School Daze

In Defense of a Liberal Education BY Fareed Zakaria. W. W. Norton & Company. Hardcover, 208 pages. $23.

Like Horatius standing alone against Rome’s would-be invaders, Fareed Zakaria begins this portentously titled book by posing defiantly against “the drumbeat of talk about skills and jobs” that makes Americans “nervously forsake the humanities and take courses in business and communications.” “The irrelevance of a liberal education . . . has achieved that rare status in Washington: bipartisan agreement,” he warns. Those making the liberal arts more job-focused and technical are “abandoning what has been historically distinctive, even unique, in the American approach to higher education.”

Zakaria, who immigrated from Mumbai in 1982 on a Yale College scholarship and launched a successful career as a policy intellectual even as an undergraduate, seems ideally suited to lead us against these threats to liberal education. After completing a Ph.D. in government at Harvard, he flourished in the dynamic civic culture that liberal education nourishes, one that Zakaria says “allows [its bearers] to challenge their elders, start companies, persist when others think they are wrong, and pick themselves up when they fail.” “Coming to America,” his first chapter, recounts his attraction to that culture’s traditions of open inquiry even before he arrived here and encountered liberal education itself.

Now, as a columnist for the Washington Post and the host of CNN’s GPS, Zakaria rides the riptides of “capitalism, globalization, and technology,” by which, he tells us, “our age is defined.” These currents are submerging not only old elites, but also knowledge itself: We no longer merely shape our circumstances; we’ve become creatures as well as creators of environmental and technological forces that will shape us and our planetary biosphere faster than we can shape them.

Zakaria’s response is to harness liberal education to the priorities of new “icons of the age”—“entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople” such as Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, whom he presents as liberal education’s champions. Its actual practitioners, however, from Socrates to Allan Bloom, resisted learning primarily for power and profit in order to follow reason even when it led them to challenge power instead of serving it.

Zakaria barely acknowledges more substantive defenses of liberal education by Bloom, David Denby, Martha Nussbaum, Geoffrey Harpham, Harry R. Lewis, Anthony T. Kronman, Andrew Delbanco, Derek Bok, and others. Instead, he winds up celebrating liberal education’s contributions to the tech-pragmatist rampages he began by disparaging. Rushing to glorify and counsel emulators of the late Steve Jobs and the late founder of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, both the framers of a postdemocratic, postpolitical age that Zakaria says is upon us, he shows only a pro forma regard for the humanities’ great conversation across the ages about the civic and political ends of life.

Then again, Zakaria comes from a family of big talkers. His father, Rafiq Zakaria, was a prominent Indian Muslim public intellectual and member of parliament who in 1988 supported India’s ban of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, not only in order to defend Islam against blasphemy but also to help India keep a lid on sectarian violence. One can imagine secular liberals and even some Muslims considering him an accommodationist to malign powers. One can also imagine the young Fareed learning early how and how not to talk about difficult public conflicts.

Unlike his substantial The Future of Freedom (2003) and The Post-American World (2008), this slim, slippery volume may have been undertaken less to defend liberal education than to restore Zakaria’s claim on it. In 2012, he resigned from Yale’s governing corporation after plagiarizing a passage by the writer Jill Lepore, herself a Yale Ph.D. His market-driven employers at CNN and Time magazine suspended him only briefly, but he couldn’t finesse the value system of the university where he’d first encountered liberal education.

So here he is, posing as its Horatius at the bridge. He doesn’t mention the plagiarism, but had he used his time out to write more deeply about his odyssey through American pedagogy and politics he might have done more for liberal education. Plagiarism seems only a metaphor for the way he surfs wealth creation and tech-based innovation, with nods to “nostalgia” for “developing a meaningful philosophy of life.” American colleges’ efforts to tie students’ formative social experiences to their study of the humanities deserve a better defense. Yet on the Yale Corporation board Zakaria was evangelical about adapting that model to Yale’s joint venture with Singapore, one of the most narrowly job-focused, technically oriented places on Earth, where he thinks he’s seen the future of freedom, not the makings of a global managerial class that develops no democratic polity or civic code.

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Zakaria also finds liberal education vindicated in Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism. Because Yale taught him to write clearly in order to think clearly, he touts Jeff Bezos’s requirement that senior executives write and read long memos. He tells us that because Mark Zuckerberg studied ancient Greek at Phillips Exeter Academy and majored in psychology at Harvard, he envisioned Facebook to conquer Internet anonymity with a “culture of real identities, where people would voluntarily expose themselves to their friends.” He finds poetry in gadgetry: “When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, Steve Jobs explained . . . ‘It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.’”

He even gives humanist storytelling a higher market purpose: “You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the world. But you can’t sell it for three hundred dollars unless you have built a story around it. . . . The value added is . . . how it is imagined, presented, sold, and sustained.”

Missing is the inner voice of an American, civic-republican culture that countless immigrants before Zakaria enriched by bringing their formative social experiences into public narratives that strengthened Americans’ capacity to achieve things together that they couldn’t alone. Zakaria exults that “people today can . . . focus instead on building a private sphere within which they can find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness.”

Have his memories of India made him phobic about all protest and direct confrontation? He’s made no secret of his loathing for leftist manifestations, whether Maoists in the hills or the Emory University academic psychologist Drew Westen, whose widely discussed New York Times essay in 2011 lambasted Obama’s loss of passion for “Change” and prompted Zakaria, part of Obama’s palace guard, to denigrate Westen on Charlie Rose.

He assures us that young people now do good “as much as any generation . . . that might have gone into politics and government or volunteered for war and exploration. . . . They just do it in an incremental, practical, best-practices kind of way—more McKinsey than Mother Teresa.” Apparently those are the only alternatives: “Given the state of politics . . . surely they are being rational, maybe even wise,” to dismiss not only politics but “nostalgia” for “grand philosophical issues.” “The young reflect today’s realities,” he shrugs. “Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics.”

Zakaria may be in for some rude awakenings. The elites he counsels to rule the unruly can barely rule themselves or cope with the social consequences of their “efficient” management. Since the human heart is divided, Silicon Valley geniuses can become political monsters. The old American colleges understood this and spoke to it. Zakaria does not.

He does creditably endorse John Adams’s call for full public education of “the whole people.” But he wants a trained workforce, not an aroused citizenry vigilant against abuses of power. He praises Thomas Jefferson for founding the University of Virginia to cull a “natural aristocracy” of talent and virtue, but he’s silent about the recent rebellion there by faculty and students against trustees who tried to impose a technological lockstep on the indirection, skepticism, and serendipitous passions of liberal education and democratic life.

Zakaria lauds digital-age America’s “flexible economy, strong rule of law . . . good regulatory structure,” and “vibrant entrepreneurial culture.” It may have looked that way from India in 1982, but it’s been buckling since 2008. Zakaria anticipates “a solution in the form of technology. . . . Enter MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses.” But he’s a one-man MOOC, lecturing in one direction only. Acknowledging others’ unmet needs for corporate-to-worker investment, he endorses The Start-Up of You, a tract by the billionaire founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman.

Until Zakaria tells his entrepreneurial heroes and himself that democracy is as irrepressible as it is implausible, and that we need to improve our training for its risks and rigors, liberal education will have to look elsewhere for a credible defense.


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, 1990).