In Defense of a Liberal Education
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015, 208 pp., $23.95
About a quarter century ago, during an earlier epoch of the American culture wars, the academy echoed with the cries of a debate over the nature of a liberal education. Should the canon be opened up to non-Western and feminist works, to comic books and rock music, to animal-rights and Gaia theory, or should it double down on the musty archives of dead white males? Should deconstructionism or logical positivism be the guiding lights of humanistic study, or should classical philosophy be its lodestar? Should students read Plato and Dante or the Mahayana Sutras and bell hooks? Allan Bloom famously hoisted the Jolly Roger on these subjects in his controversial 1987 bestseller, The Closing of the American Mind.
The debate came to an end not with a shattering rebuttal or heckling or a decision by the judges. It just faded away, ending “not with a bang but a whimper.” Oh wait, not with that either, because to understand the reference would require reading poetry—and who has time for that while boning up on advanced finance in b-school en route to Wall Street?
The debate, in short, is no longer about what kind of liberal education to have but about whether to have a liberal education at all. Fewer and fewer students think they have luxury of reading Christine de Pizan or Kant or the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Ironically, a country whose youth twice emphatically voted for Barack Obama as President consists of college students who accept the credo of Calvin Coolidge that “the chief business of the American people is business.”
Anyone who teaches the humanities in a university nowadays can tell you that baby, it’s cold outside. Student numbers are down, in some cases, precipitously. Many of the English, philosophy, or history majors of yesteryear are now studying STEM (that is, science, technology, engineering, and math—the new gold standard in public education), economics, or business. Opinions differ as to why this is so. The past decade has seen a boom in books and articles on the subject. As most of them point out, various causes are at work. Some blame the teachers, some the parents, some the students, some the necessarily amorphous Zeitgeist.
So, for example, in “The Decline of the English Department,” William M. Chace writes that the expansion of the American college student population during the past forty or fifty years has meant the contraction of humanistic education, since most students want practical or pre-professional training. An English teacher himself, Chace puts the lion’s share of the blame on
the failure of departments of English across the country to champion, with passion, the books they teach and to make a strong case to undergraduates that the knowledge of those books and the tradition in which they exist is a human good in and of itself.
It’s the turn to identity studies, exotic theories, sexuality, and popular culture, writes Chace, that is the most serious cause of the decline of the humanities.
In College, Andrew Delbanco writes about the transformation of college faculty from moral educators into professional researchers and the metamorphosis of the students from seekers of truth into careerists chasing diplomas. In his Excellent Sheep, William Deresiewicz takes aim at high-flying students, their helicopter parents, and the college admissions officers who act as gatekeepers. Already primed to overachieve before they even get to elite universities, it’s no wonder that students head for the straightest path to a lucrative career in finance. In Beyond the University, Michael S. Roth stakes out the middle ground. Pre-professional education fails to teach students to think, and so leaves them unprepared for the inevitable changes in the workplace ahead. Liberal education is actually more practical because it renders students more nimble. Meanwhile, he defends the current emphasis on racial and gender diversity as the seedbed of intellectual diversity.
Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education is a welcome addition to the genre. Like Roth, Zakaria is pragmatic and, at just 204 pages, he makes Roth’s concise 241 pages seem prolix. Zakaria is wise and pithy. He starts out with the recognition that we live in an unreflective era:
Because of the times we live in, all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life. We do not look inside of ourselves enough to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we do not look around enough—at the world, in history—to ask the deepest and broadest questions.
The solution, he says, is liberal education. He argues that one of the chief merits of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to think, speak, and write: “to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas.” His is a meaty work with hardly a wasted word. He doesn’t even need a subtitle or the all-but-inevitable colon. If this book is any indication of what he learned, Zakaria deserves three cheers for his university experience.
Zakaria tells his affecting personal story as it unfurls from from Mumbai to Yale. The old-fashioned phrase, “the promise of America,” comes to mind in the reading. So does the notion of the intelligent, ambitious, energetic, and adaptable immigrant.
Zakaria displays a great deal of common sense. He has a fingertip feel for the realities of higher education. Among the features of the current scene that he highlights are the relative expense of even a state university (in 1960, the University of California at Berkeley was free; now it costs a non-state resident more than $55,000 a year) and the lack of places for applicants; the de facto Asian-American quota that is too often in place; the economics of rising college costs; the reasons why faculty too often teach obscure classes (not because they are left-wing subversives but because they tend to be promoted for zeroing in on a small area of research); the motivation for faculty to give out high grades (it’s easier); and the way the need to find efficiencies is making online learning attractive.
Zakaria is entirely convincing when he says that more online education is inevitable. Its main advantages will be cutting costs and increasing access. But his optimism about the ability of big data to generate individualized education is perhaps too sanguine—mainly because those who interpret the data will need to separate it into little packages that may be a bad fit for real-life individuals. I prefer the old saw that the ideal education was Williams College President Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. But logs are a luxury these days, as Zakaria shows. He argues persuasively that in the future only fifty or so colleges in the United States will be able to charge high tuition. Most people will need to make do with Digital U.
After surveying the history of liberal education and the challenges facing today’s academy, Zakaria turns to contemporary youth. Refreshingly, he defends them. Millennials are not to be blamed for being anxious about making money, facing as they do global competition and the rising threat of displacement by technology. Unlike boomers, they don’t have the psychological luxury of presumed prosperity. To their credit, millennials also increasingly show a desire to help the community and give back to others, which is certainly better than the—how to put this?—self-actualization ambitions that some of us expressed when we were younger.
Zakaria ends with a stirring call for self-examination via liberal education. But his real recipe for higher education seems to be a combination of learning how to write and speak and of studying the social sciences in order to face a world shaped by capitalism, globalization, and technology. The book has the feel of “PPE,” Oxford’s program in Philosophy, Politics & Economics, or “Sciences Po,” Paris’s Institut d’études politiques, that is, of the higher education of the European political elite, a kind of schooling that mixes social science with a touch of class. One could do a lot worse, but I would have preferred to see more of the humanities.
Zakaria makes too much of big names, too, especially big American names. Although it is interesting to hear what corporate bigwigs, Nobel laureates, and university presidents have to say about liberal education and the humanities, it would be much better to find out what Aristotle, Sun Tzu, and Jane Austen think. They have stood the test of time. They have their place in a conversation about the nature and meaning of life that goes back to the ancients. However much the leisure time they enjoyed depended on exploiting the labor of others, they used that time to create masterpieces. And every journeyman should study with a master.
Zakaria’s message is also very present-oriented. He is right to say that humankind is better off now than in the time of the ancient Greeks, when even a male aristocrat could be killed by a toothache. But he dismisses much too quickly the Greeks’ tragic genius. No one would wish to go to a dentist in Periclean Athens but, O, to be present at one of Aeschylus’s premieres! If we are so great today, where is the new Aeschylus, or Plato? While we want college graduates to be able to face today’s world, we also want them to feel at home in the past. A liberal education teaches us that our true country is not the one that we happen to live in. Our true contemporaries lived in other countries in other eras as well.
A remarkable educational reform in 1972 recognized this truth. In that year of defeat in Vietnam, an American admiral made a bold decision. Admiral Stansfield Turner, President of the U. S. Naval War College, decided that the mid-career officers who spent a year of study there before promotion would have to read Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War. The addition of this long, dense, difficult, and often cranky work to the curriculum might not have been greeted with cheers, but in this, anyway, Turner knew what he was doing.1
In his Convocation Address of August 24, 1972, Turner described his decision to change the academic study of strategy from a scientific to an historical approach. Bemoaning a tendency to focus on “the brief period of military strategy since the close of World War II,” Turner called for “a broader perspective” that would approach contemporary problems through the perspective of the past and so “ensure that we do not become trapped within the limits of our own experience.” Alluding to America’s sad recent history in Vietnam, he said:
We will start with Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. What could be more related to today than a war in which a democratic nation sent an expedition overseas to fight on foreign soil and then found that there was little support for this at home? Or a war in which a seapower was in opposition to a nation that was basically a landpower? Are there not lessons still to be learned here?
Turner’s classical scholarship was as off the mark as his understanding of then-contemporary America was astute. Athens lost in Sicily not because support at home was weak; in fact, it was strong. Athens lost because it badly underestimated enemy resources and resolve. But in America domestic support for the Vietnam War really did evaporate. Faced with a calamity, American military educators were well served by looking for a new paradigm in an old author. Whatever else Thucydides offers the reader, he also offers humility and a knowledge that, in war, things do often if not always go wrong.
This humble (and humbling) example of a turn to the past for inspiration recalls another, more famous case involving one of history’s greatest and most influential political philosophers, Niccolò Machiavelli. In addition to being a political thinker Machiavelli was also a politician and diplomat in Florence. He found himself on the losing side of a civil war and suffered imprisonment and torture before escaping into exile on his country estate. In a famous letter to Francesco Vettori in December 1513, Machiavelli described the drudgery of daily life in the countryside. The high point of his day came in the evening:
When evening comes, I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable courts of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them and to question them about the motives for their actions, and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death.
Machiavelli was a student of the classical tradition; he had the finest humanist education that the Renaissance offered. So schooled, he had the tools to challenge the dogmas and unspoken assumptions of his age and to break through their low horizon. Machiavelli was able to measure the depth of the gulf between the way things ought to be and the way they were. He was not only thus rendered able to think, but to think broadly and creatively about things that mattered.
Zakaria is right: We all need more liberal education. But he is not right for the best right reason. The best right reason is not that a liberal education will give us a competitive edge in the marketplace. It’s that it will make our souls more beautiful—that’s why we need it.
1On Turner’s move see Andreas Stradis, “Thucydides in the Staff College”, in Christine Lee and Neville Morley, eds. A Handbook to the Reception of Thucydides.