In Defense of Fareed Zakaria

Review: Fareed Zakaria’s ‘In Defense of a Liberal Education’

Fareed Zakaria
Fareed Zakaria / AP

Just as some journalists have come to admire the Clinton family because, and not in spite, of the total lack of integrity apparent in their careers, so I have come to admire the writings of Fareed Zakaria because, and not in spite, of the total absence of shame manifest in their composition. His latest, slender effort, In Defense of a Liberal Education, made it to #6 on the New York Times bestseller list, and as I write, resides at #1 on Amazon in the categories of both "political science" and "education." Apparently there are a lot of people with a taste for analysis like this:

The relationship between educational test scores and economic performance is a subject of great controversy (and has been caught up in the debate about education reform). Some experts see no correlation at all, while others point to data suggesting the opposite. My own sense is that all things being equal, it obviously helps to have a well-trained population. America’s public school system needs many of the reforms being proposed by both Republicans and Democrats to make this more likely. South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, and now China—with the high rates of growth in recent decades—are living proof of a connection between strong test scores and economic success. But growth and innovation are supported by many factors, some of which are wholly outside the realm of tests and skills.

This artful weave of banality and equivocation is the real deal—Harvard PhD bullshit, CNN-host bullshit. It is the work of a professional. Hold that paragraph up to the light. Not a ray escapes: it's a black hole of the mind.

Some might suggest that I moderate my admiration for the man on account of his work being—shall we say—collaborative in nature. I reject this. The great Rembrandt also labored in a workshop. Indeed, such an approach gives this (heavily sourced) book much of its charm: Long sequences, sometimes most of a chapter, are given over to monotonous series of lengthy quotes from tech CEOs, Singaporean ministers, and writers for the New Yorker, glued together with blobs of the inoffensive sort of connective prose quoted above. I like to imagine the eager young research assistants who excavated these passages from the Internet bringing them with apprehension to the attention of the Master, grateful for a curt nod of approval, awed by his ability to synthesize them into text that appears, on cursory inspection, to be an argument for something.

No doubt in response to the accusations of plagiarism that have become a regular feature of Zakaria’s career, these assistants have produced an impressive appendix of citations—they occupy fully 18 pages of a 204-page essay. And even here, delights abound. My favorite is the reference provided for Zakaria’s brief discussion of the Prometheus myth at the start of his fifth chapter, a defense of knowledge over ignorance, of human progress over … not progressing, I suppose. When Zakaria writes, "Prometheus brought fire from Mount Olympus down to earth and its mortal inhabitants," the assistants did not succumb to the lazy dictate of convention that such an assertion, being commonplace, does not require a citation. Aware that their employer has a greater-than-average need to source his work appropriately, they dutifully came up with this:

135 Prometheus brought fire: Ingri D’Aulaire and Edgar D’Aulaire, D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths (New York: Delacorte Press, 1992).

As it happens, I once owned a copy of Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire’s magnificent book. It taught me a great deal about the Greeks and their religion. I was eight or nine years old at the time. I recall being particularly appreciative of the D’Aulaires’ vivid, PG-rated illustrations. Now, seeing the above citation, I thought that perhaps I was in error. Maybe what I remembered owning was the children’s edition of some more scholarly volume. But, checking on Amazon, I see that my memory was accurate: Under "Product Details," D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths is recommended for "Age Range: 8 – 12 years, Grade Level: 3 – 7." (Also, a minor quibble: the publisher is not listed as "Delacorte Press," but as "Delacorte Books for Young Readers.")

Zakaria—as the editors of the (old) New Republic once eloquently acknowledged—is an invaluable weathervane for the current direction of conventional wisdom. It can therefore be concluded from his present book that people believe liberal education is about to enjoy a renaissance.

What Zakaria means by liberal education is not so clear. At times he is careful to distinguish the liberal arts from the humanities (noting, accurately, that traditional conceptions of a liberal education include mathematics and science) and at other times he uses the terms as synonyms. Similarly, at times he distinguishes between the problems afflicting the practice of liberal education itself, as opposed to those problems, like skyrocketing tuition, which afflict all of higher education. At other times he writes as though they are the same thing.

Whatever liberal education is, and whatever the problems facing it, Zakaria believes that people like Barack Obama (who remarked recently that, "folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree") and Bill Bennett ("How many PhDs in philosophy do I need to subsidize?") need to take it down a notch. The kind of open, elective-based university education available to American undergraduates has many qualities to recommend it, not least of which is that its relative lack of structure allows for the kind of creativity that powers the innovation of Silicon Valley.

The tone of the book is essentially quietist and optimistic—except when it is not. For a distressing few pages at the end of his fourth chapter, Zakaria seems to suggest that, except for the "top fifty" or so American colleges that can justify, through their prestige, the increasingly insane expense of the "residential colleges, classroom seminars, late-night discussions, and extra-curricular activities" that constitute the "complete experience" of college, everyone else will more or less have to shut down in the face of the economic pressures brought about by Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

Maybe Zakaria has buried his true teaching at the middle of his book, knowing that only students trained in his esoteric methods will be able to recognize that his bullish position on the future of higher education elsewhere is not a contradiction but exoteric chaff. Or maybe consistency is not his real strength. Either way, MOOCs are apparently going to be a big deal.

The unfortunate aspect of all this is that, in addition to the postulate that Zakaria represents the conventional wisdom at any given moment, we must accept the corollary that the conventional wisdom is usually wrong. Logic thus compels us to conclude that liberal education is screwed.

It is screwed both in a specific way and in terms of the general context of the American university. The price of a bachelor’s degree, the credentialing arms race, the demonstrated fact that most students are, literally, learning nothing during their four-year orgy on campus—all these factors make for a very creaky edifice. Zakaria cites a few of these issues, but only glancingly mentions the absurd amounts of government-backed student loan money that keep the schools open and are the primary inflationary pressure on tuition. He doesn’t mention at all the Supreme Court decision (Griggs v. Duke Power, 1971) that disincentivized employers from using aptitude tests in hiring, forcing them to rely on educational credentials as a proxy. Take away either of these two supports, and the whole rickety thing comes crashing down, MOOCs or not, and only those schools with endowments the size of an African nation’s GDP will survive the collapse.

Against that disconcerting background, the specific case of the liberal arts—that form of education appropriate and necessary for free men—is even more dire. Liberal education has been done in by a great number of conspirators, including its own closest friends. Some of these factors, like the perverting influence of the demand for specialized research imposed on professors at the expense of their incentive to teach basic courses, are cited critically by Zakaria. Others, like the introduction of the elective system at the turn of the last century, which perversely requires an 18-year-old to know what would constitute a good education in advance of actually having received one, Zakaria cites as heroes.

Zakaria mounts his defense of liberal education on the grounds of its openness and encouragement of creativity, and also on the basis of how it sharpens one’s intellectual skills—one’s ability to write, speak, and learn. In this way, the liberal arts are a necessary complement for, say, students of experimental science, who must after all learn how to write up their experiments. The objects on which one sharpens these skills—which particular books one reads—are marginally important, but cannot be treated "as simply a canon to be checked off on a cultural literacy list." Of course not.

But his skills-based defense for the liberal arts is ultimately untenable. Why can’t a community that values STEM education or training in business administration simply mandate its students to take a few crash courses in composition and critical thinking, and then get to the good stuff? If content doesn’t matter much, what good is the sustained study of history or philosophy?

My own alma mater, one of those small, retrograde Great Books schools for which Zakaria has such limp praise, recently scrubbed its admissions and marketing materials of all prominent mentions of the books and the specifics of the college curriculum, replacing them with anodyne pictures of happy undergraduates flirting in sunlit, grassy fields, and with fatuous slogans about faculty modeling a "commitment to discovery." I fear for it as I would for a beloved older sibling who just told me he was using heroin.

If even the truest friends of liberal education shy away from its robust defense, it can be no criticism of Zakaria that his own apologia is so inadequate. In the final chapter of his book, Zakaria mounts a defense of kids these days against critics on both the left and right who find them "morally inarticulate" and insufficiently committed to justice, and against studies that show them exhibiting historically low levels of interest in "developing a meaningful philosophy of life." These traits might indeed be both real and negative, Zakaria argues, but you can’t blame the kids: They are only representing "the tenor of the times." He is a credible source for such an assertion, having just authored a book that is such a perfect symbol for, and product of, the educational system it so haplessly defends.