the need for a well-rounded education that emphasizes writing, speaking, and problem-solving.

The End of Liberal Education?

The importance of general education is diminishing in the US, raising concerns for commentators like Fareed Zakaria.

In the United States, the classical liberal education system is faltering as students now prioritize gaining vocationally relevant skills over a more comprehensive, general education. This trend is not limited to the US, as more and more young people worldwide opt for degrees with a measurable outcome. Fareed Zakaria, a commentator, admired the American education system for its broader approach to learning; he laments the current market-driven mindset that values career-oriented programs above all else. The focus, he argues, should be on critical thinking and analytical skills, not just technical knowledge, epitomized in the phrase “Learning to think is more important than the specific topics and books.”

The Importance of Liberal Education

Education has come a long way since the Greeks introduced the concept of education for democratic participation. The democratization of education broadened learning beyond just hunting and soldiering, recognizing that free citizens needed knowledge to participate in society. One influential figure who transformed American education was Charles Eliot, who believed that undergraduate students should focus on their interests and narrow their field of study only at the graduate level. His “elective system” differentiated America’s postsecondary education system. However, some colleges developed a common core curriculum to give students a broad foundation in the classics, thereby inspiring a desire for learning. A liberal education highlights critical thinking, problem-solving, and emphasizes writing and speaking skills. It gives students the license to pursue a broad field of study while teaching logical, disciplined thinking. It fosters a love of learning and exploration while offering structured emphasis on critical writing, speaking and thinking. A liberal education offers students a sound preparation for life and work by improving their ability to structure opinions and build compelling arguments.

The Decline of Liberal Arts Education

The higher education system in the US has deteriorated since Charles Eliot’s time. Most colleges follow the research university model, and professors prioritize research over teaching, affecting learning in all disciplines. This trend is most significant in the liberal arts, which rely on small-group teaching and discussion. Rather than teaching a broad range of subjects, colleges offer courses that reflect faculty research topics. Even at Harvard, professors give out high grades to reduce student complaints and return to their research. This shift causes a decline in liberal education and fails to equip students with skills for successive job opportunities.

The Value of Liberal Arts Education

Despite common misconceptions, employers highly value the skills gained from a good liberal arts education, including critical thinking and problem-solving. While many firms tend to prioritize hiring engineering majors or college athletes, these fields may not necessarily be the best fit for the job. Liberal arts programs still prioritize character-building and remain highly regarded by employers.

The Cost of Education in America

America’s founding fathers believed that education was a fundamental building block in the creation and preservation of democracy. Thomas Jefferson believed in a meritocratic democracy, where a “natural aristocracy” of a society’s brightest learners forms, and free education encourages the most talented people from all backgrounds. He argued that failing to pay for education from the public purse would lead to an unnatural aristocracy, where only the wealthy can afford the education that develops leadership – resulting in a smaller pool of potential talent and a weaker nation. However, the cost of college tuition has risen 1,200% since 1978, climbing more than four times the rate of inflation, making it difficult for families to encourage their children to pursue their passions and interests. Today, a quality education, from kindergarten to graduate school, is only affordable for students from the wealthiest income quartile, resulting in a lack of diversity in top colleges. Liberal arts colleges are feared to lead to unemployment or underemployment, but Jefferson believed that education isn’t just about math and science anymore. It’s about creativity, imagination, and, above all, innovation – qualities that are essential for a strong and innovative nation.

MOOCs and eLearning: Tackling the Cost of Education

With eLearning, the cost of education has reduced significantly with the popularity of MOOCs. In addition to generating real-time data useful for analysis and course adjustments, MOOCs provide more personalized learning opportunities. Although they may not match the exclusive college experience offered by elite universities, MOOCs and eLearning provide high-quality, credentialed college education for a large number of students globally. This has led to established universities seeking to provide online and distance education to meet demand.

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