May 24th, 2014
09:56 AM ET

Why the liberal arts matter

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By Fareed Zakaria

It's graduation season in the United States, which means the season of commencements speeches – a time for canned jokes and wise words. This year I was asked to do the honors at Sarah Lawrence in New York, a quintessential liberal arts college. So I thought it was worth talking about the idea of a liberal arts education – which is under serious attack these days.

The governors of Texas, Florida and North Carolina have all announced that they do not intended to spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts.Florida’s Governor, Rick Scott, asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don't think so.” Even President Obama recently urged students to keep in mind that a technical training could be more valuable than a degree in art history.

I can well understand the concerns about liberal arts because I grew up in India in the 1960s and ‘70s. A technical training was seen as the key to a good career. If you were bright, you studied science, so that’s what I did.

But when I got to America for college, I quickly saw the immense power of a liberal education.For me, the most important use of it is that it teaches you how to write. In my first year in college, I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was tough.

I realized coming from India, I was pretty good at taking tests, at regurgitating stuff I had memorized, but not so good at expressing my own ideas. Now I know I'm supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. When I begin to write, I realize that my "thoughts" are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them.

Whether you’re a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and it brings clarity and order to your ideas. If you think this has no use, ask Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos – often as long as six printed pages. And he begins senior management meetings with a period of quiet time – sometimes as long as 30 minutes – while everyone reads the memos and makes notes on them.

Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and, I would add, quickly, will prove to be an invaluable skill.

The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak and speak your mind. One of the other contrasts that struck me between school in India and college in America was that an important part of my grade was talking.My professors were going to judge me on the process of thinking through the subject matter and presenting my analysis and conclusions – out loud. Speaking clearly and concisely is a big advantage in life.

The final strength of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to learn – to read in a variety of subjects, find data, analyze information. Whatever job you take, I guarantee that the specific stuff you will have learned at college, whatever it is, will prove mostly irrelevant or quickly irrelevant. Even if you learned to code but did it a few years ago, before the world of apps, you would have to learn to code anew. And given the pace of change that is transforming industries and professions these days, you will need that skill of learning and retooling all the time.

These are liberal education's strengths and they will help you as you move through your working life. Of course, if you want professional success, you will have to put in the hours, be focused and disciplined, work well with others, and get lucky. But that would be true for anyone, even engineers.

Anyway, that is a piece of the graduation talk I gave at Sarah Lawrence College on Friday. You can watch the whole thing – which has much more – online here.

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Topics: Education • GPS Show • Ideas • What in the World?

soundoff (247 Responses)
  1. RobS

    So those of us who obtained a liberal arts degree and earned a path to success can all dislocate our shoulders patting ourselves on the back. If we teach liberal arts, we can continue to promote the scam that an investment in a $100K+ education will bring us financial reward in the future. Meanwhile, a much larger number of graduates than represented here are entering the workforce expecting what has been promised by educators, and angered at society for not living up to the promises made. And at least as many have dropped out from this path, wasting time and money.

    That was then and this is now, folks. Liberal Arts degrees are a glut. An employer who wants somebody who can write something has 10 applicants for every job. Take up plumbing and read a book – be useful to somebody.

    April 3, 2015 at 3:40 am | Reply
  2. Eddie Fonseca

    One of the greatest blues guitarist who is British American Eric Clapton had a liberal arts degree from some university in England, and has worked in the construction industry, and doing odd jobs to support his guitar career that was not heavily supported in England during the sixties and seventies like how they support all careers in good old America. I know we all have laughed when we hear some has taken a liberal arts degree, and think boy what the hell where you thinking wasting your money like that why not pick up a trade or push a pen in an office and earn your bread butter to put bread on the table for your family. Now wait just a minute America let me tell you something without liberal arts degree, we would not have public relation officers to answer those questions when your UPS packages go missing or when you suitcase go missing at Fort Dallas International Airport. Liberal Arts degrees have a bad reputation of being worthless degrees, but that's not the case atall there are many jobs from Public Relation Officer to a Communication Assistant in a big corporation. What defies a job in America between blue collar and white collar, at the end of day it's all about making the all mighty dollar to pay our bills of and put food on the table for our family's who depend on checks at the end of every two weeks. Without more support for liberal art degrees or any careers in America will our great nation be a country, that shows the rest of the world we live in the land of the free, and any American can achieve the American Dream either working in trades or in the liberal arts field for years to come.

    August 4, 2015 at 1:32 am | Reply
  3. Adam Oranchak

    I will go one step further. Understanding people requires interactions with real people and not fictional characters. True, acquiring computing skills is a solo effort that necessitates some level of social isolation. But reading fiction is no better in that respect. My recommendation is to find a way to spend time face-to-face with people unlike yourself. A real, sincere and honest social interaction is way more valuable than a narrative, no mater how brilliantly constructed, is watching more valuable.

    October 10, 2015 at 2:04 am | Reply
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