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 (268 Responses)
  1. Ah, the pitter-patter of little minds!

    Interesting how many people can only see college as a trade school.

    May 25, 2014 at 3:35 pm | Reply
  2. Editor

    Reblogged this on mhspage and commented:
    As someone with a degree in Comparative Literature and Political Science, I could not agree more. Learning how to think on your own and form your own opinion is more important than to memorize knowledge. But even more, learning to see what connects us as human beings, what makes us human and to get a glimpse of how to transcend our daily struggles to something bigger is essential to our survival in a technically dominated society with a tendency to focus on function alone instead of considering content as interwoven with it.

    May 25, 2014 at 3:43 pm | Reply
  3. mike

    liberal arts degrees are the biggest scams going. worthless, yet students who want nothing to do with science or math, flock to the degree all the while running up massive student loan debt (which now they want us to just forgive). when you see these student protesters marching to have their student loans forgiven, ask yourself how many of those students are in engineering, pre med, aerospace, etc.. I would wager the vast majority of those protesters are liberal arts majors who have suddenly figured out they have a massive amount of debt with no post graduation job prospects to pay them back.

    May 25, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Reply
    • MD

      Said the simpleton.

      May 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Reply
      • jenn

        He is not wrong. A *degree* in liberal arts is next to worthless. That doesn't mean courses are. I agree with the author that engineering and science majors should take a course or two, maybe more, from liberal arts studies to get well rounded, but encouraging them wasting their most brilliant years so they can claim a diploma solely based on liberal arts is a disservice we do to our youth.

        May 25, 2014 at 5:48 pm |
      • couchloc


        A liberal arts degree is hardly worthless. Some people who have such degrees include George Soros, Carly Fiorina (HP), David Souter (supreme court), Stephen Bryer (supreme court), Robert Greenhill (Morgan Stanley), and Mitt Romney had an english degree. You can read a list of more people by searching under Google: "30 people with soft college majors"

        May 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm |
      • kizmiaz

        Liberal art degrees are worthless. If you want to be a fry cook at McDonald's, there are other ways to work yourself into that particular position.

        May 27, 2014 at 12:03 pm |
    • Trent

      Did your technical training also grant you the ability to make sweeping generalizations based on no facts or evidence? Seeing as how you can't even put a sentence together, you might want to think about going back to school.

      May 25, 2014 at 5:21 pm | Reply
    • Rex

      You just confirmed point #3. He didn't mention Liberal Arts degrees per se, just the importance of a liberal arts education. I have a BS in biochemistry, a graduate degree in immunobiology, and an MD, all fairly technical fields where you wouldn't think a liberal arts influence would be valuable, yet my ability to read, write, interpret, and synthesize information was largely obtained in my "non technical" classes. It also opened my eyes to a different world, of art, literature, philosophy, and social sciences, all of which are important in becoming a responsible citizen. Maybe you should try it.

      May 25, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Reply
      • Kristine

        What you say is true...however, a liberal arts degree won't pay the bills or provide for a family, now will it?

        May 25, 2014 at 6:02 pm |
      • familydoc2

        I have a BS Chemistry and an MD, but my liberal arts college required one year each of history, philosophy, social science and business. I took three semesters each of sociology and psychology, which had proven infinitely more useful to me than the three semesters of calculus and physics that my major required. GOTP governors unfortunately tend to be very short-sighted. Granted, a liberal arts degree is not likely to get you a job in that field, but it is an excellent beginning for advanced degrees in almost anything else. Many employers, at least in the past, appreciated that you had shown you could master a number of different fields, which meant you could learn just about anything they needed you to do. If undergraduate degrees are too expensive, then let's look at college costs. Some large colleges and universities won't tell you that it will take you five or more years to be able to get all of the required courses in your degree, because freshman are shut out of the basic ones before their registration starts. I also suspect that the GOTP doesn't want voters who have been taught critical thinking because they ask too many difficult questions and don't buy the bull puckey they usually peddle.

        May 25, 2014 at 6:12 pm |
    • Ken Lipske

      I needed 128 credits to graduate with a B.S. in Math. Around 64 of those credits were a complete and total waste of time. Once I got through with elementary school, I knew how to read. If I need to learn how to write, I can READ other articles somewhat associated with what I am writing about to get a sense of style, format, etc. You have to be willing to do the RESEARCH. You do not need an instructor trying to tell you how he thinks you should write. You LEARN by doing the RESEARCH, and once you are comfortable with what you have, SPEAKING becomes easy. No employer EVER asked me about any of the useless 64 credit hours that time and effort was wasted on. I knew very well that no one would care about those subjects, and it had a very bad effect on me, and that showed in the other 64 IMPORTANT credits that I earned while I was in school.

      Our education system is extremely bad for anyone who knows what they want to do with their life!

      Ken L.

      May 26, 2014 at 9:11 pm | Reply
    • Tyrell

      I agree. No one hires a Bachelor of Arts student, except retailers offering minimum wage jobs! I graduated from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada in 2005 and was stuck working in a pharmacy (Not as a pharmacist or lab tech) near minimum wage for six years! These days a decent paying job requires a Masters degree in the liberal arts at the very least.

      However I do not dispute Fareed's discussion on what a liberal arts degree teaches, it's just that no decent paying job requires it. This is why I have returned to university in my 30's and have so far acquired $40, 000 of debt to be a certified Urban Planner. I have also had to move to 2 different provinces to get where I am now.

      10 maybe 15 years of my life wasted on a lie that the universities advertised.... that a degree in Political Science can help one change the world! lol

      May 26, 2014 at 11:45 pm | Reply
      • Dan

        Ooh, potentially bad decision. I have a handful of friends with MAs in Urban Planning, and none of them can get jobs.

        May 27, 2014 at 12:30 pm |
  4. John Hunkler

    Q: What does a liberal arts graduate say to an engineering major?
    A: Would you like fries with that?

    May 25, 2014 at 4:04 pm | Reply
    • Ken


      May 25, 2014 at 4:09 pm | Reply
    • hubert39

      Not important but I know 4 PE's (Engineering) who change their profession after about 8 to 12 plus in engineering.
      They all said being happy, content, having freedom, peace of mind was more important then money and working 50 to 60 hours a week.

      May 25, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Reply
      • Chris

        Liberal Arts majors should minor in a technical field such as Computer Science or Math.

        May 25, 2014 at 5:03 pm |
      • Kristine

        "Peace of mind" will not pay the bills or pay back your student loans, now will it?

        May 25, 2014 at 6:03 pm |
    • Dan

      Both "majors" say, "would you like fries with that," unless their parents are paying for college. There is nothing wrong with working at a restaurant. Further, both groups generally have decent paying jobs 5-10 years after graduating, after a period of low-paid training (either as a non-managerial position, or graduate school, or an apprenticeship). Jobs are only one reason to go to college. Otherwise just go to vo-tech. Both should train you to function as a citizen and community member too… ideally.

      May 26, 2014 at 10:39 am | Reply
  5. Ken

    Once again Zakaria totally misses the point. His entire article states the advantages of a liberal education is it teaches you to write, to speak and express yourself, and how to learn. By saying these are advantages he implies that getting a technical or science degree does NOT do any of these items.

    I would counter Zakaria and state a liberal education does none of these. Certainly you can speak and express yourself, as long as what you speak goes with the current belief in your educational silo. Teaching a person to learn in a liberal education (to read in a variety of subjects, find data, analyze information) is more about how to interpret what you read and analyze to fit the current liberal bias / belief. And writing is more of learning how to state only what is important towards your belief or argument and avoiding anything which may be counter to it.

    Sorry, a technical / science based education is FAR superior to any liberal education. They also teach you how to learn .. to read in a variety of subjects, find data, analyze information .. as that is a core need of any technical / science career. But they make sure you understand you are looking for the truth within the data, seeking the correct answers (unlike a liberal education where there can be many truths of course). People in these careers also learn to speak their mind. They are encouraged to go against the status quo and seek out the truth wherever it may be, as that is how science truly advances. And as for writing, every good science or technical education now includes several courses on writing and/or speaking skills as it is important to be able to share your ideas and what you learn with others in the scientific community.

    Sorry Zakaria, education in the science and technical fields does a FAR superior job to any liberal education on teaching students how to think for themselves, how to seek the truth in the data they deal with, and how to communicate this information to others. We need more students to go into these fields, to open their minds to the possibilities of the universe, instead of sitting through liberal arts indoctrination courses, learning to think the proper way, and speak the proper way. And lets be honest, who is going to fix the long term issues on the planet? Will it be some scientist or technical wizards coming up with ways to reduce CO2 in the atmosphere? Or will it be some literature major? Will it be a scientist who comes up with new ways to detect and prevent autism? Or will it be someone majoring in Cultural Studies. We NEED more science and technical training for all students. We need less liberal arts.

    May 25, 2014 at 4:07 pm | Reply
    • theotherbob56

      No, YOU miss the point. It's liberal ARTS, not liberal. It has nothing to do with political position. Clearly, you failed that reading comprehension thing. We also need people of many different educational backgrounds, even if some backgrounds produce fewer tangible results.

      May 25, 2014 at 4:17 pm | Reply
    • Bob

      Exactly. I think the root cause of so many going into non-STEM field is just intellectual laziness. One has to think and work very hard in the science and engineering classes and fields but what are you in college for?
      But another factor is that one chemist, engineer or molecular biologist can provide for thousands of people and, since the work they provide only comes to fruition in the distant future, the salaries will be low compared to banksters in spite of the relative societal contributions.

      May 25, 2014 at 4:21 pm | Reply
      • Dan

        I see a lot of STEM-advocates jump right into attacking others, rather than being able to understand other positions, or express themselves in a non-attacking sort of way. Wonder why that is.

        May 27, 2014 at 12:33 pm |
  6. Merrilou Neigenfind

    I am married to an engineer and have a daughter that wants a Ph.D. in Biology and a son who is a musician. If you think the world would be better off turning out workers instead of would be wrong. We need both –

    May 25, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Reply
    • Dan

      Amen. A person meant to be a musician might be as unhappy being an engineer as an engineer might be unhappy being a musician.

      May 26, 2014 at 10:44 am | Reply
    • commenter

      I hope you invested some of your money in ear plugs, because your little wannabe Kurt Cobain is going to be "practicing" in your basement for the rest of his life. Doogie Hauser, meanwhile, will probably go on to med school, where there's a chance he'll encounter his brother Kurt in an ER from a drug overdose at some point. Also, unless he can "twerk" with the best of 'em or "has the moves like Jagger," there's no chance he's ever going to do anything with that musical talent, unless lightning strikes a two-time lottery winner thrice and he wins American Idol.

      In which case, yup, you better start investing in ear plugs. Or build him a garage with soundproof walls.

      July 23, 2014 at 3:53 pm | Reply
  7. hubert39

    One reason The Liberal Arts program is important is you know about everything from A to Z.
    You can do anything in the work force. You know how to THINK! You use common sense.

    May 25, 2014 at 4:34 pm | Reply
    • commenter

      More like you THINK you know everything A to Z. In reality, you come off as a pompous dbag who forgot to learn how to make money anywhere but a quiz show. I suppose you could always get a job as a fact-checker for the New York Times crossword puzzle. 0.00000000000000000000000000001 cents a word, now that's what I call a double-letter score.

      July 23, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Reply
  8. klondikejack

    As a retired STEM university professor, I would like to emphasize the difference between a liberal-arts education and a liberal education. Most liberal arts proponents seem to confuse the two, and the result is an overburden of graduates who are totally illiterate in the sciences and math, at least in part because they have been so busy satisfying liberal arts requirements that they've been unable to give any time to the other side of the coin. Of course, there is also the "intellectual laziness" that one respondent mentioned, and the two combine with the further expectation that College should be socially satisfying to produce the disaster that is the current graduating class.

    May 25, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Reply
  9. Sherri

    I think it is important to have liberal arts courses, while you are maybe working on a technical degree. You don't have to do a liberal arts degree, but you should have some knowledge of some other things, outside your degree. It's great to know how to work with computers, engineering, math, science, but you also need to know who Mark Twain was. How to write a sentence. What is the Mona Lisa. If you get a degree in engineering but can't read or write and don't know anything about history etc, then your education is not complete and you will sound like an ignoramus. You will BE one also.

    May 25, 2014 at 4:46 pm | Reply
    • commenter

      "Who was Mark Twain"? "What is the Mona Lisa"? Sounds like a liberal arts education prepares you for a career as a Jeopardy contestant. I'll take fries with that for $80,000, Alex. Better yet, I'll get my master's in Game Show Questions and make it a true Daily Double. Or was that a Double Quarter Pounder with government cheese?

      July 23, 2014 at 3:58 pm | Reply
  10. Joseph

    I'd say it's an ideal second degree. First, get an education in something that will get you through life fat, happy, and comfortable; then use Liberal Arts to enjoy it.
    For what you're pushing, the obvious and accurate counter is that one could simply take literature and creative writing as electives and forego the remainder.

    May 25, 2014 at 4:58 pm | Reply
  11. southernwonder

    i read that in zakaria's home country of india the hindus are now delivering pizzas using drones to the customers' houses. they are learning liberal arts there apparently.

    May 25, 2014 at 5:11 pm | Reply
  12. DrD

    To all those who think Zakaria is wrong, you should perhaps consult this list of "losers" and "slackers" who have liberal arts degrees and obviously have amounted to nothing and produced nothing... I would add that everyone from the Wall Street to Forbes have posted article after article stating that the most underserved need in the marketplace is FLUENCY in foreign languages and LITERACY in foreign cultures, which last I checked were also liberal arts skills. And to all the people who think science and liberal arts are mutually exclusive, have you ever heard of a double-major?

    May 25, 2014 at 5:34 pm | Reply
    • couchloc

      I agree, the list of people is impressive. You can find the link mentioned above by also trying a Google search:

      "30 People With Soft College Majors"

      May 25, 2014 at 8:28 pm | Reply
  13. amjpnc

    I'm amazed. Almost all of you seem to have missed the major point that Zakaria is making here. This is not about what specific degree you pursue or what employment you obtain after college. Rather, it's about what kind of person you can become and how much of the wider world you'll understand and be able to participate in. I focused on liberal arts – history, literature, philosophy, etc. – when I was an undergraduate more than 50 years ago. I never wanted anything else, and I've never been sorry that that's what I did. I later obtained a Ph.D. In a more "practical" field. My liberal arts background, though, helped me to deal with and understand a wide variety of ideas, people, and cultures, which I've found invaluable. It also prepared me to continue to learn and explore in many different areas. Think of the backgrounds of our Founding Fathers, for instance.

    May 25, 2014 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  14. AJ

    Now, now . . . Not all, and likely not most, engineering degree holders pin down inspiring, world-changing jobs earning the big bucks. Volume knobs on car radios, resealable strips on cat food bags, plastic cases for glucose meters – STEM graduates with only very modest 5 figure salaries designed these mundane items and the zillion other items like them, though they are often not too much needed. (After all, we already HAD hundreds of other fine car radio knobs before the one in your model car was designed by STEM grad who has paid $200,000 in tuition to receive the privilege of making one that was just a weensie different from those others.) Shame on college recruiters for encouraging stars-in-the-eyes, potential tech and engineering students with unrealistic expectations. Liberal arts types know there is no promise of big dollars when they graduate. But each, for her or his own reason, goes right ahead with their programs. STEM students seem to all assume they are acquiring a ticket to inspiring lives flowing with cash by pursuing a degree in those areas. Some do, of course. But only some.

    May 25, 2014 at 6:03 pm | Reply
  15. billmosby

    You're right about liberal education, learning to think quickly and correctly, and to communicate. Not so right about the need to learn to code anew when the concept of apps comes along. Once you learn to code, it's pretty easy to make the minor upgrades in your knowledge to accommodate new platforms and even new programming languages.

    May 25, 2014 at 6:16 pm | Reply
  16. Joe

    I have no problem with Zakaria's writing, speaking and learning being critical to success. However nearly any college education worth its salt will teach you these. They are required in engineering, finance, business, etc. His article is a poor defense of a liberal arts education.

    If you are going to defend a LA education, you need to address the need for the rest of the curriculum. That is much more difficult to sell, which probably is why he chose to not address it.

    Reality is that if you get a liberal arts education you are doing because you want to learn what is offered. Do not do it thinking you will get paid for the degree. Nobody will pay you good money for that degree. Some people put time and money into leaning how to play an instrument. Others put time and money to become good at a sport. Others will spend time and money into traveling and experiencing other cultures. A liberal arts education is the same. If that is what you want to do, go for it, but have another plan for making money.

    May 25, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Reply
    • DrD

      But Zakaria's point is that the "university education worth its salt" may be a thing of the past because ignorant (and I am from Texas and I do mean in the case of our illustrious governor truly ignorant) people, many of whom are politicians, believe there is no value in the part of the university curriculum that teaches these very things. If Rick Perry had his way, no student from K-12 to university would take History, English, Philosophy and certainly no Foreign Language... he regards those things as a waste of time and money, and he is not alone. So Zakaria isn't speaking about degrees, he is speaking about the core curriculum, which is many places (not just Texas) is under attack.

      May 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  17. Baad Dog

    The two are not mutually exclusive. I attended a high school where a classical education was mandatory, but I was a math-science major. I then attended am major university as a science major, but the liberal arts courses were mandatory degree requirements. The undergraduate degree offered, even in the physical sciences, was a bachelor of arts.

    During a carer in the sciences, mostly research, I interacted with many brilliant people who also were educated in the liberal arts in addition to their field of expertise. The ones that didn't impress me as well were those whose knowledge outside their own field was very limited.

    May 25, 2014 at 6:50 pm | Reply
  18. Mohammed

    Whatever the above commentaries, I would like to say that I am very proud on you Sir Fareed Zakaria.

    May 26, 2014 at 12:01 am | Reply
  19. rupert

    I think the best degree is physical education. You don't have to take any hard classes, you are outside all day playing games with the kids, easy lesson plans, no papers to grade, no pressure of standardized tests for your students, and weekends and holidays off. Where else can you have an easy job and get paid $42,000 a year.
    Yea the other degrees pay more, but u actually have to work.

    May 26, 2014 at 8:30 am | Reply
  20. Zandie

    Oh so true rupert.

    May 26, 2014 at 8:33 am | Reply
  21. Thomas Chapman

    I wish to point out that study of science or engineering and of liberal arts are not mutually exclusive. Indeed. accreditation of engineering-degree programs requires a minimum portion to include courses in social sciences and the humanities.

    As a chemical-engineering student at Yale in the '60s I took course in literature, history, psychology, philosophy, and economics. As a chemical-engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I put emphasis on clear report writing and oral presentations in our laboratory courses. My observation has been that generally the top students technically were also good writers and clear thinkers. Perhaps, in addition to native ability, their high-school preparation also made a difference.

    May 26, 2014 at 9:29 am | Reply
  22. Tom Posey

    I see a lot of lame-brained Tea Partiers here blogging against Liberal Arts and other academic studies. These people are only showing just how anti-intellectual they are. These are the same people who keep on electing these right-wing politicians into office over and over again.

    May 26, 2014 at 11:17 am | Reply
  23. deep blue

    Clear writing and clear thinking are not the same thing. A talented writer can write clearly and adopt faulty logic or premises to reach wrong conclusions, deceiving the readers and perhaps even the writer. Philosophy helps, but good proof based mathematics courses work just as well for clear thinking.

    May 26, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      Disagree. being good at math does not necessarily help you think clearly in a non-math context. Math has universal truths and proofs. Writing in any other field has lots of nuance and disputable claims that you need grounds and warrant to support. "Proof" is not self evident as it is in math, you never have to do persuasive mathematics. The thinking and writing are both completely different.

      May 26, 2014 at 1:05 pm | Reply
  24. vandermeer

    Great address... writing, speaking, knowing how to learn... keys to success in life. The lessons in great novels, history, philosophy make life worthwhile. Thank You Fareed. Yours is the best real news program on TV.

    May 26, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Reply
  25. lflinares

    All very valid points by Fareed. I studied political science and foreign languages and enjoyed many opportunities to travel the world and provide geopolitical analysis. I would also argue for exposure to other disciplines. I had the privilege of attending the U.S. Air Force Academy, where for the first three semesters, I was firehosed with mandatory STEM, humanities, and social science courses before being able to focus on my academic major. It definitely has given me a broader view and understanding of various areas.

    May 26, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Reply
  26. prashshukla

    Reblogged this on Phd in Strategic Management.

    May 26, 2014 at 2:59 pm | Reply
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