On Target: Zakaria’s Commencement Address at Sarah Lawrence


It’s obvious, says Fareed Zakaria, that the conventional wisdom regarding a college degree is that a student should major in computer science, code at night, start a company, and take it public. Or, if you want to branch out, you could major in mechanical engineering.

What you’re not supposed to do is get a liberal arts education.

So here’s Zakaria, speaking at the quintessential liberal arts school, Sarah Lawrence College. What he has to say is dead center, and particularly for those who can think beyond their first job. Because his speech is “tl;dr” (too long; didn’t read), I intend to lay out the relevant excerpts. Zakaria clearly and obviously rejects the conventional wisdom on college education. But as I’ve argued in the past, never trust conventional wisdom without a very, very thorough analysis. In short, following in the path of conventional wisdom is not going to take you very far. But I’ve added an explanatory note at the end of this blog, illuminating the non-liberal arts grad.

Zakaria’s bio and the background for the speech may be necessary to set the stage. Fareed Zakaria grew up in India in the 1960s and 1970s where technical training was the focus. If you were bright, you studied science. “Those who studied the liberal arts were either weird or dumb.” When he came to the US to study at Yale, he brought that mindset. His first year, he studied science and math and one course in the history of the Cold War. That course “woke me up and made me recognize what I really loved.” He dove into history, English, politics and economics and have stayed in them since. He holds a Harvard PhD in government, under the tutelage of Samuel Huntington, Stanley Hoffmann and Robert Keohane. Zakaria has been columnist and editor at Newsweek, Time and Foreign Affairs. He publishes regularly for the Washington Post and has placed articles in the NYTimes, Wall Street Journal, New Yorker, and The New Republic, as well as Slate. He has a regular Sunday program on CNN, both in the US and internationally.

The liberal arts
In the 19th century, Cardinal Newman defined the liberal arts as a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge” for its own sake, rather than to practice a trade or do a job. As Zakaria notes, “a liberal education has nothing to do with ‘liberal’ in the left-right sense.” Bart Giamatti, the late president of Yale–and Baseball Commissioner (?) has a brilliant statement on the liberal arts, The earthly use of a liberal arts education. But, after all is said and done, the liberal arts are ultimately about being fully human.

More than 30% of liberal arts majors (40% of boomers) go on to graduate school and the professional schools. These people ended up with better salaries and opportunities than the non-liberal arts crowd. The liberal arts, moreover, serves as the preferred pathway to rewarding and remunerative careers: business MBA, medicine and law. The rule, therefore, is that if you plan on an arts degree, plan to go to graduate school.

In his speech, Zakaria lays out the three great advantages of the liberal arts program, advantages that have resonated with me all my life. Advantages that put you ahead of the crowd in any and all careers.

It teaches you how to write.
I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. . . . If you think this has no earthly use, ask Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos—often as long as six printed pages—and 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 will do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and—I would add—quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill. And it is, in many ways, the central teaching of a liberal education.

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. The seminar, which is in many ways at the heart of a liberal education—and at the heart of this college—teaches you to read, analyze, dissect, and above all to express yourself. And this emphasis on being articulate is reinforced in the many extra-curricular activities that surround every liberal arts college—theater, debate, political unions, student government, protest groups. You have to get peoples’ attention and convince them of your cause.

Speaking clearly and concisely is a big advantage in life.

It teaches you how to learn.
I now realize that the most valuable thing I picked up in college and graduate school was not a specific set of facts or a piece of knowledge but rather how to acquire knowledge. I learned how to read an essay closely, find new sources, search for data so as to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and figure out whether an author was trustworthy. I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. And most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure, a great adventure of exploration.

Whatever job you take, I guarantee that the specific stuff you 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 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.

Explanatory note for non-liberal arts majors.
The way students are treated in college, the liberal arts vs. the non-liberal arts majors, trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. The huge majority of students in state and city colleges, vocational schools and non-liberal arts majors are being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system. That’s often in the depths of one indifferent bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, and narrow opportunities.They’ll have to color within the lines that education has marked out for them. In other words, as William Deresiewicz writes, they’re being trained for lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines.

Many potential students have little choice in their education because of GPA and financial resources. But if you and your kids have the choices in front of them, go the liberal arts route and plan for grad school.





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