Stay in School

04.01.15 9:15 AM ET

Does College Have a Future After All?

It’s all the rage to bash colleges and the ‘excellent sheep’ that higher ed produces, so a ringing endorsement of a liberal education is both surprising and welcome.

In my office there’s a stack of books, all pretty recent, on higher education. The titles say a lot. The “end of college” seems gleeful compared to the more sober guides to “American higher education in crisis.” Students are said to be “academically adrift” or “excellent sheep.” We confront a “higher education bubble” that puts “liberal arts at the brink,” and the final step for higher ed is “disruption,” say the critics. Here, at least, there does seem to be a bit of a herd mentality.

Into this atmosphere of cynicism and spleen, Fareed Zakaria offers a compact, effective essay on the importance of a broad, contextual education. Cheerfully out of step with the strident critics of higher ed, In Defense of a Liberal Education is a reminder that American colleges and universities are a powerful resource that has allowed so many young people to learn about themselves and their ability to have a positive impact on the world. Although he is well aware of the pressures on advanced study in this time of economic anxiety, Zakaria has confidence that the resources for addressing contemporary challenges lie within the very traditions being criticized.

Growing up in Mumbai (then Bombay), Zakaria had the good fortune to have parents who happily cultivated curiosity rather than insisting on early specialization. They were determined to offer their children an opportunity to continue their education at what they perceived to be the world’s best universities, and that meant going to America. Zakaria tells us that in looking through the course catalogue of Harvard (where his older brother had enrolled) he found himself “falling in love with the idea of liberal education” from 8,000 miles away. He would attend Yale and later become a devoted alumnus and trustee.

In addition to his own personal itinerary through higher education, Zakaria presents a brief sketch of its history in Europe and the United States. He argues that “science was linked to liberal education from the start” because the key to both is learning how to think in ways that enable a person to find the right mode of inquiry for whatever problem is at hand. Most powerful in his personal and general history is his commitment to the idea that flexibility and judgment are enhanced by an education that toggles between deep engagement with specific material and the exploration of possible interconnections across a wide variety of fields.

And it is flexibility of judgment combined with an ability to present one’s ideas clearly that are at the core of Zakaria’s variation on the liberal education theme. “The central virtue of a liberal education,” he emphasizes, “is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think.” This was true for Cardinal Newman when he articulated the modern European notion of liberal learning in the middle of the 18th century, and it was true for American thinkers from Jefferson to Dewey who argued that a liberal education helped to set one free from the authority of convention.

Zakaria singles out Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore (NUS) as an example of how a contemporary liberal education might “provide a genuine multicultural education in a college designed for a multicultural world.” He is aware of the tensions between Singapore’s “still-closed political system” and the freedom of inquiry essential to true learning. It’s certainly fair to wonder how an educational project can flourish in a political context that restricts ways of thinking and living that have been vital dimensions of scholarship. Will the university be corrupted by these oppressive tendencies, or will the university help create currents of thoughtful change? Zakaria places his wager on the more optimistic outcome. What would it say about our faith in education to bet against him? For Zakaria, the Yale-NUS project points the way “to a revived rigorous liberal education that recovers the importance of science, places teaching at its heart, combines a core with open exploration, and reflects the direction the world is headed.”

There are myriad challenges facing higher education, and this book presents more of a plea than a plan to refocus on rigorous academics that respond to and stimulate the natural curiosity of young people. Technology offers the best chance of expanding access to great teachers, and Zakaria takes heart that so many people sign up for MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses), whatever the shortcomings, simply because they are hungry for knowledge. He subscribes to the belief that the desire for knowledge goes hand in hand with the desire for freedom. As Frederick Douglass so memorably put it, learning makes you unfit for slavery.

Zakaria ends his book with an unfortunately tepid “defense of today’s youth.” In response to those who accuse millennials of crass materialism and competitive conformism he defends them as a reasonable reflection of our times: “So maybe today they’re writing apps rather than studying poetry, but that’s an adjustment for the age.” But even this gives too much importance to the generalizations that infect the worst of middle-aged complaints about the younger generation. From what I see, young people are writing apps and poetry, chasing jobs that offer plenty of money as well as opportunities to found not-for-profits to confront global issues. Whether straining to get free from overprotective parents, or dealing with the aftermath of fractured families, students in colleges and universities have the potential for creative work that can make meaning and make a difference.

When colleges and universities are serious about offering a pragmatic liberal education, they leave behind the project of merely satisfying undergraduates as paying customers. Instead, they challenge their students to find meaning and joy in work that reshapes themselves and the world. By reinvigorating the tradition of pragmatic liberal education, we will continue to provide opportunities for young people in our own backyards and from across the globe. This happens every day in thousands of classes across the country, but, as Zakaria notes, it doesn’t happen enough. In school or beyond, as he concludes in his final sentence, “the solution surely is that, even now, we could all use a little bit more of a liberal education.”