What Good Is Liberal Education?

Writing for The American Interest, JMC Fellow and Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor in Humanistic Studies at Cornell University Barry Strauss questions recent arguments in favor of liberal education.

Specifically, Strauss confronts Fareed Zakaria‘s recent book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, in which the author claims that liberal education ought to be valued because it provides a competitive edge in the marketplace. As Strauss explains,

Zakaria displays a great deal of common sense. He has a fingertip feel for the realities of higher education. Among the features of the current scene that he highlights are the relative expense of even a state university (in 1960, the University of California at Berkeley was free; now it costs a non-state resident more than $55,000 a year) and the lack of places for applicants; the de facto Asian-American quota that is too often in place; the economics of rising college costs; the reasons why faculty too often teach obscure classes (not because they are left-wing subversives but because they tend to be promoted for zeroing in on a small area of research); the motivation for faculty to give out high grades (it’s easier); and the way the need to find efficiencies is making online learning attractive.

Zakaria is entirely convincing when he says that more online education is inevitable. Its main advantages will be cutting costs and increasing access. But his optimism about the ability of big data to generate individualized education is perhaps too sanguine—mainly because those who interpret the data will need to separate it into little packages that may be a bad fit for real-life individuals. I prefer the old saw that the ideal education was Williams College President Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other. But logs are a luxury these days, as Zakaria shows. He argues persuasively that in the future only fifty or so colleges in the United States will be able to charge high tuition. Most people will need to make do with Digital U.

After surveying the history of liberal education and the challenges facing today’s academy, Zakaria turns to contemporary youth. Refreshingly, he defends them. Millennials are not to be blamed for being anxious about making money, facing as they do global competition and the rising threat of displacement by technology. Unlike boomers, they don’t have the psychological luxury of presumed prosperity. To their credit, millennials also increasingly show a desire to help the community and give back to others, which is certainly better than the—how to put this?—self-actualization ambitions that some of us expressed when we were younger.

However, Strauss worries that Zakaria’s “real recipe for higher education seems to be a combination of learning how to write and speak and of studying the social sciences in order to face a world shaped by capitalism, globalization, and technology.” What about the humanities, Strauss asks? And while Strauss ultimately agrees with Zakaria’s conclusion that “we all need more liberal education,” he argues that it may not be for the reason Zakaria thinks: “The best right reason is not that a liberal education will give us a competitive edge in the marketplace. It’s that it will make our souls more beautiful—that’s why we need it.”


For the full text of this article, see here.