Neoliberalizing Liberal Education

A good liberal education has three dimensions—learning, teaching, and citizenship building—each of which the journalist Fareed Zakaria has mishandled enough in his own academic career so that he misrepresents them for the rest of us in In Defense of Liberal Education. I review that book in Bookforum’s summer issue, but before the predictable coronation gets too far along, here are a few anticipatory observations that I hope will give Zakaria and his admirers some pause.

A college education should deepen liberal learning by challenging students’ personal and social preoccupations while drawing them into what Robert Maynard Hutchins called the “Great Conversation” of the humanities across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the spirit. As students grapple with timeless accounts of the human condition, they discover that all of our hearts are divided, all the way down, and that therefore politics is always with us, bringing responsibilities and opportunities whose exercise is hard but yields an enlarged mentality.

This lesson isn’t just from the Western canon, by the way, but from Gandhi as well. Participating in the Great Conversation deepens students’ capacity to reason well, express themselves clearly, take others seriously, and so discover their highest self-interest in advancing a public interest.

Through much of the twentieth century, this kind of learning was under assault ideologically, from both left and right: Thirty years before Zakaria entered Yale in 1982, that university’s Cold War president, Alfred Whitney Griswold, was defending American liberal education against both Communist subversion and McCarthyite hysteria. Young leftists attacked it in the 1960s, and conservative propagandists and politicians have waged a campaign to discredit and de-fund it ever since, even while claiming to rescue it by lavishing money on campus centers and institutes that try to conscript the humanities to American grand-strategic and corporate-capitalist agendas.

Arriving at Yale amid the shift from leftist deconstruction to conservative conscription, Zakaria declined admission to a core curriculum that would have inducted him into the Great Conversation. He tells us this briefly, with some regret, pleading that as an Indian immigrant scholarship student he was inclined toward science and engineering. But his father was a prominent, eloquent Indian Muslim public intellectual and member of Parliament, his mother a pioneer in hotel management and one-time editor of the Sunday Times of India. Yet his own public ambitions drove him not to converse with the ancients but to run the undergraduate Yale Political Union, a debating forum whose parties cover the spectrum from left to right.

Zakaria has remained at a podium ever since, but as a one-man political union, writing columns for Time magazine and the Washington Post and hosting CNN’s widely watched Global Public Square. Some of his work is judicious and enlightening, but too often he uses an ostensibly reasonable, rigorous liberal idiom to reduce political contest to the neoliberal consensus. As I noted in Dissent in 2012, liberal education is being inundated now less by cults of the right (Ayn Randian or neoconservative) or the left (postmodernist or Schmittian Marxist) than by mindless neoliberal, global-economic expansion. Wendy Brown assesses its devastating consequences and causes in Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution.

Because Zakaria is neoliberalism’s herald, his “defense” of liberal education submerges it in banalities:

– “For most of human history, education was job training. . . . All that began to change twenty-five hundred years ago in ancient Greece.”

– A liberal education “may not help make a living, but it will help make a life.” It gives us "a greater capacity to be good workers, but it will also give us the capacity to be good partners, friends, parents, and citizens.”

Shouldn’t good citizens change the nature of work by organizing to alter its rules? Not in Zakaria’s world. Instead he urges globe-trotting university administrators and trustees (he was a member of Yale’s governing corporation) to navigate toward more brand recognition, student-market share, and state-capitalist funding from abroad.

But that endangers liberal education’s second dimension: teaching, which should come from a collegium, a self-governing company of scholars standing somewhat independent of markets and states “to follow truth wherever it may lead,” as Thomas Jefferson put it in founding the University of Virginia. Universities across the centuries developed protocols for academic research and teaching that “encourage, and even require, that self-interested individuals who populate a university realize [disinterestedness] in its every function,” as University of Chicago classicist Clifford Ando told me recently.

Universities should rely on open inquiry to generate widening, virtuous circles of trust. As I explain in an essay for the summer issue of the Carnegie Council’s journal of Ethics & International Affairs, on American universities’ forays abroad, trustees’ responsibility is to fund the collegium and protect its independence, not mortgage its teaching or pre-commit its research to outside interests and conventional wisdoms. But with Zakaria’s encouragement, they’ve been surfing golden tides of global commerce, as in Yale’s venture to co-found a college with the National University of Singapore, whose authoritarian governance Zakaria has long touted to the Davos crowd as a precondition of economic growth and, someday, perhaps, liberal democracy and liberal education.

Whatever may be right for Singapore, the irony is that the same Zakaria who as a Yale freshman turned aside liberal learning’s core curriculum later abandoned the collegium after writing a doctoral dissertation, on theories of state expansion, for the conservative political scientist Samuel Huntington at Harvard. Yet he returned decades later, not as an advocate of liberal education but as a Yale trustee, evangelical about expanding brand name and market share with few liberal grace notes.

In 2012 he resigned from the Yale Corporation after he was found to have plagiarized a passage from the New Yorker writer Jill Lepore, herself a Yale PhD. My Bookforum review suggests that In Defense of aLiberal Education is really a defense of Zakaria himself, or at least an effort at self-cleansing. But the plagiarism was really little more than a metaphor for his compulsive surfing of global wealth-creation and tech-based innovation, with nods to “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.”

American liberal education at its best joins learning and teaching to a third dimension, a public mission to produce graduates who aren’t just self-promoters and corporate managers or apologists but citizen-leaders diffusing virtues of open inquiry and honest communication to the larger society through many kinds of public service. Zakaria only simulates this in his one-way communications to mass audiences. His “Global Public Square” is more like the GPS in a fast car than like a global public sphere. He deflects the liberal idiom and virtues to glorify neoliberal icons of our era, which, he informs us, “is defined by capitalism, globalization, and technology,” not by “grand theorizing . . . late-night bull sessions . . . and political unions.”

This is no way to follow truth wherever it may lead. A Harvard report in 2007 asserted that “the aim of a liberal education is to unsettle presumptions, to defamiliarize the familiar, to reveal what is going on beneath and behind appearances, to disorient young people and to help them . . . re-orient themselves.”

Zakaria, by contrast, is leading us up a garden path toward the Silicon Valley panopticon in Dave Eggers’s dystopian The Circle. As in his own brushes with liberal education, he’s skewing learning, teaching, and public service toward apolitical, neoliberal disasters. In Defense of aLiberal Education might best have been considered under the headline of the essay I wrote for Dissent three years ago: “With Friends Like These… Who Will Defend Liberal Education?”

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York (Norton, 1991).