Fareed Zakaria – In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015)

I regularly watch Fareed Zakaria‘s weekly current/foreign affairs program Fareed Zakaria GPS every Sunday morning on CNN, and I always find him (and the guests he has on the program) to be startlingly insightful, probing much deeper into issues that all too often are sensationalized or trivialized by the rest of the media thanks to its increasingly potent cocktail of bias, spin, and ratings. I also watch Real Time with Bill Maher and Meet the Press, but largely for the comedy in the case of the former and for the theater — Donald Trump has been dropping in seemingly every week of late — in the case of the latter. I watch both Bill Maher and Meet the Press to stay informed, but even these programs still mostly stick to the surface issues and are generally just infotainment. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t possess at least a bachelor’s degree watches Fareed Zakaria GPS. Many topics get covered in any given episode, but most tend to be economic or international (or both) in nature — not exactly Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

Toward the end of just about every episode, Fareed highlights a Book of the Week; I possess several of his recommendations now. I also have accumulated a bunch of other books that I haven’t found the time to read (I used to regularly raid the Barnes & Noble bargain bin), and I decided that this year I would like to actually get around to reading them. It’s the closest I have come to having a New Year’s Resolution in, well, ever. And while I certainly can’t read fast enough to read a book every week, a month seems doable. And the best way to keep myself honest is to write about each one and post it here. At first, I’ll likely just be highlighting old favorites, but eventually I’ll start to weave in new books I have read as I finish them. The first candidate for Book of the Month is by none other than Fareed Zakaria himself: 2015‘s In Defense of a Liberal Education. When he announced he had written this book, it definitely gave me some pause — ever since I graduated from college in 2010 I have mostly felt that my parents pretty much wasted $200,000 on a sheet of paper. (I honestly don’t even know where my degree is at the moment.)

However, I certainly respect Fareed as a thinker, so I eventually bought the book when I was in an airport — I tend to buy a lot of books when I have layovers — and proceeded to read it (a relatively short book) cover to cover. I suspect you will too. For one, the book highlights how unique the American education system is — after all, Zakaria is an immigrant. He grew up in Bombay (now Mumbai), and has remained in America ever since attending (and graduating from) Yale. The premise of In Defense of a Liberal Education is simple: Enrollment in liberal arts majors has declined in recent years, since students are being told that they have a better chance at getting a job after graduating with a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, or mathematics) field. Zakaria lays out an argument for why the liberal arts are worth majoring in too, and I have to say I was won over by it (obviously, otherwise I wouldn’t be recommending the book).

He begins by revealing how different the education system is in India: when you reach college age, you pick one of three options for the type of education you want to receive. For example, engineering is an option, and as a result there are various engineering colleges there. Fareed explains how this wasn’t very appealing to him, and more importantly, how this limits the economic prospects of India as a country. The true genius of the American system, he explains, is the emphasis on innovation. This is something as American citizens we take for granted, but in Asian countries, for instance, it tends not to be in their culture to think in this kind of way. This is why American children regularly get trounced by Asian children when it comes to test scores — in Asia, people tend to think linearly instead of laterally. This allows for them to become very good at working within a closed system but not very good at thinking outside the box. As Fareed explains, test scores can never result in Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. We have been hearing for years — decades, really — that Asian children perform better on tests than American children do. Yet the world’s center of innovation continues to be located in America, not Asia.

This was a worthwhile revelation to me, and I think I wouldn’t have valued it so much if it came from someone who didn’t actually come from an Asian (Indian in this case) background. In a passage I’ll never forget, he explains what it felt like to come across a guide to the courses at Harvard that his mother obtained after dropping Fareed’s older brother off for his first semester there:

Along with photographs and information brochures from her trip, my mother also brought back Harvard’s course book. For me, it was an astonishing document. Instead of a thin pamphlet containing a dry list of subjects, as one would find at Indian universities, it was a bulging volume overflowing with ideas. It listed hundreds of classes in all kinds of fields. And the course descriptions were written like advertisements — as if the teachers wanted you to join them on an intellectual adventure. I read through the book, amazed that students didn’t have to choose a major in advance and that they could take poetry and physics and history and economics. From eight thousand miles away, with little knowledge and no experience, I was falling in love with the idea of a liberal education.

Fareed later manages to articulate something fairly profound that I myself had been thinking for a while on an unconscious level as he starts off the third chapter, Learning to Think:

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.

In my freshman year of college, I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was a tough grader. He would return my essays with dozens of comments written in the margins, each one highlighting something that was vague or confusing or poorly articulated. I realized that coming from India, I was pretty good at taking tests and regurgitating things I had memorized; I was not so good at expressing my own ideas. By the time I got to college, I had taken many, many exams but written almost no papers. That was not unusual even at a good high school in Asia in the 1970s, and it’s still true in many places there today.

Over the course of that semester, I found myself starting to make the connection between my thoughts and words. It was hard. Being forced to write clearly means, first, you have to think clearly. I began to recognize that the two processes are inextricably intertwined. In what is probably an apocryphal story, when the columnist Walter Lippmann was once asked his views on a particular topic, he is said to have replied, “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.”

In modern philosophy, there is a great debate as to which comes first — thought or language. Do we think abstractly and then put those ideas into words, or do we think in words then create a scaffolding of thought? I can speak only from my own experience. When I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-formed ideas strung together, with gaping holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to sort them out. Writing the first draft of a column or an essay is an expression of self-knowledge — learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand. No matter who you are — a politician, a businessperson, a lawyer, a historian, or a novelist — writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.

This is a dead-on assessment; while it would certainly be incorrect to say that cogent thought is not possible among those who cannot write well (or even the illiterate), Fareed is definitely onto something here. Much of my day job consists of working with business owners who are in the process of either setting up a new website or increasing the online reach of its existing website, and a staggeringly high percentage of them do not believe highly enough in their own writing skills (or the writing skills of any of their employees) to want to write the copy of their site or its related off-site content themselves — they’d rather pay me to write it for them. And I do not even consider myself to be a particularly good writer! If you had told me in middle school or high school that people would eventually be paying for my writing, I would have said you were crazy. (And most of my English teachers probably would have agreed.) In fact, I can still remember the feeling after my English professor in college totally tore apart the first draft I turned in of the first (of many) papers I wrote over the course of four years.

I was never very good at conforming to the academic style of writing, to be honest — I always saw it as a closed system that had no potential for me. Even back then I was putting together one-page Squidoo sites (which was all I knew how to do at the time) because I loved the lack of rules when it came to writing on the web. I eventually came to love the format of blogging, which is definitely its own style that can take a while to master. Still, you can like the format of blogging — and all its media-rich quirks — all you like but you still have to be able to write, at the end of the day. (This is why 95-98% of blogs are junk.) I am not what you would call a “good writer.” I more or less fool people into thinking I am a good writer by being very good at expressing exactly what I am trying to say, and saying something worthwhile while I’m at it. Just being able to do this does not necessarily make you a good writer. Good writers can accomplish this while elevating their language through the use of various poetic/rhetorical devices and quality prose at the same time.

I have never cared very much about that last point for whatever reason — I’m sure my gravitation toward blogging has something to do with it, since it’s an informal medium, and I have never cared much for formalities. I also prefer screenwriting to writing a novel when it comes expressing my fictional ideas. Screenwriting is a simpler, more informal format; there’s a certain comfort in having the broad strokes of your script painted over later with a cinematic canvas. I could never write a novel — I’m not good with details nor do I possess a deep enough vocabulary to make a novel ambitious enough for my taste on a literary level. I may hesitate to refer to myself as a “good” writer (I’m definitely not a great one), but I certainly think of myself as a “good enough” writer. This assessment more or less boils down to the fact that most people — many of whom possess a college degree — are not “good enough” writers. I am astounded by how many people I come across in the workplace who frankly just can’t write.

So is that the ultimate answer, then? Just learn how to be a “good enough” writer and you’ll have job security for life? Not exactly. Even if you have a liberal arts degree, know how to think, and are a good enough writer, this by itself will very likely not be enough. I’m someone who checks off all three (my second major was philosophy), and I didn’t get steady work until I had developed a skill set that allowed me to separate myself from the pack. But even majoring in a STEM field won’t give you the required skill set you need to get a job; college is in the business of giving you information, not a skill set. My brother majored in a STEM field and has worked for Microsoft for the past ten years, and he has told me multiple times that he doesn’t think students who are graduating from colleges after majoring in computer engineering/science these days are qualified for what Microsoft needs them to do. (In my brother’s case, he spent his whole life teaching himself programming — he was in middle school or high school when he received C++ for Christmas one year. Furthermore, he graduated simultaneously with a bachelor’s and master’s at the same time — at the age of 21 — from Stanford. That’s not most people, but that’s also why Microsoft hired him.)

I would argue that there is a Venn diagram of what it takes to be successful: knowing, doing, and networking. In other words, there’s education (knowing), skills (doing), and socializing (networking). And while it’s true that networking may result in you getting a job or interview, you still have to be qualified; in other words, you have to be able to do the job. And the more highly paid jobs require more advanced skills — chances are, anyone making more than $100,000 a year is able to do things most other people can’t. And you learn by doing. I’d have to imagine even a doctor would probably tell you he or she learned more from their residency/on-the-job training than from reading Gray’s Anatomy. Even after reading In Defense of a Liberal Education, my position is clear: your skill set gets you hired, and how adept you are at exploiting the marketplace with those skills in as many different ways as possible is what ultimately increases your earning ability. So why am I recommending the book, then? The answer is simple: industries don’t last forever.

The true genius of the American education system, Zakaria argues, is that it won’t just help you get your first job, it will help you get your fifth or sixth job. The world is changing rapidly, and there is no reason to believe it won’t keep changing even more rapidly as time goes on. The rage today may be smartphones and Apple products, but what if, in 20 years, Apple has gone out of business? It’s not so hard to conceive — have they done a single innovative thing since Steve Jobs died? 20 years ago, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and Kodak was still going strong. (Hell, Apple had been completely overrun by Microsoft at the time.) If you can think and learn to think laterally, you can move from job to job as industries collapse (and they inevitably will) and are replaced by newer ones. This is the true point of educating yourself: that you not only learn how to think (and how to write too), but how to learn. This is why it’s critical to pick a major you’re interested in learning about — the information itself is not that important when you get to the workplace, but your ability to sponge in new information, express yourself clearly and correctly, and contribute good ideas always will be. In this sense, an American college degree allows you to develop the ability to develop a skill set and put it to use.

Developing the skill set itself is up to you and, to be frank, always has been. There used to be a sweet spot in history decades ago where companies would hire college graduates and then give them the necessary training to pad their relatively bare skill set, but those days are long since over: you need to be able to make someone else money from the get-go these days. The natural response has been to try to acquire these skills via majoring in STEM fields. This doesn’t really solve the problem, since as I mentioned earlier, colleges are in the business of giving you information, not skills. Furthermore, the students who otherwise would be taking liberal arts courses — and enjoying them because they are internally motivated to take them — are now probably miserable in STEM courses because the pressure to take them is external. In the years following my own graduation from college, I was kicking myself for not picking a STEM major; now I’m really glad I didn’t, because I ultimately wouldn’t have learned anything and would have absolutely hated the whole process.

A study was released late in 2015 that found that white, middle-aged Americans were now dying faster than other middle-aged American ethnic groups, and incidentally it was the focus of Fareed’s editorial this past week, which both appeared in The Washington Post and led off GPS. Typically, the middle-aged whites who are dying have only a high school diploma or even less; they are also believed to form the core of Donald Trump’s base. I suspect the source of their despair is that the world has left them behind, that they are unable to update their skill set to compete in the new Internet-based, digital economy. In other words, I suspect this is the future of not having a college degree, of not having the ability to acquire new skills and laterally move from job to job as industries disappear and new ones emerge. Nothing is a guarantee anymore; that’s why pensions will be a thing of the past eventually, since virtually no one of my generation will spend their entire career working for one company or institution. (According to my mom, who has worked for the government her entire life, even the federal government is transitioning to the 401(k) for younger employees.)

The industry I work in now — digital marketing — did not really exist when I was in college, and certainly not when I started as a freshman in the fall of 2006. The skills I needed to acquire what I would consider my first “real” job in 2013 were not taught by the University of Miami from 2006 to 2010, and I can’t imagine they are being taught there — or at any other college or university — now. Instead, I acquired them myself. I learned by doing. And then once I had real, steady work in the industry I wanted to be in, I really learned. Then I started my own company and learned some more. I’m pretty much always learning, mostly because I try to always be doing as much as possible. If I needed to transition to a different industry, I feel pretty confident I could do it. If you just go to school with the mindset that you just want to learn a trade, or just want to learn what it takes to get a job, you might not be prepared for life after whenever that job or the industry it is in disappears.

And perhaps more importantly, you might miss out on the entrepreneurial aspects of uncovering brand new industries and exploiting the money that can be made there. Industries go extinct for a reason: a better one has come along and replaced it. In other words, it’s just a matter of how you look at it. If you’re a business owner, people still have money and are still willing to spend it, you just have to think of new ways of getting it. The same is true if you’re an employee that works in a collapsing industry — find a new one to work in. This is why I agree with the conclusion of Fareed’s column this past week:

But why don’t we see the trend among other American ethnic groups? While mortality rates for middle-age whites have stayed flat or risen, the rates for Hispanics and blacks have continued to decline significantly. These groups live in the same country and face greater economic pressures than whites. Why are they not in similar despair?

The answer might lie in expectations. Princeton anthropologist Carolyn Rouse suggested, in an email exchange, that other groups might not expect that their income, standard of living and social status are destined to steadily improve. They don’t have the same confidence that if they work hard, they will surely get ahead. In fact, Rouse said that after hundreds of years of slavery, segregation and racism, blacks have developed ways to cope with disappointment and the unfairness of life: through family, art, protest speech and, above all, religion.

“You have been the veterans of creative suffering,” Martin Luther King Jr. told African Americans in his “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963: “Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.” Writing in 1960, King explained the issue in personal terms: “As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways that I could respond to my situation: either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. . . . So like the Apostle Paul I can now humbly yet proudly say, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ ”

The Hispanic and immigrant experiences in the United States are different, of course. But again, few in these groups have believed that their place in society is assured. Minorities, by definition, are on the margins. They do not assume that the system is set up for them. They try hard and hope to succeed, but they do not expect it as the norm.

The United States is going through a great power shift. Working-class whites don’t think of themselves as an elite group. But, in a sense, they have been, certainly compared with blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans and most immigrants. They were central to America’s economy, its society, indeed its very identity. They are not anymore. Donald Trump has promised that he will change this and make them win again. But he can’t. No one can. And deep down, they know it.

Indeed the system is not set up for you, no matter who you are. Industries have never been stable; technology has always been changing. This is why it is of the great cons of our time that, somehow, some way, we collectively decided that there is a checklist (i.e., you just have to go to college and then a job will be waiting for you on the other side) everyone just has to follow in order to be successful. The problem is, American success is usually driven by innovation, and innovators hardly ever follow the same checklist everyone else is following. This is why education — not learning against your will, but passionate learning — is so important: it’s the one thing no one can ever take away from you. Nor can they take away its chief application: the means to acquire a marketable skill set. Those that have less education will not find that Donald Trump, of all people, can give them more of it. Nor can Donald Trump magically give them the skill set they need to make someone else money — the requisite of pretty much every job in the private sector. And finally, he cannot give them the networking skills that provide them with a job interview, either. Or, to paraphrase, that’s three strikes and you’re fired, Donald.

One last parting political shot, since I’m up on my high horse at the moment: It’s entirely inconsistent from a logical standpoint for a group of people who despise government and supposedly want the government to stay out of their lives to expect a presidential candidate to somehow positively affect their financial position. If you were toward the bottom before the recovery, you’re likely to still be toward the bottom after the recovery — unless, of course, you have expanded your skill set in some way. If anything has changed — and frankly, a lot has — since the recession, it’s that high-paying jobs are almost exclusively skill-intensive now (and even some jobs that aren’t that high-paying are skill-intensive). Those who seem to be despairing the most about this shift to an ultra-upwardly mobile — or at least diagonally mobile — society are those who were never interested in being upwardly mobile in the first place, which I suppose makes sense.

I also find it somewhat odd that those who generally possess the old “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” attitude when it comes to the welfare state or immigration don’t seem to want to apply it to their own situation. If 75% of the population is richer than you are, they’ll still be richer than you are if Trump gets elected. Perhaps, as the old conservative economic policy goes, he can grow the entire pie, ensuring that everyone by definition will receive a larger slice. But here is the truth: the pie has been growing, and for some time. GDP (i.e., the “pie” in question) growth is positive (2.4% in 2014, which is ahead of inflation), which is not always the case — it shrunk by 2.8% in 2009, for example, during the height of the recession. We have had (as of this writing) 69 consecutive months of private sector job growth and counting. When Obama entered office, we were losing 750,000 jobs a month as unemployment rose to 10% a year later. It’s now down to 5%. It’s not the economy’s fault that blue-collar America is upset with the status quo; rather, the nature of the economy has simply changed, and they haven’t been able to keep up with it.

As Fareed Zakaria explains so eloquently throughout his book, it’s a liberal arts degree — or at least a college degree (in anything, really) obtained as a result of internally motivated study — that ultimately provides the best defense against economic turbulence in the long run. I hope I have made a good case for In Defense of a Liberal Education. It’s a good read, and as I mentioned at the top, it won’t take you very long to read it — it’s only 200 pages or so. However, I do think it is an important book that’s worthy of your time and attention. If you have read it, please let me know what you thought of it in the comments section below, and if you want to buy it, please do so through my Amazon and iTunes affiliate links! (Should have a Barnes & Noble one shortly for you, as well.)

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