Book Review - In Defense of a Liberal Education

Book review of In Defense of a Liberal Education

For nine years, I was a recruiter for PACS. That meant that every day I would encourage potential students to consider this college as they selected their academic home. One question that I consistently heard was, “What can I do with a liberal studies degree?” I understood the question, and I understood what motivated it, but I always struggled to give a good answer.

The answer I gave usually was along the lines of saying that a liberal studies degree wasn’t designed to teach how to do any one particular thing, but rather that it was designed to enhance your entire life. As Fareed Zakaria writes in In Defense of a Liberal Education, a liberal education “may not help make a living, but it will help make a life” (p. 150).

Today, PACS has evolved, and now most of our degree programs are designed to be career enhancing. The college made the express decision to offer more than an old-fashioned liberal education. This was a wise decision, both for our students and the college. But that old question of “what can I do with a liberal studies degree?” still haunts me, and it still begs for an answer.

In his book, Zakaria provides an exceptional answer—or more accurately, a plethora of answers. He points out that liberally educated individuals are becoming a rare commodity today, while at the same time becoming ever more important in a complex and changing world. He tells us that there are at least three distinct advantages to having a liberal education.

First, he says, “the central virtue of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write, and writing makes you think. Whatever you do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and reasonably quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill” (p. 72). He explains that the exercise of writing helps you to clarify and sharpen your own thinking.

The second advantage, he argues, is learning how to articulate your ideas clearly and succinctly. This is partially accomplished through the process of writing, he explains, but moreover, exposure to broad knowledge and great ideas from a good liberal education also help an individual become more confident in his or her own thoughts and opinions. According to Zakaria, sharing ideas and debating opinions sharpen a person’s ability to become an articulate communicator.

Third, and perhaps most important, a good liberal education teaches a person how to learn. “I now realize,” writes Zakaria, “that what I gained from college and graduate school, far more lasting than any specific set of facts or piece of knowledge, has been the understanding of how to acquire knowledge on my own. I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. I learned to ask questions, present an opposing view, take notes and, nowadays, watch speeches, lectures and interviews as they stream across my computer. And most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure—a great adventure of exploration” (p. 78).

“One of the enduring benefits of a liberal education is that it broadens us. When we absorb great literature, we come face to face with ideas, experiences and emotions that we might never encounter in our lifetime. When we read history, we encounter people from a different age and learn from their triumphs and travails. When we study physics and biology, we comprehend the mysteries of the universe and human life. And when we listen to great music, we are moved in ways that reason cannot comprehend. This may not help make a living, but it will help make a life.” – Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education

Students and graduates of PACS, no matter which major they have chosen, may find something familiar in the advantages of a liberal education as identified by Zakaria. Much of the curriculum in this college is aimed at practicing the skills of effective writing and communication, gaining and challenging new knowledge and learning how to learn for its own sake. These three things are intentional elements of all degree programs offered by PACS.

And these are all elements and skills that prepare students both for a successful life and a successful career. As Zakaria explains, no matter what a person learns in college today, in a few years what they learned may be outdated, if not irrelevant. Only through the advantage of having learned how to learn, and how to effectively express that new knowledge, can a person stay current and competitive in a rapidly changing world and workplace.

Zakaria’s book goes further, explaining how this nation’s founding fathers believed it was imperative to have a well-informed electorate. He quotes Thomas Jefferson, who in 1778 wrote a bill for the Virginia legislature calling for a “More General Diffusion of Knowledge.” In that bill, Jefferson argues that any form of government can devolve into tyranny, saying that the best way to prevent that is “to illuminate as far as practicable minds of the people at large” (p. 110).

In this eloquent and admirably brief book, Zakaria makes a compelling case for the value and relevance of liberal education. He argues that vocation-oriented education is necessary but that liberal education also is valuable and necessary. He finally gave me an answer to that old question, “What can I do with a liberal studies degree?” Zakaria helped me understand and articulate that a liberal education is less about “doing” and more about “being.”

Zakaria writes: “Because of the times we live in, all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life. We do not look inside of ourselves enough to understand our strengths and weaknesses, and we do not look around enough—at the world, in history—to ask the deepest and broadest questions. The solution surely is that, even now, we could all use a little bit more of a liberal education” (p. 169).

Frank Rodriquez

Frank Rodriquez

Francisco (Frank) G. Rodriquez is Director of Operations and Student Support Services for the College of Professional and Continuing Studies. He has worked for 23 years at the College of Professional and Continuing Studies, and has 30 years of experience working in Oklahoma higher education.