A New Take on Defending Liberal Education
In Defense of a Liberal Education does not sound like a book that Fareed Zakaria would write. It isn’t a book about global geo-politics or a complex, historical exegesis of a conflict in some war-torn country that ends in “istan”. As I read it, it felt like maybe his publicist probably fought him tooth and nail against publishing it (because it didn’t enhance his personal brand), but he insisted he write it and put his name to it. No doubt because Mr. Zakaria is principled, and not everything, for him, boils down to whether he makes money. So I thought it probably would be an important read, especially on one of my favorite topics: the liberal arts.
Disclaimer — I was on the receiving end of what is arguably the most liberal education that exists — at St. John’s College — and now I work building an innovative college — Make School — that some would want to call “illiberal” in its focus on the real-life super skill of software development. Since I am so caught between two extremes, I especially feel the tug of personal responsibility to put up some well needed criticism of Zakaria’s book, and to put up my own definition of liberal education and a novel defense of it.
A Brief History of Liberal Arts
The modern meaning of the word “liberal education” was invented by a cadre of folks at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Chicago about ~100 years ago. These turn of the century educators were rocked by the tectonic shifts going on in their society across commerce, technology, and government. Society and technology had changed so much that they literally did not know what being educated meant any more. (Sound familiar?)
Looking for an educational true north, many of these folks fell back to the western classics and humanities as the only steady thing in a rapidly advancing economy and globalizing world. They pulled together various lists of important books and authors and made those the “core curricula” at major universities. To this day almost all universities, but especially liberal arts colleges and universities require this core curriculum in the western humanities. This curriculum of western humanities is what everyone calls a “liberal education”. And it is this curriculum that Zakaria sets out to defend. But defend against what?
Attacks from Left, Right, and Center
Both the political left and political right sling criticisms at this “western cannon” definition of liberal education.
On the left, post-modernists and post-colonialists claim that the classics are not representative of historically subaltern narratives. That is to say: there are too many dead, white men in the cannon for our contemporary diverse culture. Where are the books by women and black and brown folks? Without those voices and narratives a “western cannon” education only perpetuates an intellectual system of oppression and violence.
On the the right, a liberal education comes across as being merely milk-toast grooming for liberal elites. The right would prefer that universities would recognize the importance of skills development that leads to economic stability and success. Attacks from the right on universities and their budgets go after history, literature, and infamous women’s studies departments but do not include invectives against the engineering, medicine, and business departments. Although the right might have some soft spots for some parts of the western cannon such as The Federalist Papers, On Liberty, and The Wealth of Nations, that nostalgia is overwhelmed by the perceived perversion of a liberal education in the western cannon with wimpy, post-modern safe spaces, political correctness, and courses like “post-colonial eco-feminist studies” and “underwater basketweaving”.
Zakaria’s book responds to both of these attacks.
To the right, Zakaria says that a liberal education is not (or should not) be wimpy aristocratic grooming. A liberal education provides important general skills, such as, “how to write clearly, how to express yourself convincingly, and how to think analytically”. Zakaria claims that a liberal education is not preparation for one job, it is a preparation for any job, and for life itself.
To the left’s criticisms, Zakaria does not directly address the post-modern argument, but he tacitly suggests that the post-modern attack, while perhaps well founded, is finally hollow. He himself is from a post-colonial background and has learned a great deal from the western cannon of his grand parent’s colonizers. He suggests by his own example and woven throughout his defense that everyone can and should learn as much as they can from all cultures and heritages, even old white men.
While Zakaria puts up some defense against these two criticisms, he does not put up any defense against the most dangerous criticism: that of cost.
Since 1985 the cost of any college degree has grown each year by roughly 17% compounded. Meanwhile the value of such a degree has shrunk dramatically to the point of being a complete waste of time to many students depending on the milieu of the school you attend, the major you study, and the personal network you develop. Zakaria does not seem to recognize that his explosion in cost and lack of access is a legitimate attack on all higher education, liberal or otherwise.
Strong Offense, Weak Defense
The attacks against liberal education are strong; however, Zakaria’s Defense, I believe, is weak. Zakaria claims that liberal education provides general skills of communication and thinking. But this defense can be found in the trifold brochures of any liberal art school. He did not add even an iota of new information to the classic defense for liberal education. He does not call upon his experience as a CNN correspondent and anchor. He does not uncover any new data or perspectives or even proclaim any new frame or first principles. The book is a regurgitation. An succinct and brief regurgitation, but a regurgitation nonetheless.
Zakaria provides no new or strong defense against either partisan attack, and has nothing at all to say about the ballooning costs. In fact he defends universities and colleges and exhorts his reader to come to their financial aid. He seems to be oblivious of the crisis of the cost of college and the fact that many top-tier colleges and universities are commonly competing today on their dorms and chefs, while consistently raising their tuition costs.
I expected more from Zakaria in this book. I did not expect to see a mere regurgitation from such a thoughtful and worldly author. But I must fault him on his book. It is unacceptable to regurgitate a definition of liberal education, and then use it to defend overpriced, unaccountable universities and colleges.
Zakaria’s book, rather than defending the liberal arts, proves to me that liberal education, as it stands, deserves to fall to the attacks laid at their feet. The liberal arts, as they are currently defined, are indefensible.
To defend the liberal arts we must first take the opportunity that Zakaria missed. We must first look into the past and understand the timeless definition of the liberal arts, then, pivoting them on this axis, reimplement this ideal for the times we live in.
The Original Meaning of Liberal Education
Let’s just get right down to it. As far as I can tell, the timeliness definition of a liberal education was defined by Aristotle as an education that is worthy of a free person.
The timeless definition of a liberal education was defined by Aristotle as an education that is worthy of a free person.
In the times of Aristotle where the only free people were land owning, soldier, male citizens of a democracy, a liberal education focused on soldering, geometry (the measurement of land), logic, and rhetoric. In contrast to the arts of free people, were the arts of slaves, peasants, women, foreigners, and other non-citizens. These were like how to do laundry, make ceramics, how to farm, etc. Plato enhanced the liberal arts education of his time by making a convincing argument that free people should study and practice pure math and philosophy, and started a school to that end. Aristotle made a similar enhancement by arguing that free Greeks should also study of nature and natural phenomenon and causes.
Famously in Herodotus Histories he says that the education of the Persians. The free people of the Persians were the soldiers of a plains-invading army and subject to an absolute monarch. Hence Herodotus lists that the Persian education includes archery, horsemanship, and truth-telling.
In the middle ages, only the clerics and nobility were free people and their education focused solely on religious texts and warfare respectively. Pretty boring time for education, liberal or otherwise.
In the early Renaissance, urban merchants began to be free and participate in politics in cities of Italy, Flanders, and northern Germany. These new merchant class were gaining their citizenship due to their wealth and trade, but since they emulated the nobility and were rediscovering classical culture, their education
Over the next three hundred years the merchant class transformed into the full blown bourgeoisie and more and more people became citizens. By the late 1800’s industrialization gave way to mass society where every man was a citizen.
The mass liberation and increase in suffrage and citizenship of the late 1800’s lead to the crisis in education that was finally solved by the creation of modern universities with core curricula based on the western cannon and specific modern majors such as the sciences or language. The core curriculum was meant to connect each person to the western ideals that support citizens of modern Westphalian nation-states, while their college major prepared them to be capable contributors to an industrialized economy.
Today liberation and suffrage have reached an almost entire saturation, only people under 18 and convicts are not fully free and political agents (let’s see if we can’t get 13 year old suffrage soon!). Moreover, racism and other forms of discrimination are being systematically removed from society. Simultaneously the internet and electronics are transforming how virtually all work is done nearly to the extent that interchangeable parts and the steam engine did a century before. We are again in an educational crisis caused by rapid social and technological developments.
So what sort of education is worthy of a free person today?
What Education is NOT Worthy of a Free Person
Everyone can fight over the pros and cons of various methods of education. It is hard to tell which way things should be organized. Should college be 4 years or shorter or longer? Should their be tenure to protect professors? What should the tuition of a college be? Should there be tuition-free colleges? Should instruction be classic lecture/exam based or should it be personalized and should their be project-based learning? Should there be a strict division between “academic” and “vocational” or “technical” content or are these divisions merely snobbery? These questions are terribly difficult to answer and are mired in controversy.
However, we can get some clarity if we judge some of the consequences of various forms of education.
Here are some consequences that suggest an education is illiberal—that it is not worthy of a free person:
- You are 22 and have $28,000 in debt and no marketable skills
- You are 16 and you dropping out of high school
- You are 27 and you are a PhD candidate making less than minimum wage as a TA and research assistant.
- You are unaware of where the country of Iraq is (and how many years the US has occupied it)
- Your opinions are parroted from Fox News or MSNBC
So if these are examples of the consequences of an education that is not worthy of a free person, what are some examples of the consequences of an education that is worthy of a free person?
- You are able to support yourself financially and have enough means to take some financial risks
- It is difficult to manipulate you and you can identify a scam and avoid it
- You can list five things that humans do not know yet (e.g. what is gravity, why we sleep, what dark matter is, etc)
- You can appreciate or you practice some aspect of art or culture
What sort of school could achieve the above consequences? What education could be truly liberal in our times?
An education worthy of a free person today requires young people to have the access to explore, create, and dive deep into topics, and give up as quickly as they started if they like. Certainly it requires providing students with permission to fail, and encouragement to try again. It requires mentors to draw on, and teachers who are specially trained to support, encourage, coach, and challenge.
A college it seems should be 2–3 years long, be accessible to anyone who wants to attend no matter what their high school performance was, cost about $4,000 per year in tuition (with need-based scholarship). That way it is cheap enough that you could work a part time job and pay for it all.
The course of study should include a global perspective as well as a sense of history. A major focus should be in navigating modern information systems such as banking, healthcare, politics, and the news. If a student is interested in a specialized field like scientific research, medicine, engineering, philosophy, or law they could track into that. Everyone should be afforded learning one or more universal job ready skills for the 21st century: Project Management, Marketing & Sales, Design, Software Engineering, Data Analysis.
The college should offer access to learning coaches and specialized teachers, real-world mentors, and a community of a few hundred to a few thousand of other learners, as well as access to some specialized learning and research institutes.
Is this liberal arts now? It certainly does not sound like the liberal education I received at St. John’s. But then again no where except St. John’s looks like St. John’s.
Yes, it is a liberal education, because a liberal education is an education worthy of a free person.