In Defense of a Liberal Education — Fareed Zakaria

Amazon link

 On Writing:

WHEN YOU HEAR someone extol the benefits of a liberal education, you will probably hear him or her say that “it teaches you how to think.” I’m sure that’s true. But for me, the central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill.

If you think this has no earthly use, ask Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos, often as long as six printed pages, and begins senior-management meetings with a period of quiet time, sometimes as long as thirty minutes, while everyone reads the “narratives” to themselves and makes notes on them. If proposing a new product or strategy, the memo must take the form of a press release, using simple, jargon-free language so that a layperson can understand it. In an interview with Fortune’s Adam Lashinsky, Bezos said, “Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking.”

Norman Augustine, reflecting on his years as the CEO of Lockheed Martin, recalled that “the firm I led at the end of my formal business career employed some one hundred eighty thousand people, mostly college graduates, of whom over eighty thousand were engineers or scientists. I have concluded that one of the stronger correlations with advancement through the management ranks was the ability of an individual to express clearly“his or her thoughts in writing.”

The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak. The Yale-NUS report states that the college wants to make “articulate communication” central to its intellectual experience. That involves writing, of course, but also the ability to give compelling verbal explanations of, say, scientific experiments or to deliver presentations before small and large groups. At the deepest level, articulate communication helps you to speak your mind. This doesn’t mean spouting anything and everything you’re thinking at any given moment. It means learning to understand your own mind, to filter out under-developed ideas, and then to express to the outside world your thoughts, arranged in some logical order.”


  • “The American system,” they write, “can be characterized as open, forgiving, lacking universal standards, and having an academic yet practical curriculum…Goldin and Katz point out that on a per capita basis, Britain has only half as many undergraduate institutions and Germany just one-third. ” 12-13

  • “Around the fifth century BC, some Greek city-states, most notably Athens, began to experiment with a new form of government. “Our constitution is called a democracy,” the Athenian statesman Pericles noted in his funeral oration, “because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people.” This innovation in government required a simultaneous innovation in education. Basic skills for sustenance were no longer sufficient—citizens also had to be properly trained to run their own society. The link between a broad education and liberty became important to the Greeks. Describing this approach to instruction centuries later, the Romans coined a term for it: a “liberal” education, using the word liberal in its original Latin sense, “of or pertaining to free men.” 32-33



  • Science in those days was seen to have no practical purpose, but instead a path to abstract knowledge 35

  • “The earliest English colleges were founded in the thirteenth century for scholars of divinity whose duties, Delbanco notes, “included celebrating mass for the soul of the benefactor who had endowed the college and thereby spared them from menial work.” 40

  • “An emphasis on building character, stemming from the religious origins of colleges, remains an aim of liberal arts colleges almost everywhere, at least in theory." 41

  • Yale 1828 report outlining that liberal education is to expand and fill the mind 43

  • Charles Eliot, president of Harvard for 40 years, melded university graduate research and college undergraduate experience, and created the elective system; wrote in the Atlantic 1869 — influence of Emerson individualism, link

  • Emphasis on research drives professors to teach arcane subtopics 46


  • Writing forces thoughts to be structured and coherent — Jeff Bezons + AMZN, 6-page narrative memos

  • “For me, the central value of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly, and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill."

  • “People who learned to write code for computers just ten years ago now confront a new world of apps and mobile devices. What remain constant are the skills you acquire and the methods you learn to approach problems. ” 59

  • “When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained that “it is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.” 62

  • Mark Zuckerberg a psychology major: “In his own words, Facebook is “as much psychology and sociology as it is technology.” 63

  • Norman Augustine “And who wants a technology-driven economy if those who drive it are not grounded in such fields as ethics” 68


  • Early STEM achievement as measured by PISA don’t predict innovation: Israel, US, Sweden score 1st 2nd and 6th in terms of VC investment/GDP, despite low PISA scores, ranked 28, 27, 29 PISA 2012

    • China does better on PISA, but study more: estimate that Chinese students spend 25-30% longer in school, 2-3 years by the age of 15

  • “In his book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, Jerome Karabel demonstrates in painstaking detail how subjective admissions requirements like interviews and involvement in extracurricular activities were put in place by Ivy League schools largely to keep Jewish admissions from rising in the 1920s through the 1940s. Unless there are aggressive efforts to compensate for the advantages of wealth, including attendance at private schools and participation in luxury extracurricular pursuits, the American elite educational system runs the risk, in Jefferson’s terms, of creating an unnatural aristocracy.” 92

  • “The average college tuition has increased at an eye-popping pace—over 1,200 percent since 1978, the first year complete records were kept. That is four times the pace of the consumer price index and twice as fast as medical costs” 93

  • Zakaria quotes studies remarking a 5% MOOC completion rate, but these were from a study of 32 Upenn GSE MOOCs, a far more comprehensive data source might be katyjordan's project which has nearly 200 courses and an average 15% completion rate, she finds a median 12.6% in her paper 99

  • The impact of MOOCs is for those in developing countries that don't have access to high quality education, 72% of registered edX users are ex-US


  • "The Closing of the American Mind" — "higher education has failed democracy and impoverished the souls of today's students.

  • The rise of self-promotion — don't be loyal to a company

  • “Perhaps the most striking result from the HERI survey involves the broadest issue: the number of incoming freshmen who consider “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” essential or very important has plummeted from 86 percent in 1967 to 45 percent in 2013.” 128

  • “We live in a very different age today, one in which there are fewer grand ideological debates with great consequences. It is inconceivable that anything like The Day After would be made, let alone trigger much discussion.”

  • “There are plenty of challenges abroad and at home, injustice and imbalances that need to be corrected and reformed. But there are also those times and places where people are lucky enough that private virtues might be cultivated. As John Adams famously wrote during the American Revolution, “I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”