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Is Zakaria’s Model of Liberal Education Too Elite?

by Trudier Harris, Department of English

Higher education is intrinsically elite, but the liberal education that Fareed Zakaria espouses is even more51bD8pHYmTL._SX459_BO1,204,203,200_ elite. It is a playing field for the middle and upper classes, one that is much more Vassar and Wesleyan than Stillman and Tuskegee. While Zakaria is very much focused on internationalism in his defense of liberal education, he fails to average diversity such as race into his formula—not only as it relates to students but also as it relates to historically black colleges and universities. His is the success story of an immigrant who has lived out the American dream.

But what of American natives such as the sons and daughters of sharecroppers or domestic workers? Is the liberal education that Zakaria advocates best for them as first generation college students? What about African American students—and others—from the Bible Belt of Alabama who may need remediation more than they need the Odyssey? Of course, we could argue that we can use the Odyssey to teach remediation, but that seems a questionable deployment of intellectual energy.

Given the hordes of educationally disadvantaged students in 2016, what risks do we run by embracing Zakaria’s liberal education instead of Booker T. Washington’s industrial/practical education? Clearly, a liberal education has worked for Zakaria in a number of ways, not the least of which is his use of his writing skills to produce In Defense of a Liberal Education, which has earned untold wealth in book sales and speaking engagements. Whether or not that model can be generalized is highly debatable.

Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education is the focus of this year’s Common Book Experience. Download your copy through the Self Service app on your iPad.