Friday, October 28, 2016

In Defense of a Liberal EducationIn Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"[...] the central value of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill."

It so happens that the topic of my 100th reviewed book this year is exceptionally close to me for professional reasons. Since for almost 35 years I have been teaching in the area of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) disciplines in a fine liberal arts college, a part of a university that includes several professional schools with which our college competes for excellence, Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) is an essential read for me. Even though the book has disappointed me a little, I still wholeheartedly recommend it for readers who are not sure why liberal education matters in this age of science and technology.

Mr. Zakaria presents the main arguments succinctly and convincingly: liberal education teaches students how to think, how to write and speak, and most importantly, how to learn. Voices grow in this country calling for more "skills-based learning," which is needed "for the nation to stay competitive." While the need for more and better STEM education is unquestionable, Mr. Zakaria tries to explain why that change should not be allowed to happen at the expense of the broad, liberal education. The professional skills acquired without simultaneously learning how to think and learn may be good enough for the graduate's first job, but not for the next ones.

Most of the topics discussed by the author - while close to my professional focus - are too specialized to be discussed in this brief review so I will just mention some highlights (and lowlights). I like the inclusion of detailed history of liberal education, from its Greek origins about 2500 years ago, through the first university in Bologna in the 11th century, through Islamic madrasas and English colleges, to the current-day liberal arts institutions, headlined by the most famous ones, such as Harvard or Yale (Mr. Zakaria's alma mater). Also, the author's speculation on possible directions of evolution of higher education in the Internet age makes interesting reading: the concept of MOOC is explored in some depth. However, the deeply harmful impact of the instantaneous access to massive (dis)information available via Internet is virtually not examined at all.

Further on the negative side, the book could do without the autobiographical details of the author's (and his family's) own education, nor do I see the relevance of the chapter In Defense of Today's Youth. I do agree with the points the author makes in that chapter but they seem to belong to a different book. Many passages are rambling and lack tight focus. There are so many detours and digressions that one might suspect the author of padding the volume to reach some presumed minimum size of the book.

Overall, In Defense is a flawed yet worthwhile work.

Three stars.

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