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 (233 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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  13. DaveG

    I find it ironic that in the same GPS episode (03/29) Fareed dismisses the PISA academic test rankings as somewhat overrated, and then goes on to laud Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew as perhaps the greatest national leader of our time. If you're unaware, Singapore's students are at the top of the PISA rankings, while USA kids have languished in the middle and sliding downwards. Yes ... there are a number of business leaders like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, and others who have succeeded with Liberal Arts educations ... but guess what, they employ thousands of temporary technologically skilled workers from India and other countries to build their cyber empires! One reason: they can't find enough suitably skilled Americans to do the job! While I don't disagree with Fareed that too many US kids opt for less demanding courses like business and marketing, we should encourage as many US kids as possible to study STEM as major courses, while Liberal Arts should in many cases remain minor courses. Lee Kuan Yew figured this out a long time ago for Singapore.

    March 29, 2015 at 7:16 pm | Reply
  14. Narendra Shah

    Fareed the reason US is doing so well in innovation in spite of its poor academic ranking internationally is because the US has the top 10 or so universities in the world where the brightest foreign students are attracted. There is no doubt that a large portion of world-class innovation in US is as a direct result of these foreign graduates who have made their homes in US. It is these foreign nationals who have made Us their home who are the brains behind much of the success in innovation.

    There is no doubt that excessive liberal arts eduction and the existence of many sub-par universities is the main reason behind the lack of overall success and we should be ashamed of it. We are doing a great disservice to the students who spend years of their time during prime years and money only to find there is no future for them-there should be a national outcry for serious action. How about all government grants/aid to only students and universities who truly make a difference and fill in the new job needs for our country to prosper.

    March 30, 2015 at 2:39 pm | Reply
  15. Peter LeBlanc

    Hi Fareed, I am a person of few words. I like to talk to people who rightly or wrongly interpret what I have to say.
    I saw your show on the liberal arts in education. I would say that the depth of study in this discipline is based on a preference of intuition. I would to talk briefly of my world view of peace based on my intuition.

    The whole world needs to be fed. The universal temptation, is to go to war. The economics of war is very expensive.
    A better and less expensive way to feed the world is to extract people who are in danger and deliver them from evil.
    This could be done by immigration for anyone who would like to flee and enter a Country like Canada, which has plenty of room. Peter

    March 30, 2015 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  16. Dr. Kenneth Ayer

    Liberal Arts are the necessary cornerstone of a real education. After a hitch in the Army serving in southeast Asia, I majored in Anthropology and eventually got a Ph.D. in it from Stanford and then taught for ten years. An idiot new President decided to eliminate the Anthropology Department in favor of more business profs, so I returned to Silicon Valley and did industrial market research in electronics for ten years, writing a column in a trade journal among other things, then ten more as (ultimately) a Vice President, Risk Management, for Visa International. Anthropology doesn't have a lot to do with electronics, but critical thinking, good writing and understanding international cultures has everything to do with 20th century reality. Any technical education is out of date the day the textbook comes off the press; learning to think in a variety of ways and fields is the essential skill for success in any field and for a lifetime, instead of a first job.

    March 31, 2015 at 12:58 am | Reply
  17. 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
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