Defending a Liberal Education – Fareed Zakaria

Fareed  Zakaria, a well known author as well as the host of CNN’s Global Public Square (GPS), recently penned an article in the Washington Post with the provocative title “Why America’s Obsession with STEM is dangerous”.   As the title well summarizes,  Zakaria’s main thesis is that there is an overwhelming number of students choosing to study more technical subjects or subjects that prepare them directly for the job market such as business management and marketing  at the expense of more abstract intellectual pursuits like the arts or humanities.  As he explains, while technical training prepares students to be at the forefront of science and technology, it does not prepare them with the critical thinking skills and creativity that come from experiencing the liberal arts.  To support his thesis, Zakaria picks three familiar technology giants, namely, Zuckerberg, Jobs, and Bezos, all of whom have been known to attribute their innovation success to an appreciation of the liberal arts.  The term “liberal arts” is amorphous as it encompasses a huge range of subjects from ancient Greek to philosophy.  But it can generally be surmised from his article that he means languages, writing and reasoning.  Because of the success of these CEOs of Silicon Valley due to their love of the arts, we should all model ourselves on the paths they have taken.

As well intentioned as he is in airing his concern for the next generation, Zakaria’s article presents an incomplete picture, which could even be dangerous should his prescription be complied with by the millions of his fans.  There is not a clear cause-and-effect relationship between studying the liberal arts and a burst in creativity.  At least, there has not been a reliable study on any respectable sample size. Sure, innovation is a marriage of technical know-how and an understanding of how societies work.  It sounds like an easy concept but to make the connections between an understanding of how societies work and what societies need in terms of new technology requires an unusual insight, and I would venture to say a spark of genius.  It is about being able to see and make sense of the emerging relationships in our society and the use of technology to organize those relationships.  This is when Zuckerberg or Jobs comes in, to take some convenient examples.   The use of Zuckerberg, Jobs and Bezos is quite misleading because they are really considered “outliers” to borrow that word from Malcolm Gladwell’s book – those who are at the extreme end of the bell curve.  Zuckerberg and Jobs come from unusual backgrounds either at home or in school that gave them a head start in life, something that millions of children will never have due to social or economic barriers.  Could Zakaria have just reversed the cause-and effect relationship?  It could be that Zuckerberg and Jobs have the rare ability to make sense of the world, which leads them to explore all that the arts have to offer to enhance their understanding of how societies work and the human need for specific designs.

Zakaria’s prescription also leaves behind certain demographic groups, such as children of first-generation immigrants.  It is well known that immigrant children are more likely to major in technical and the more practical subjects such as science, engineering and business.   It’s for good reasons since immigrant families, after all the sacrifices they have made, want to be rewarded with stable jobs and handsome salaries for their children rather than sending them into a world of uncertainty.  They prefer the concrete or the known. The guarantees of life, even if it means their children will just be another cog in the machine, mean a lot to them.  The liberal arts has been shunned and  is often a point of tension between conservative parents and their more progressive children who want more options than to be a doctor or an accountant.  Immigrant parents are not likely to be swayed because the founder of Facebook has found intellectual stimulation in ancient Greek.  It is unlikely for children of immigrants to abandon areas where they are usually at a distinct advantage (such as math and science) and leap into the liberal arts.  However, that mind set will certainly change in future generations after immigrant families become more established.

In the end, Mr. Zakaria does have a very legitimate concern.  An overwhelming demand for technical degrees based on an emphasis on the practical would cut off creativity and a certain way of thinking.  An Asian-style education would only produce generations of robotic manufacturers at the expense of innovation. However, Zakaria’s argument is incomplete.  A well-rounded education would encourage everyone to think and write critically no matter which field one chooses.  A technology degree does not have to be based solely on rote memorization of equations; instead, schools should challenge students to think outside the box to make more connections between their societies and the technical tools they learn in the classroom.  Now, that is an innovative education.

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