by Ray White, Department of Physics and Astronomy
Zakaria’s defense of liberal education largely overlooks one of its main goals: exposing students to a broad range of cultural topics, exceeding their prior experience, in order to help students become more culturally sophisticated and to help them discover how their (perhaps latent) passions and aptitudes may be best realized in life after university.
Zakaria instead emphasizes the virtues of a liberal education in developing competence in writing, speaking, critical thinking, and learning to learn. These are indeed hugely significant goals for a liberal education, but these goals could also be achieved in professional or on-the-job training programs. What most distinguishes a liberal arts education from professional training is the breadth of cultural coverage not narrowly focused on a specific profession. If there are unique virtues to liberal arts curricula, they must lie in their broad cultural coverage.
Zakaria also exhibits a pair of classic misconceptions about liberal arts education. He conflates the liberal arts with the humanities and believes it is radical, rather than normal, for a liberal arts program to include the sciences.
He also focuses on the utility (or lack thereof) of particular humanities majors, while neglecting to emphasize that every degree in a liberal arts program comes with broad cultural training (defining culture as broadly as possible). It is the breadth of a liberal arts education, as well as its development of expressive and interpretive skills, that should help prepare students for many possible jobs, as well as every aspect of their lives outside their jobs.
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.