Book Review: In Defense of a Liberal Education

When Bernadette, my wife, returned from a trip to the Netherlands, she brought me a wonderful gift… a book. She was confident I would enjoy it because it focused on education. This book was In Defense of a Liberal Education* by Fareed Zakaria. Having just finished reading it, I found it quite interesting, especially as I related it to our current times. As I write this, a professor was removed from a plane because he was doing math, and the woman who reported him did not understand what he was doing and thought it was a terrorist act. If this was an isolated incident, I would simply laugh. Unfortunately, it is not. 

While I have been well educated, I do regret some of the decisions I have made in terms of my education. Some of those decisions include not taking higher level math and sciences in high school, turning down my appointment to the Air Force Academy, and not pursuing a liberal education. There are some who believe a liberal education is a waste of time. What could you possibly do with a liberal education? A liberal education provides one with the flexibility to adapt more readily to changing environments, whereas a specialist education in business or computer science is more restricting.

In Defense of a Liberal Education is part analysis of a liberal education and a reflection of Zakaria’s educational journey. The book was quick to read with easy to read prose. It was divided into six major part across 204 pages.  Zakaria discussed these topics:

  • Coming to America
  • A Brief History of Liberal Education
  • Learning to Think
  • The Natural Aristocracy
  • Knowledge and Power
  • In Defense of Today’s Youth

Zakaria began the book with an interesting discussion.

Around the world, the idea of a broadbased “liberal” education is closely tied to the United States and its great universities and colleges. But in America itself, a liberal education is out of favor. In an age defined by technology and globalization, everyone is talking about skills-based learning… An open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere. (Zakaria, 2015, p. 15-16)

He went on to present statistics to show the decline of liberal studies and an increase in business and technology studies. Politicians across the nation are cutting funding to liberal education. These cuts go against the history of our country. As Zakaria noted, America was the first country to offer a publicly funded education for all. For the rest of chapter one, Zakaria talked about his educational journey that led him to America.

As Zakaria explored the history of a liberal education, he began with the Greeks. At this time, there was a realization that citizens had to know how to run their society. He explained a liberal education was the “education of free men.” A liberal education was a mix of the practical and the philosophical (p. 43). It was interesting to read that at one time, soldiers and statesman placed a high value on the humanities. Zakaria continued to outline how universities evolved. A lot of this discussion brought back memories of a class (History of Higher Education Adult Learning and Technology Programs) I had taken with Dr. Cliff Harbour, specifically when Zakaria discussed the Yale report.

The Yale report explained that the essence of liberal education was “not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all.” It described its two goals in terms that still resonate: training the mind to think and filling the mind with specific content. (Zakaria, 2015, p. 51)

In this survey of the history, he also talked about the great books programs. This certainly peaked my interest because I have always wanted to sit down and read the great books. I am fortunate to know a president of a great books college, Dr. Susan Henking, President of Shimer College. I look forward to a time when I can sit down with her to talk about her school and her experiences. Zakaria argued that reading books is a key to learning. One of the most important points in the chapter was that there has to be a balance; scientists need to understand the arts and humanities, those in the humanities need to understand science. Solutions to our world problems must be a meld of ideas across disciplines. Those with a liberal education are well suited for this challenge.

In the third chapter, Zakaria stressed that a liberal education teaches one how to think. A large part of this thinking development comes in the form of writing, speaking, and learning to learn. He gave a plethora of examples highlighting why a liberal education was important in different industries. “A liberal education should give people the skills ‘that will help them get ready for their sixth job, not their first job'” (Zakaria, 2015, p. 79). An individual with a liberal education should be able to get ready for jobs that have not yet been invented. They have learned how to learn.

In chapters 4 and 5, Zakaria stressed the importance of having a broad education and its relationship to society as a whole. Without a broad education, you become dependent upon others for the truth. We are seeing this in our public political discourse. Many depend on what they see in the news and take it for gospel rather than be widely read and discover the truth for themselves. I believe many of the troubling issues would not have materialized if there was a more educated base of citizens. It has come into vogue that science is not as valued as personal opinion. This is a dangerous position to take. “Thomas Jefferson made a more urgent connection: a liberal education would ensure the survival of democracy” (Zakaria, 2015, p. 110). The pursuit of education has brought fortune to our society, whereas ignorance has brought despair.

In the last chapter, Zakaria discussed our current generation, millennials. This was not my favorite chapter because I did not find a strong connection to the topic of liberal education. He did point out his concerns with the generation, which I found to be interesting. However, I think he made his case for liberal education in the first five chapters.

As a fan of lifelong learning, I believe a liberal education is invaluable. With a liberal education, all other avenues are open. I believed this book was well researched and written. I have no reservations recommending In Defense of a Liberal Education to others.


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