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 (222 Responses)
  1. David N Ruiz

    Plainly stated, the sun will never set on the liberal arts and its why's.

    May 27, 2014 at 4:51 pm | Reply
  2. Chineze

    Thank you so much for this piece. The world needed to know the importance of the liberal arts as well as appreciate that body of knowledge.
    The liberal arts humanizes the sciences and the technological age. We will ignore this to our own peril.

    May 28, 2014 at 2:48 am | Reply
  3. barbara451

    Thank you from a freshman comp professor. Critical thinking and the arts keep us civilized.

    May 28, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply
    • Elizabeth

      Brava! Well said, and I could not agree more.

      May 28, 2014 at 10:25 pm | Reply
  4. george

    A liberal arts education allowed me to relate to a broad cross section of people. Later, I did study medicine, and throughout my 40 years as a family doc, I have met plenty of other doctors that can talk only medicine, thus restricting their social contacts to other doctors. My liberal arts background allowed me to enjoy and relate to a wide variety of people....and ultimately to be a better doc for my patients.

    May 28, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Reply
  5. Elizabeth

    My liberal arts undergraduate degree has seen me through SIX (6) career changes – from music to law(practice and judiciary) to education (college professor, then dean/administration) to art (metals, painting/drawing) – and keeps me sane, now, in my disability (due to MS).

    Technical training may teach a skill set, but a liberal arts education teaches a mind to soar with infinite possibilities.

    May 28, 2014 at 10:33 pm | Reply
    • George patton

      Good posting, Elizabeth. Thank you. Just ignore all these anti-intellectual Tea Partiers here who say the exact opposite, please. All they know is hatred for anyone who can think for themselves!

      May 28, 2014 at 10:55 pm | Reply
      • Andreas

        "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 guess you missed this part of the story with your tea party assumption.

        June 1, 2014 at 7:55 am |
  6. Laura

    I agree 100%. A Liberal Arts education gives one the fundamentals and tools to be an intelligent citizen of the world

    May 29, 2014 at 11:40 am | Reply
  7. Steve

    The problem is Liberal Arts in the absence of anything else is not useful. So I know how to express myself but I have nothing to express. There is nothing wrong with requiring liberal arts be it English, Social Sciences, or Humanities in a Science or Engineering degree. The problem with the American education system is too many people choose a Liberal Arts degree and than not choose an area of expertise to take advantage of their Liberal Arts skills.

    This reminds me of a friend who has been unemployed for over a decade as a technical writer. He had an English degree. However, he was never qualified because the requirement was to also have a knowledge of what he was writing technical specifications for.

    The reality is our country seems to have plenty of English, and Humanities Majors. The fact our society has an aversion to Science and anything even remotely technical seems to be the bigger problem.

    May 31, 2014 at 10:32 am | Reply
    • Ryan B.

      You can learn about any technology in five minutes. You can't learn how to write and think analytically in five minutes.

      Bashing and trying to devalue the humanities is just conservative propaganda. They don't want people to be able to think progressively and solve problems.

      June 30, 2014 at 9:30 pm | Reply
  8. Me big liberal art

    I obtained two liberal arts degrees, and then my masters. I am now a garbage man. I love it.

    June 1, 2014 at 10:54 pm | Reply
    • James

      Then be the best garbage man in the City! That is what I say, Doesn't matter what you do, just do it well.

      June 2, 2014 at 2:35 pm | Reply
  9. James

    Becoming a subject matter expert is the key to making a liberal arts education worth while. I agree that one must be specialized in a subject area prior to synthezing several disciplines seamlessly. A liberal arts education is always good to have merely because it offers people to become more well rounded citizens. Sometime its better to know a lot of everything than to know everything about something!

    June 2, 2014 at 1:59 pm | Reply
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    July 8, 2014 at 11:39 pm | Reply
  11. MammoudKhan

    Higher education should be promoted to all students as an opportunity to experience an intellectual awakening.

    August 3, 2014 at 3:04 pm | Reply
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