With Defenders Like These...

Liberal Arts Education as Vocational Training

The below text is adapted from a now defunct blog.


In retrospect, my expectations for Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education were unrealistic. Zakaria's latest 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, it is a little alarming 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.

Zakaria begins his defense by criticizing the narrowness and cynicism of strictly skills-based education. The university, he argues, 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 and mostly unobjectionable. It is, naturally, focused on the Ivy League and teeming with uncritical proclamations of American exceptionalism. But it still makes some important pleas: for wider access to well-rounded education, for the university to resist economization.

Yet, mere pages after making this impassioned case, Zakaria dedicates an entire chapter, incidentally the longest in the book, to extolling the competitive advantages of college graduates with liberal arts degrees. This 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 a Yale satellite campus. Suddenly absent 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. Zakaria simply 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 we 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. "History majors can get dead-end, middle management jobs too!" the argument goes. This past July, Forbes ran an insipid article about the market value of liberal arts degrees, dubbing 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 do not. The piece is replete with gems like "creativity can't be programmed," "eccentricity ... sharpens people skills," and, my personal favorite, "business benefits from the philosopher's touch."

These market-oriented defenses of liberal arts education invariably fall flat. Not just because they tend to rely on sweeping generalizations based on exceptional anecdotes (e.g., "Mark Zuckerberg studied psychology!"), but also because they endorse the underlying rationale of the processes that threaten liberal arts education. The 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 that, hey, philosophy majors get jobs too, will at the very best preserve philosophy programs in the broadest sense. It won't make it any easier to defend smaller seminar sizes or new tenure-track hires.

Appeals to neoliberal logic will do especially little to protect undergraduate courses in applied or "niche" subjects. Fareed Zakaria provides us an illustrative example when he mentions, with open derision, a "strange" course about "transgendered [sic] roles in East-African poetry." Such courses give the liberal arts a bad name, Zakaria grants, apparently in concession to conservative readers. Indeed, he considers the absurdity of such a course so manifestly obvious that a reader who isn't primed to dismiss all humanities classes out of hand is left wondering what's wrong with it — is it the word transgender, East-African, or poetry that earns Zakaria's dismissal? But if one wants to defend the liberal arts on neoliberal terms, these are the courses (not coincidentally courses dealing with theories of marginalization or groups generally underrepresented in academic literature) that one has to throw under the bus.

It's frustrating to read "defenses" of the liberal arts that actively reproduce the logic that threatens them. These 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 quotations from CEOs and anecdotes from tech sector middle-managers might make us feel better about our place on the ship, but it does nothing to change the fact that the ship is sinking.

September 1, 2015

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