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In Defense of a Liberal Arts Education
posted by: Cindy Omlin | June 25, 2015, 02:55 PM   

In the clamor surrounding STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education and the importance of preparing students for a tech-centered world, some stakeholders may be tempted to push other subjects aside.  This would be a mistake, argues Fareed Zakaria in his new book In Defense of a Liberal Education.

By ”liberal” education, Zakaria is referring not to political preference, but to liberal arts or an education that is well-rounded and includes plenty of science and math, but also literature, art, philosophy, history, and other subjects.  It is this type of education, Zakaria claims, that is best suited for the rapidly changing world that we find ourselves in.  The argument is a simple one: while a degree in computer science may enable someone to write a program that will solve all of the world’s problems, it’s a degree in liberal arts that will teach a person the thinking skills necessary to figure out what the world’s problems are, what their solutions will be, and how to convince others that you have the solutions.  In other words, a liberal arts education allows its students to capitalize on the situations around them.  This is a very compelling argument that speaks to the soul of the American Psyche. 


As is present in many of Zakaria’s books, Defense starts out by singing the praises of, first, the United States in general, and then the American education system.  The United States is great, and a large reason why is because the United States has a long history with strong, liberal arts institutions. Zakaria then outlines the history of secondary and post-secondary education, focusing especially on the role of universities and the development of the modern liberal arts degree.  From there, he transitions into relating the benefits of a liberal arts education over other degrees, emphasizing that it is through a liberal arts education that you learn how to think and how to communicate what your thoughts are.  One of the main benefits that Zakaria focuses on is the ability of a liberal arts education to develop talent and pave the way to upward mobility.  The book ends by discussing the modern American student and how a liberal arts education has the ability to ignite their interests and passions in a way that modern education does not.


It is noted in "History of a Liberal Arts Education" that, "In the minds of the ancient Greeks and Romans, a liberal arts education was necessary for a human being to be free. On the other hand, vocational or technical studies were often thought to best fit non-free members of society or slaves. To those fortunate enough to be awarded a liberal arts education, their education emphasized civic duty and the development of the whole human being to their full potential through the study of grammar, rhetoric, and logic."  One must ask if our current emphasis on STEM to the exclusion of the liberal arts is hampering the civic development of American citizens and our pool of future leaders when the education system focuses primarily on STEM work skills.


Not only are Zakaria’s arguments founded in good reasoning, but he explains his ideas in an easy-to-read style, which along with his many stories and personal narratives make Defense a quick and engaging read.  Those who are worried about the narrowing of the curriculum or people who are interested in ways to develop their students thinking skills will be particularly interested in picking this book up.  Of additional interest are the Seven Laws of Teaching, a classic educational work written by author John Milton Gregory. The book, available online as a free e-book, is described as "an essential title for all educators to read, and is filled with practical advice for not just those who are in the common and most obvious role of teaching public or private school, but as well for those teaching Sunday school and any other types of classes involving teaching. The Seven Laws of Teaching is highly recommended for individuals who are in the education and/or teaching field."

Originally posted at AAE by Melissa and adapted by Cindy at NWPE.

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