Defending Liberal Education In a Technology Driven World

06/16/2015 03:59 pm ET | Updated Jun 16, 2016
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"We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom," writes the renowned scientist E.O. Wilson in his introduction to In Defense of a Liberal Education, the newest book from author Fareed Zakaria. Wilson continues: "The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely."

This might seem like a surprising defense of "liberal arts," coming as it does from a leading scientist, especially in an era obsessed with the so-called science, technology, education, and mathematics (STEM) fields. Yet Wilson's testimony perfectly sums up Zakaria's argument in this brief and interesting work--that the supposed conflict between science and the humanities has been blown out of proportion.

Zakaria doesn't deny the importance of engineering or other science-based fields for securing some of the best career paths of the future. But, he argues, it is more critical than ever to combine that STEM training with a solid foundation in the liberal arts. In his words, "As we work with computers (which is really the future of all work) the most valuable skills will be the ones that are uniquely human, that computers cannot quite figure out--yet."

The book begins with a typically erudite survey of the history of education, beginning with the Greeks and the Romans, and moving on to Europe's first university, founded in Bologna in the year 1088, and then to the colleges founded by British and German immigrants to the United States. Zakaria's own journey, first through the schools of his native India, then to his graduation from Yale and then Harvard, inform his analysis of the differences between the world's major education systems.

For Zakaria, the purpose of a liberal education, beyond the transmission of any particular skills, is to learn how to think. And, he argues, clear thinking begins with clear writing, the process by which one learns to formulate and communicate his thoughts. An anecdote from founder Jeff Bezos helps make the point, as we learn that he encourages his senior management to write memos, starting each meeting with time for the participants to put their thoughts in writing. Then there is the art of speaking--another critical skill in expressing ideas and persuading colleagues.

Yet perhaps the most important benefit lies in teaching students how to learn. In a knowledge-based society, where change is constant and the horizons of information are ever expanding, learning how to teach oneself new skills is itself an essential skill.

For Zakaria, all of these "soft" skills combine to promote innovation and creativity in the business world. "Innovation is not simply a technical matter," he writes, "but rather one of understanding how people and societies work, what they need and want." In the 21st Century, economic growth will come not so much from cheaper computer chips but rather from "constantly reimagining how computers and other new technologies interact with human beings."

That explains the surprising fact that the most innovative countries, as measured by the number of new patents, venture capital investments, and tech-based companies, are not those that score the highest on international education assessments like the OECD's PISA exam. Instead, they are countries like the United States, Israel, and Sweden, whose people are defined by such traits as curiosity, adventurousness, risk-taking, flexibility, and playfulness--all skills derived from the confidence of a strong liberal arts education.

The rise of Silicon Valley is a perfect case study. As Walter Isaacson, a profound chronicler of the Internet age, put it in his recent book The Innovators, "I was struck by how the truest creativity of the digital age came from those who were able to connect the arts and sciences. They believed that beauty mattered." Steve Jobs himself was very clear on this point: "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough," he said. "It is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that makes our heart sing."

In other words, cutting out the humanities in order to focus on the "practical" fields of science is a false choice. Liberal studies goes far beyond just career development, to the deeper purpose of why we as a society value education at all. For Zakaria, it is to develop the sort of well-rounded, responsible individuals that make stable democracy and sustained growth possible. "A liberal education gives us a greater capacity to be good workers," he concludes, "but it will also give us the capacity to be good partners, friends, parents, and citizens."