In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria is a short and smart book. Zakaria notes that in the United States, "a liberal education is out of favor." He then tells us that "An open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere."
The reality is that earning a degree in a subject such as English literature is no longer viewed in an overwhelmingly positive light and far fewer students are pursuing liberal arts degrees than they were decades ago. Currently, students are more interested in pursuing degrees in subjects that they believe will lead directly to employment, such as business or accounting. Zakaria views this trend as problematic and persuasively explains why.
Crucially, getting a liberal education fosters critical thinking and writing skills. "Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and reasonably well will prove to be an invaluable skill." The second key benefit is that it "teaches you how to speak." Third, students are taught "how to learn" and pursue knowledge independently, long after their college careers.
Zakaria also decries the fact that the cost of college continues to rise and sees enormous potential in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). A liberal education doesn't just teach one how to think and communicate effectively; it also makes one more well-rounded and helps to build character.
The ending of the book left me thinking.
This much I will concede: 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 surely is that, even now, we could all use a bit more of a liberal education.
This book will not convince everyone. In the coming years, it's unlikely that a degree in philosophy would be perceived as more practical than one in accounting or finance. Nevertheless, this book resonated with me personally because now, a decade after I graduated from college, I see the validity of Zakaria's arguments reflected in my own life. I majored in political science (and was not a stellar student), but my interests in literature, languages, history and foreign cultures expanded my horizons and opened doors that I didn't even know existed. And now, there really is no job where writing well and speaking articulately are not helpful.
And, above all else, I understand the value and importance of cultivating a lifelong love for learning. Towards the beginning of the book, Zakaria mentions that today in America the "open-ended exploration of knowledge is seen as a road to nowhere" and yet nothing could be further from the truth. J.R.R. Tolkein said that "not all those who wander are lost." Those words, more poignant than ever, need not be confined to the physical act of travel. Pursuing a liberal education can be challenging, fun, even exciting and bring with it lifelong benefits. Zakaria's refreshing book is a call for reflection and fresh thinking that hopefully opens the door to a thoughtful, wide-ranging debate on this important subject.
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