Liberal Arts Education as Vocational Training

In retrospect, my expectations for Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education were pretty unrealistic. Considering his support for the WTO, the initial invasion of Iraq, and various other things I find rather objectionable, I probably should have expected that his views on higher education might also clash with my own. Still, Zakaria’s recent book is marketed as defending the liberal arts on the basis that “the university is much more than a vocational school.” With that in mind, I was a little alarmed to find that a staggering proportion of Zakaria’s defense of liberal arts education hinges on how well it prepares students for the job market.

51bD8pHYmTL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_In his appropriately professorial introduction, Zakaria criticizes the narrowness and cynicism of strictly skills-based education. The university, Zakaria explains, can and should offer more. The emphasis should be on personal enrichment, cultural literacy, and freedom of thought rather than just market objectives. For the first two chapters, Zakaria’s Defense is sympathetic. It is, naturally, Ivy League-centric and full of uncritical proclamations of American exceptionalism, but it still makes an important plea. A plea for more access to well-rounded education, for the university to resist economization.

Yet, mere pages after making this impassioned case, Zakaria devotes an entire chapter, which is incidentally the longest chapter in the book, to extolling the competitive advantages of college graduates with liberal arts degrees. The chapter, entitled “Learning to Think,” is replete with feel-good quotes from corporate icons, insistence on the importance of “innovation and entrepreneurship,” and laudatory appraisals of Singapore’s “investment” in Yale-NUS. Relegated to the back burner is any reference to independent inquiry, the value of classical thought, or the importance of pursuing knowledge for its own sake. Front and center is an economizing rationale that figures higher education as a commercial transaction, as an investment, as a way of building human capital. It seems that Zakaria just can’t bring himself to defend the humanities and social sciences on their own merits. He has to defend the stereotypically non-marketable fields on the basis of their marketability, with substantiating testimonies from the CEOs of Amazon, Facebook, and Lockheed Martin.

This is a pattern I see all too often in liberal “defenses” of non-STEM education. Underneath perfunctory mentions of intellectual rigor, profound questions, blah blah blah, the ultimate line of defense for the humanities and social sciences is economic. “Hey, History majors can get dead-end, middle management jobs too!” the argument often goes. For instance, about a month ago, Forbes ran this insipid article about the market value of liberal arts degrees, declaring them “Tech’s Hottest Ticket.” The article holds that degrees in English and philosophy can actually make job applicants more desirable because they imply valuable argumentation and leadership skills that STEM degrees don’t. The piece includes gems like, “creativity can’t be programmed,” “[e]ccentricity … sharpens people skills,” and, my personal favorite, “business benefits from the philosopher’s touch.”

Such market-oriented defenses of liberal arts education invariably fall flat. Not just because they tend to rely on sweeping generalizations based on single anecdotes (e.g. “Mark Zuckerberg studied psychology, and look where he is now!”), but also because they legitimize the very rationale that threatens liberal arts education. The economizing logic that sees higher education as having the sole purpose of preparing graduates for the job market is the same logic that has justified cuts to liberal arts programs time and again. Convincing the general public, hey, philosophy majors get jobs too, will at the very best preserve philosophy programs in the broadest possible sense. It won’t, however, make it any easier to, as Corey Robin puts it, “defend courses with twelve students from administrative economizers.”

Moreover, appealing to neoliberal logic won’t help protect undergraduate courses in applied or obscure subjects. Fareed Zakaria provides us an illustrative example when he mentions, somewhat derisively, an undergraduate course in queer theory as applied to East African studies. Such courses give the liberal arts something of a bad (or at least market-irrelevant) name, and he conscientiously distances himself from defending such obscure course subjects:

“And then there are those strange courses on, say, ‘transgendered [sic] roles in East-African poetry’ that infuriate conservative critics of higher education. They are right to be dismayed at the bizarre and narrow content” (pp. 62).

This despite the fact that I, and many of my fellow students, would have been very excited to take a course like that in undergrad. But, of course, if you want to defend the liberal arts on neoliberal terms, these are the types of courses––often courses dealing with theories of marginalization or populations generally underrepresented in academic literature––that you have to throw under the bus.

It’s frustrating to read “defenses” of the liberal arts that actively reproduce the logic that threatens them. Such defenses do nothing to protect intellectual diversity within, access to, or even basic funding for liberal arts education on any substantive level. They play into the logic of bureaucratization and economization that has swept American universities in the past few decades and jeopardized everything that makes the university valuable. Reciting pithy quotes from CEOs and anecdotes from middle-management tech industry employees might make us feel better about our place on the ship, but it does nothing to change the fact that the ship is sinking.

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About Asher Wycoff

Left-wing blowhard who sometimes writes and draws things.
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