Book review: In Defense of a Liberal Education

FullSizeRenderYou might pick up Fareed Zakaria’s latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, expecting a jeremiad against STEM education.

I certainly did. After all, my first exposure to the book was in the form of excerpts repackaged as op-eds accompanied by frightening headlines. (From the Washington Post: Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous. Step aside, heroin. This STEM education business is scary.)

Despite the alarmist headlines and the book’s title, Zakaria does not completely discount the importance of science, technology, engineering and math (the so-called STEM disciplines). In this book, Zakaria — a noted columnist, author and thought leader and the host of CNN’s GPS program — extols the virtues of a “broad-based” education rather than pitting the liberal arts and humanities against STEM.

Also, it’s important to remember that Zakaria’s book is a defense of a “liberal” education, not a “liberal arts” education. There is a difference. But it may be lost on some readers who are looking for an ally to advance an agenda. Liberal arts has come under fire in recent years as being impractical or irrelevant. As Zakaria describes, “Politicians, businesspeople, and even many educators … urge students to stop dreaming and start thinking practically about the skills they will need in the workplace.” Liberal arts is seen as the antithesis of this pragmatic approach to higher education.

Even so, if you were expecting In Defense of a Liberal Education to be a defense against a STEM education, you might be disappointed.

‘Liberal’ in its original sense

Zakaria actually picks on business and communications majors more than those who choose to study engineering or science. “[T]he drumbeat of talk about skills and jobs,” he writes, “has not lured people into engineering and biology — not everyone has the aptitude for science — so much as it has made them nervously forsake the humanities and take courses in business and communications.” And among the first statistics cited in this book are some plucked from the National Center for Education Statistics to illustrate how the popularity of English and business as majors have diverged over the years. “In 1971, for example, 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded in English language and literature. During the same period, the percentage of business majors in the undergraduate population rose from 13.7 to 20.5.” Zakaria wisely sidesteps any reference to engineering degrees, for instance, the growth of which have remained relatively flat, even with the rise of the collective STEM majors in recent years.

The “classic liberal education” Zakaria refers to in the book’s first chapter — and throughout the book — is rooted in the Roman term liberal “in its original Latin sense, ‘of or pertaining to free men.'” This seed of an idea that intellectual development was necessary for men and women to govern themselves was planted in Europe’s first great universities and colleges, and later in the United States’s. He holds up the Ivy League universities as examples of the world’s greatest universities in the classic liberal tradition (no surprise there; he’s a Yale man, and his brother went to Harvard) and later extols Jefferson’s ideal of the public university classic liberal model as embodied by the University of Virginia.

Zakaria’s strongest critique is leveled not at any particular discipline, but at the educators and politicians who focus so heavily on standardized testing and wring their hands over our nation’s rankings in many of those tests. As he points out, America never does well in international standardized tests, and never has. “[H]ow then does one explain the country’s success over the last five decades? And how does one understand why students in Asian countries that typically top the international test charts don’t end up producing the world’s most creative scientists, entrepreneurs, inventors, composers, and businesspeople?” Zakaria attributes that success to a relatively non-hierarchical and merit-based work culture, an open society that is “happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods, and services,” and a very confident — perhaps unrealistically confident — population. Even though U.S. students fare poorly on standardized tests, he notes, they remain confident in their abilities to succeed.

STEM’s rightful place

In truth, Zakaria believes the STEM disciplines — or at least science and math — rightfully belong to a liberal education. But too often, they have been separated from the liberal arts and humanities due to society’s emphasis on practical, “skills-based” education. “The greatest shift in liberal education over the past century,” he writes, “has been the downgrading of subjects in science and technology.” As “the study of science increasingly conflicted with religion” in the nineteenth century, after Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution began to gain currency, “the discipline [lost] is central position in liberal education, which was still then grounded in a pious outlook that sought to understand not only the mystery of life but also its purpose.”

Just as science and technology were downgraded in the nineteenth century and segregated from a classic liberal curriculum, so elevating them at the expense of other disciplines is also a danger. Ultimately, Zakaria says, a balanced curriculum is needed.

“Engineering is not better than art history,” he writes. “Society needs both, often in combination.”

‘Mutual incomprehension’

And yet, we often hear the argument that our STEM curricula need more infusion of the liberal arts and humanities. We seldom hear the opposite — that liberal arts and humanities majors should take more science, engineering and math. Zakaria touches on this, too, by citing a 1959 essay by C.P. Snow called “The Two Cultures.” In that essay, Snow laments the segregation of “arts” and “science” and, in Zakaria’s words, “warned that the polarization of knowledge into two camps was producing ‘mutual incomprehension … hostility and dislike.'”

Zakaria quotes a portion of Snow’s essay to illustrate what has become a double standard among academics.

A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold; it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare? … So the great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their neolithic ancestors would have had.

Not long ago, a colleague described attending a conference in which a panel of college presidents from liberal arts colleges were discussing the importance and value of a liberal arts education. The topic came up of the importance of integrating liberal arts and humanities coursework into the STEM curricula and, as my colleague recounts, an engineering dean in the audience asked why the opposite shouldn’t also hold true. If engineering students could benefit from additional humanities and liberal arts, wouldn’t students in the liberal arts and humanities disciplines benefit from some additional math, science or engineering coursework?

“There is today a loss of coherence and purpose surrounding the idea of a liberal education,” Zakaria writes. Let’s hope the discussions In Defense of a Liberal Education provoke will help us regain that coherence and purpose.

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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