By Joseph E. Aoun
The oldest argument in defense of a liberal education is that we are not the sum of our earthly appetites. We are beings with souls, and those souls must be nourished through beauty, contemplation of our world, and awareness of our role within it. If we neglect meaning, our existence grinds into mechanics and dust.
But earthly appetites cannot be denied, especially when we need to compete for a paycheck in a globalized economy. What, then, is the best form of higher education? Should it take a professional bent, or should we still study poetry, history, and philosophy?
In his passionate, punchy treatise “In Defense of the Liberal Arts,” journalist Fareed Zakaria mounts an eloquent attack on the voices calling for skills-based learning to supplant the pursuit of a broad-based “liberal education.” This isn’t an original book, but it is a convincing one. Beginning with the image of our modern colossus — the heroic college dropout who launches a tech start-up and takes it public — he recounts how politicians and parents alike are pushing students to study “practical” fields. After all, with the cost of a degree so high, it’s natural to expect a return on investment.
That impulse toward a practical education, he asserts, is baldly un-American. Throughout our history, higher education in this country has contrasted with the German approach, which emphasized training for trades. Our system evolved to be more generalist, and Zakaria delivers a succinct history of how it got that way, from its classical origins (although his fact-checker should review some dates, like when Cicero was alive) to the invention of electives. Then, in the 20th century, it fragmented into arguments over core curricula, grade inflation, and a seemingly insurmountable divide between the sciences and the humanities.
More to the point, Zakaria argues, it’s wrong to think that a liberal education doesn’t pay.
“What is the earthly use of a liberal education?” he asks, and he supplies a very good answer: It teaches students to write. By teaching them to write, it teaches them to think. He observes that “writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas,” and notes that no less a titan than Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos (who owns The Washington Post) forces his senior managers to write six-page, narrative memos for every meeting. No jargon. No bullet points. Just clear thinking — a nonpareil workplace virtue.
A liberal education also teaches you to speak. Although oratory has lost favor in this country over the past century, a college seminar remains one of the few places in which that talent can be honed, and its utility is obvious to anyone who’s ever sat in a job interview or delivered a PowerPoint presentation. The third strength, he believes, is that reading books — weighing arguments, taking notes, probing for flaws — teaches you how to learn independently. Technical competencies are constantly being supplanted by new knowledge, but these skills remain eternal.
Nonetheless, all is not perfect in liberal education, and from grade inflation to embarrassing proficiency test scores, the author deftly encapsulates its woes. He also alludes to possible improvements, such as creative models that integrate lessons in the humanities with ones on the scientific method, promoting a sort of academic “cross-training” that exercises a student’s different modes of thinking. He calls on liberal education to be “more structured and demanding,” noting that all Americans require “greater scientific literacy.” Indeed, he urges business and communications majors to follow a “deeper set of courses in subjects they found fascinating—and supplementing it, as we all should, with some basic knowledge of computers and math.”
These are useful insights, but Zakaria doesn’t pull them together to explain how higher education should change as a result. However, if one follows these points to their logical end, we would conclude that in the same way that every student in an applied discipline can benefit from studying concepts from the liberal arts, every humanities student needs exposure to content and methods from domains such as analytics, statistics, and coding. Rather than merely defending the tenets of a liberal education, we should be advancing the teaching of what I call the “New Literacy”: a more expansive skill set that integrates both broad-based concepts and technical, quantitative content, leading to the deeper learning of each.
For example, using a New Literacy approach, a history student seeking to understand why a major social movement arose could do so not only by researching speeches and newspapers, but also by using “big data” approaches like text mining to quantify when the appearance of words, concepts, and beliefs related to the social movement reached critical mass in key texts. Likewise, a comparative literature student could benefit from learning coding — not because she needs to program a computer, but because, as Steve Jobs once noted, coding teaches you how to think. Coding’s iterative approach to problem solving, for instance, could give this student new insights into how to approach the analysis of literary work across national borders, time periods, languages, genres, and the boundaries between literature and the other arts. Through this sort of integrated approach, colleges and universities can help students develop much more powerful tools for learning — and creating knowledge — than with approaches that emphasize one dimension alone.
In a similar oversight, Zakaria references the role of experience in the learning process, but doesn’t expound on its real power. Experiential learning — the integration of coursework with engagement in the real world through co-ops, long-term internships, global experiences, and research — is the most effective way to transform acquired information into knowledge and wisdom. In leaving the shelter of the classroom, students can explore what they like and what they’re good at. They learn how to work in a team environment and how to thrive in unfamiliar cultures. By adding an experiential component to a liberal education, colleges can deliver on their promise to teach students about the meaning of life, and also how to live it.
For instance, at Northeastern University, one of our English majors recently completed a co-op with a national magazine, applying ideas she encountered in a “Technology of Text” class to the creation of content for new formats in publishing. Through her co-op, she didn’t merely internalize her classroom lessons; she experienced them in a way that imprinted them more deeply in her mind, increasing her understanding of the content, context, and relationship of the knowledge to her life.
But perhaps the greatest benefit of the experiential model is a sharpened appetite for self-directed lifelong learning. By honing their independence and real-world savvy, students learn to adapt. Coupled with the intellectual curiosity they stoke through liberal studies, they leave college braced for the whirlwind of our 21st-century economy. Thus, experiential learning teaches students who they are, and how to navigate the reality of their lives and careers. As Albert Einstein wrote, “All knowledge of reality starts from experience and ends in it.”
The mission of higher education is to help students fulfill both their earthly appetites and their souls. Zakaria’s prescription for this is a liberal education, and he makes a persuasive case. His argument would have been even more compelling, though, if his vision had championed fully the mental cross-training that an education in the New Literacy and experiential learning opportunities can provide. Indeed, if it were enriched by these components routinely, a liberal education would require no defense at all.
Joseph E. Aoun is president of Northeastern University.