Fareed Zakaria attempts in his book “In Defense of a Liberal Education” to make the case explicit in its title.
Based on his Washington Post treatment of the subject, he fails.
In a March 26, 2015 opinion piece, “Why America’s obsession with STEM education is dangerous” in the Washington Post, he writes:
Every month, it seems, we hear about our children’s bad test scores in math and science — and about new initiatives from companies, universities or foundations to expand STEM courses (science, technology, engineering and math) and deemphasize the humanities.
This dismissal of broad-based learning, however, comes from a fundamental misreading of the facts — and puts America on a dangerously narrow path for the future.
Zakaria’s critical error lies in his pivot from “liberal education” to what he asserts makes for a success in the global economy.
He cites the following as example elements of a liberal education: anthropology, English, philosophy, ancient Greek, psychology, and sociology. No disagreement there.
And he cites the following as example characteristics of a strong workforce: innovation, entrepreneurship, critical thinking, creativity, flexibility, social skill, confidence, self-esteem, problem solving, critical thinking, writing, design, marketing, and social networking. “Critical thinking is, in the end, the only way to protect American jobs,” he claims. Again, no disagreement.
Zakaria goes astray, however, in his inability to show liberal education as the better path to the important workplace characteristics he touts. These characteristics emerge as likely from a “technical” education as from a “liberal” one.
So, let the job market speak. Arguably, in today’s economy, technical jobs offer more openings and command better compensation than liberal ones (absolutely no substance slight to the latter intended). Look to medicine. Look to finance. Look to the biological and information sciences.
But should preparation for the workforce drive education’s primary purpose?
No less an authority than ASCD weighs in. Formerly the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, ASCD serves as “global leader in developing and delivering innovative programs, products, and services that empower educators to support the success of each learner.” In a July 2012 article “What is the Purpose of Education?,” they write:
In the United States, historically, the purpose of education has evolved according to the needs of society. Education’s primary purpose has ranged from instructing youth in religious doctrine, to preparing them to live in a democracy, to assimilating immigrants into mainstream society, to preparing workers for the industrialized 20th century workplace.
And now, as educators prepare young people for their futures in a world that is rapidly changing, what is the goal? To create adults who can compete in a global economy? To create lifelong learners? To create emotionally healthy adults who can engage in meaningful relationships?
Consider the skills that make one successful in the workplace. Critical thinking. Problem solving. Creativity. Teamwork. Communication. Unquestionably, these same skills form the foundation to rapidly change. To globally compete. To continually learn. To meaningfully relate.
Sadly, workplace success offers a tenuous hold in the current economy. A liberal education educates. It fascinates. But as an on-ramp to the workforce, its risk outweighs its reward.
“Job” may sound mundane. But try to imagine a more enabling power. A job puts water in our bodies. Food in our stomachs. A roof over our heads. Medicine in our cabinets. A job–at present, the province of the technical and not the liberal–provides the security and stability to contribute to family, community, and society in the most aspirational of manners.