Zakaria, Fareed. In Defense of a Liberal Education. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.
The child crying “Why? Why? Why?” can become an infinite regress, as many a parent trying to be patient has learned. And the only way to stop an infinite regress is to say at some point “just because” (or words to that effect). In his newest book, journalist Fareed Zakaria takes on the question of why the traditional liberal arts have been shoved aside in the race to push more students into those areas that have been labeled the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). It probably did not help his cause when in January of 2014, as Zakaria notes, President Barack Obama said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”
Zakaria asks, “What is the best response to President Obama and so many others who worry about the purpose of an academic degree in subjects as seemingly obscure as art history and anthropology?” He answers his own question, “… for those who do find that their passion is art history or anthropology, and take it seriously, there are real rewards in the outside world. Both those fields often require the intensive study of several languages and cultures, experiences working in foreign countries, an eye for aesthetics, and the ability to translate from one medium or culture to another. Most of these skills could be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age.”
The reasons given in the book for studying other liberal arts, history, literature and philosophy for example, are eerily similar: they will help you get jobs in the real world because they help you to think better and to write better. That drumbeat is heard again and again throughout the book. It seems to me that Zakaria has taken the cry “Why? Why?” one step too far. The infinite regress needs to be cut off sooner. The liberal arts do not need to demonstrate their functionality in terms of finding you a job in our technological world in order to justify their existence. They exist simply because they make our world more beautiful, more meaningful. If you have to ask “Why does that matter,” the loss is yours.
Interestingly, Zakaria fails to emphasize that mathematics and the sciences have traditionally been thought of as part of the liberal arts. In reality the liberal arts cover all the traditional disciplines. When science or math fail to be liberal arts is when they are studied solely for vocational or technical purposes. The same would be true of art or foreign language.
A world famous composer gave the commencement address at my daughter’s graduation from college last June. The topic was along the lines of the beauty of art. She spoke almost exclusively about music. Perhaps that was to be expected. But I thought, “What a missed opportunity.” Her speech could have been far more riveting and longer remembered if she had deliberately avoided any mention of music, precisely because that would have stunned people as the very opposite of what was expected. She could have said, “To you who study mathematics, you have given the world proofs as elegant as the finest works of sculpture. You have developed geometries that are more enticing than anything we could have imagined. This is a thing of great beauty. This is art. To you who study history, you have held a mirror before our faces and said, ‘This is how you have come to be who you are.’ You have given us the art of self-understanding. This is a thing of great beauty. To you who study biology, you have shown us how we have developed from the simplest single-celled organism to creatures able to contemplate their own place in the universe. Such an understanding is more beautiful than the fanciful myths of human origins posited by the various religions. This is art. To you who study literature, you have given us the gift of realizing that we are not trapped in our own skin. The great writers of fiction have made our lives immeasurably more beautiful by allowing us to live in the mind of another, even if only for a few hours. This is art. Your work needs no defense from me or anyone else. To suggest it does is insulting and demeaning. For your contributions to the human spirit, I thank you.”
I believe that such an approach would have been refreshing and hopefully given to some an understanding of a liberal education as something grander than a route to a job.
Zakaria’s book is interesting and engagingly written. He is clearly brilliant. I only wish his defense of liberal education had relied more on its grandeur and less on its pay-off.