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 (260 Responses)
  1. Leslie

    Six printed pages? Way too long. I would find it difficult to comply with such a request if I didn't have a lot to say.
    I totally agree that writing causes you to make choices since you need to decide what your point is. I too feel that clarity is key to writing.
    People usually judge you by four things, your appearance, how much money you are worth, where you live, and how well you communicate, be it verbal or in writing.

    May 24, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Reply
    • Allan Kinsman

      People judge others a problem with a personal perspective. A reason the world built upon ideas. Ideas which can move toward a marketplace can do well. Ideas which evolve through how we relate and base our world filter through those which are in control. As the old saying goes the more things change the more they remain the same. I wonder why they say that?

      May 24, 2014 at 4:23 pm | Reply
      • IpseCogita

        So he's encouraging people to major in unemployment?

        May 25, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        If I had to start my life all over again, I would still opt for humanities. It's so much gratifying to be able to think, and not to be a geek, nerd or a blinkered specialist.

        May 25, 2014 at 5:45 pm |
    • southerncelt

      You forgot to mention how people judge you by Age. It is amazing how stupid you are perceived by people and employers once you pass 50.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:27 am | Reply
      • Karen

        Same experience. Two engineering degrees and can't get hired at my age even for entry or junior level work/salary.

        May 25, 2014 at 11:54 am |
  2. Joseph McCarthy

    In any society, Liberal Arts will always matter. Only the anti-intellectual Tea Partiers along with all the other right-wing fanatics will disagree. Right-wingers will always oppose academic freedom in any form.

    May 24, 2014 at 7:18 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @ the distinguished senator:
      That depends on what your definition of "right-wingers" is.

      May 24, 2014 at 8:50 pm | Reply
    • LiberalArtsIdiot

      At least they are smart enough to not major in a waste of a degree that ends up costing our society.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:18 am | Reply
      • theotherbob56

        Costs our society in what way?

        May 25, 2014 at 4:19 pm |
    • Harlon Katz

      Wow, the only small-minded person here seems to be you who immediately jumps on "the right wing". Signs of someone with mental issues – you should look into getting some help.

      May 25, 2014 at 10:19 am | Reply
    • suchrubbishsuchwow

      Lib arts degrees are great for bored housewives to be,affluent white folk and affirmative action hires. The actual thinking and working people get degrees that are beneficial and help them land good paying jobs. Please continue with your tripe, by all means.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:27 am | Reply
      • Vulcanizer355

        In a way this is social Darwinism at work. Sorry is Darwinism included in liberal arts ? 🙂

        May 25, 2014 at 1:19 pm |
    • southerncelt

      Au contrare, mon frere. Believing in fiscal responsibility tempered with social justice is not incompatible with higher education. Any liberal will tell you a I am a right winger just because of my faith as well as my political views. I'd say I am more middle-of-the-road, but even that road has lines you aren't supposed to cross.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:33 am | Reply
    • dotofoz

      Exactly, Joseph McCarthy. It's easier to control people who have broad educations and have studied the philosophies of the past. They are less likely to become just another cog in the wheel. They will come up with new ideas to change the world, and the typical tea party conservative hates change. The problem is the world changes with or without you. With a broad view of mankind, you help bring about positive change.
      Also, I do not view a person who has a college degree in a just a specialized field an educated person, a well trained person, yes, but not educated. And what if the field they specialized in gets automated? We are probably at a point where computers could do the work of many engineers and architects. What will happen then? Well educated people are more flexible and can adapt to change. That's not to say that all specialized degrees do not get a well rounded education at some universities, but many have dropped the liberal arts requirements for these degrees, cutting out an important part of education – creativity and the ability to see the larger picture, not just the little cog that you are.

      May 25, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Reply
      • dotofoz

        That should be "not easier to control" on the first line.

        May 25, 2014 at 12:11 pm |
      • Vulcanizer355

        You're so highly "edumacated" and you left off a simple negative that fundamentally alters the premise of your whole statement ?

        I love "edumacated folks" – much better than "traned folks" 😉

        May 25, 2014 at 1:22 pm |
  3. rupert

    I miss banasy and RZ.
    How bout u joey. Don't u miss those two?

    May 24, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Reply
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini©

      @ rupert:
      Actually, what you have missed is the knowledge of my comprehension of the trick that you believe to be hidden in your question.

      May 25, 2014 at 8:15 am | Reply
      • rupert

        Joey. That sounds complicated. But thanks for giving me something to think about.
        I like this puzzle.

        May 25, 2014 at 9:26 am |
  4. rupert

    😦

    May 24, 2014 at 10:37 pm | Reply
  5. Michael F Lardner

    Fareed, I have not heard anyone give such a well explained reason to get a Liberal Arts education. I was fortunate to receive such an education and I did not realize how valuable it was until many years into me career. I would advise young pepple thinking about a major to conside this track by speaking to someone who has done so.

    May 25, 2014 at 8:18 am | Reply
    • Marine5484

      Well said, Michael. I fully agree. Liberal Arts is essential for the intellectuals of this country.

      May 25, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Reply
    • Vulcanizer355

      And then, ask themselves " Can I AFFORD this? or will this choice doom me to become a barista (albeit one that can discuss Proust) for the rest of my life?

      May 25, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Reply
      • Archangel

        I'd rather be a barista who knows Proust than a millionaire who can barely read.
        The war on the arts is designed to produced trained drones who don't know history and therefore will repeat its mistakes; who don't know linguistics, and therefore have no idea how language can manipulate you; and who don't know politics, and therefore will vote for morons making moronic promises.
        Colleges are now factory farms which produce trained drones, not educated adults. Welcome to corporate America.

        May 27, 2014 at 1:36 am |
  6. arkmark

    Major in money .... minor in fun- that is get a degree that affords you the opportunity to do what you love if they are not one and the same. so many lib arts majors practicing their public speakin from behind the mikky d's counter

    May 25, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • southerncelt

      Where would we be without artists, authors, musicians, and even educated and competent politicians? If they have the talent, it should be developed so some LAS degrees have value. Even an MRS degree has its value.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:39 am | Reply
  7. Harlon Katz

    What is lost here is that Mr Zakaria seems to imply that you will ONLY be able to achieve these skills he mentions through a liberal arts education. In many of my engineering and business classes it was required that I communicate well and effectively, both in writing and in spoken word. My fellow students and I also had to "problem solve" and we also "learned how to learn". To imply that these skills can only be achieved through a liberal arts education shows a true lack of understanding.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • grace

      No Fareed is right, you can only learn how to write and how to think with a Liberal Arts education, no other major teaches that. So if you go into Science or Engineering, you will never be able to write or even read for that matter. And you certainly won't be able to think since those fields don't take any intelligence whatsoever. Nor will you learn how to learn, since nobody in those fields learns anything, we already know it all from birth and actually all we do in my Computer Science class is eat cupcakes and laugh at all the Liberal Arts majors who have it so hard.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:09 am | Reply
      • southerncelt

        While I do realize things have changed (Thank God!) since I was an undergraduate (out of a class of 300 I only saw two women) my BS degree required I take several "liberal arts" courses so I would be a "well rounded" engineer. Ideas are useless unless you can communicate them. Hopefully that requirement is still in Engineering and CS degree programs. LAS courses were a good place to meet women too :-).

        May 25, 2014 at 11:48 am |
    • Michael

      They may not require a liberal arts MAJOR, but they do require a liberal arts education, which you did clearly receive as part of your education as eve STEM fields require a liberal arts education as a foundation. I know of no school which doesn't include some basics in English, history, and mathematics as part of the overall degree program.

      May 25, 2014 at 1:20 pm | Reply
  8. Trivium-Quadrivium

    The liberal arts are the foundation of conservative values.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:24 am | Reply
    • 1776usa2016

      Fear and paranoia are the foundation of conservatism.

      .

      May 25, 2014 at 2:52 pm | Reply
    • Ken

      Correct speaking and thinking are the foundations of a Liberal Arts education. Stay the course, stick to the proper answers, otherwise you will not get good grades or later will receive no funding for desired projects in the future.

      May 25, 2014 at 4:11 pm | Reply
  9. Steve

    This whole article was written by a man who relies on words for a living, so of course he has a naturally prejudice towards their importance. Fortunately the rest of the world is not so narrow minded as Fareed. The fact that you felt the need to justify the existence of liberal arts programs greatly reduces the weight of your opinion on the matter. There is no need whatsoever so justify an education in the sciences, just as there is no need to explain the importance of air.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:29 am | Reply
    • Anne

      The "justification" is necessary because there are too many people who do not see the value of something unless they can measure that value by how many zeros it adds to their paycheck. Those science majors are going to need good writing skills to develop their ideas, present their ideas, and sell their ideas to the public. Then, we are going to have to think about the ethical implications of their ideas, something that would helped by a background in philosophy and ethics. A knowledge of history and literature doesn't hurt either. Anyone notice that a lot of the really cool stuff being invented by techies has been inspired by science fiction? (Cloaking devices, tablets, skyping, etc.) Science is awesome, and math makes it work, but the liberal arts are at the heart of what makes us human, and a liberal arts education gives us tools to help us understand that humanity.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:58 am | Reply
    • Michael

      Yes, I'm sure you've never had a job which required you to use words to articulate ideas.

      May 25, 2014 at 1:01 pm | Reply
  10. jamesinsf

    A society that loses its ability to critically examine, consider, deconstruct, and discuss matters loses creativity, originality, and the potential for progress is blunted. These are core lessons learned from liberal arts: they open our minds to the world.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:33 am | Reply
  11. juan pablo

    All Those Skills you mentioned can be obtained Without a Liberal Arts Major

    May 25, 2014 at 10:36 am | Reply
  12. jimc1968

    Mr. Zakaria thank you for rallying behind Liberal Arts. It is a concept from antiquity that is more important than ever today. It used to be called the Trivium and Quadrivium. The Trivium is Writing, Logic, and Rhetoric. The Quadrivium is arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. All of these subjects together provide the foundation for anyone to learn and understand more about the world around them. These are all core skills to enable continued growth not stagnation by specialization, which it seems is lost in our current education system.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:38 am | Reply
  13. juan pablo

    Science, Technology, Engineering, and Medical majors can EASILY Learn the skills that Zakaria mentions by taking several English, Presentation, and Technical writing courses in 1 year, which is required by many Technical Majors. However, the REVERSE is NOT True, Liberal Arts majors can not become Computer Science, engineers, and/or Doctors in 1 year of courses. Zakaria provides my Liberal propaganda AND LIES.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:40 am | Reply
    • Anne

      Nobody says you have to have major in the liberal arts to benefit from them, though society does benefit from the people who have those majors. Who do you think teaches those first year writing classes? I do, with my Ph.D. in English. And my students will know how to write six pages for Bezos, if they are paying attention to what I tell them about developing their ideas with details and examples, and why this matters for the reader. The average person isn't going to use calculus and chemistry in their daily lives, but everyone who wants to go anywhere in life needs to be able to write and speak well (and persuasively).

      May 25, 2014 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  14. Carol A. Foster, MD

    Speaking as a scientist, I truly wish someone had communicated this to me. I, like so many science based brains, avoided the humanities like the plague. I can tell you my uneducated speaking and writing skills did, and still does hinder my career advancement. Thank God, for he blessed me with two daughters who can write like the wind and have been taught to do it with style and grace. A big shout out to All Saints Episcopal Day School, Phoenix AZ!

    May 25, 2014 at 10:41 am | Reply
  15. larry

    In todays market, unless you already have money, liberal arts will end you up with nothing but a liberal dose of debt.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:47 am | Reply
    • Vulcanizer355

      This.

      May 25, 2014 at 1:09 pm | Reply
  16. GT

    Nonsense. First of all, get the government out of education. You're smart enough to understand this. Then you and you children should have the three basics mastered by the time you are 18: Health, Finance and Law. Once you go these down you are on your way to a healthy and very happy life. Is that what life is all about?

    May 25, 2014 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • elsieprice

      There's this thing called "genetics." I'm not sure you've heard of it. It means that we are not all born with the exact same abilities and disabilities. And we are not all born with equal opportunities beyond that.

      You have greatly oversimplified the matter. You must be some sort of republican.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:37 am | Reply
    • Michael

      Wow, just learn health, finance and law. Brilliant. Because to learn those doesn't require a basic knowledge of the liberal arts of math, grammar, or logic, right?

      May 25, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      "It is an axiom in my mind that our liberty can never be safe but in the hands of the people themselves, and that, too, of the people with a certain degree of instruction. This is the business of the state to effect, and on a general plan." –Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1786

      May 25, 2014 at 1:44 pm | Reply
  17. 1776usa2016

    History, the languages, the arts and music are the basis of liberal arts.

    And unless you know these subjects well, you are little more than a nerdy robotron who can spout formulas and equations.

    And all the more likely that some robot is going to take away your job.

    .

    May 25, 2014 at 10:48 am | Reply
    • Trevor

      Excellent point!

      May 25, 2014 at 11:11 am | Reply
    • ttr

      Those "robots" find profound beauty in a well executed mathematical proof, the interplay of energies shooting through a superconductor and structures built with incredibly clever designs. You may think this makes them machines that spout equations but they just appreciate things that you fail to find interesting. I think you would find, most of these people can write well. Science and math are not for the thin skinned, publishing in peer review is opening yourself to a lot of criticism by very logical well reasoned people.

      Pinpointing someones differences and then name calling (nerdy robot), is that taught in a liberal arts education? This is exactly the kind of thing my science background taught me to instantly recognize. An invalid argument.

      May 25, 2014 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • Vulcanizer355

      Friend, never could grasp math beyond arithmetic, did you ? 🙂

      May 25, 2014 at 1:10 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      Don't make the mistake that too many others here do of confusing the humanities with the liberal arts. The humanities are an important component of the liberal arts, but the liberal arts also require mathematics, rhetoric, and logic as their foundation. STEM is focused on the technical application of these components of the liberal arts, but also require understanding of the other liberal arts to fully function.

      May 25, 2014 at 1:24 pm | Reply
  18. Tony

    The issue already with this entire article, is that, the same could be applied to any college degree. What should have been said was, "Why you should get a Liberal Arts degree, because it applies to this type of Career". College is just another form of education, albeit one that requires to think more and for a specific profession/skill that a person is looking to venture out into the workforce with. In a world of International Business, and more technology specific roles increasing, a student really has to ask, "What do I want to do, and what college degree can get me there." and most of the time a Liberal Arts degree is basically a general education with no clear path except to years of debt and working at a Starbucks to pay it off.

    May 25, 2014 at 10:53 am | Reply
  19. d. lewis

    Well it's not a merit system, so just about anything goes. In a non-merit system so many things count, other than merit, one might be better advised to concentrate more on the non-merit items in a non-merit system. Some non-merit things you're born with, so maybe no education is necessary. Some say that employers are looking for generalist, people that know alot of things, while other say that employers are looking for narrow specialist. My education, such as it is, at the college level was basically being a generalist, schools insisting that is what employers wanted, however, I found that such an education was totally worthless, not worth the paper it was written on. Employers were looking for narrow specialist, anything less was not acceptable to employers, and they and get away with anything because it is not a merit system. Like they say about education, higher education, you can spent alot, do alot of work, but in the end what you have is, you know what kind of work you are out of.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:00 am | Reply
  20. thebest12211

    There is little doubt that my BA in History has complimented my DDS degree. My successful dental career has greatly enhanced by the English,History and Arts side of my brain as well the math and science part.
    There is no question that math and science people are completely different than liberal arts folks but I cannot tell you that one is BETTER than the other.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:09 am | Reply
  21. American

    "Liberal arts" education can be very useful, but only if you have a use for it. Likewise, an engineering degree will be very useful if you want to be an engineer. If there are no jobs in your chosen field, you'll be SOL. It just so happens that we have pushed our students to liberal arts education disproportionately.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:16 am | Reply
  22. Paul

    How will knowing history or literature make a drone more profitable?

    In fact, those may make the drone question things they weren't supposed to and cost the company money.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:21 am | Reply
  23. southerncelt

    The 'S' in LAS will always matter, as that is where Chemistry, Biology and Physics live. We do the need the Arts for the benefit of our collective good, but unless you take it all the way (PhD) to do research and.or teach it doesn't make much and like it or not, money does make the world go around.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:24 am | Reply
  24. sanjosemike

    We need to EAT and make a living in order to survive. That must take first place. The ability to write well is exceedingly important. But that does not translate into the first step in the process of survival in a tech society. That first step is a technical skill. After you have that first position, you can start using those communication skills.

    The problem with a liberal arts degree and training is that it is not used in the correct order. One can usually do quite well in a technologic society as a basic Asperger personality if you have excellent technical skills. But the liberal arts graduate without those technical skills will usually end up unemployed.

    By the time I was 18 I could play all 5 Beethoven Piano Concertos. Not well enough to become a concert artist, but you would probably not know the difference. It was medicine that made it work for me.

    sanjosemike

    May 25, 2014 at 11:26 am | Reply
  25. Darrell

    Liberal Arts don't matter.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:35 am | Reply
    • southerncelt

      You can read, you can write, you can access the Internet and find CNN.com, so you must have some Liberal Arts Education. Did you listen to the radio or a CD/MP3/Whatever today? Thank Liberal Arts. Ever admire/appreciate a Picture/Painting/Sculpture/Book/Movie? Thank Liberal Arts. Physics is one of the Liberal Arts, tell me that doesn't matter and I will assume you never went to college.

      May 25, 2014 at 11:53 am | Reply
      • Vulcanizer355

        Funny, I do all the "artsy" things you mentioned and all my degrees are in hard science.

        Kinda falsifies the premise that you need to study 4 years of Art History to be able to do all the basic stuff we both do, hmm?

        Nobody "hates" liberal arts. But do one really need to condemn themselves to a career waiting tables to pay off the crushing debt incurred in acquiring a degree in liberal arts?

        May 25, 2014 at 1:16 pm |
      • Michael

        Forgive Vulcanizer, he still doesn't understand he difference between the Liberal Arts and the Humanities, and that by studying the hard sciences he was in fact receiving a liberal arts education and was reliant on the teachings of liberal arts majors.

        May 25, 2014 at 1:47 pm |
  26. Sam

    Take a look at the world's problems. Almost all of them involve liberal arts. Who's working on solving them? People with degrees in liberal arts.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:43 am | Reply
    • Vulcanizer355

      And the "world's problems" all remain unsolved for a long time now. What does that tell you of the efficacy of the ones engaged in solving them? And the toolkits they are using? 🙂

      May 25, 2014 at 1:18 pm | Reply
  27. bs1

    The serious underlying issue that affects everyone regardless of whether you have a liberal arts education or an education focused on math, science or engineering is the fact that we have already progressed far past the point where most of the population was required to produce everything the population needs.

    This leads to the simple fact that there are nowhere near enough essential jobs for the population. This problem can be somewhat masked by non-essential jobs such as entertainment, however when the economy gets difficult those jobs are among the first to be lost. The problem will only get worse with more advanced automation and manufacturing efficiencies to the point where unemployment is unsustainable.

    There is no easy solution to this growing problem and unless we start looking forward to try to address it the current unraveling of civilization will continue to accelerate.

    May 25, 2014 at 11:56 am | Reply
  28. Marine5484

    I tend to agree with Fareed here. Only a fool would oppose a Liberal Arts education.

    May 25, 2014 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • Vulcanizer355

      And only an even greater fool would invest in one.

      May 25, 2014 at 1:27 pm | Reply
      • Michael

        “The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. 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.”

        John Adams, what a fool.

        May 25, 2014 at 1:49 pm |
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