Opinion: Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education”

I don’t know about you, but I watch a lot of news, including what my husband and I fondly call the “Talking Heads” shows on Sundays. That is, Meet the Press, Face the Nation, etc. One of these shows is hosted by Fareed Zakaria, and it’s called GPS – Global Public Square. It airs on CNN Sunday mornings at 10am ET. In the past few months, he has been on all the talk shows promoting his book, In Defense of a Liberal Education. What I had been hearing him say kept making me angrier and angrier, so I decided to look into his book and his argument. While I didn’t read the entire book, the Huffington Post article linked below does a great job outlining his main arguments, with quotes from Zakaria himself. This blog post serves as my reaction to some of the article/Zakaria comments.

In short, he was making me angry because all I ever heard him say in interviews was that STEM education has had its 15 minutes of fame, and the world should focus more on liberal arts education. Of course, as someone who just completed a PhD in Aerospace Engineering, this made me incredibly mad. I do a lot of STEM outreach and I constantly tell kids that a STEM career opens a lot of doors, and that you can always take Liberal Arts classes, if that is something which interests you. Plus, I disagree with his premise that the world does not need more scientists and engineers. I believe that we are in desperate need for these people more than ever, as there are world crises that require, or at least prefer, a STEM degree or experience to solve. However, after reading the Huffington Post article, I see now that he is not denying the benefit of a STEM education, but rather advocating for incorporating Liberal Arts and STEM together to allow for a broader and more comprehensive education. I completely agree with this conclusion, but I wish he would explain it better on his interviews.

Link to Huffington Post Article:

Find the book on Amazon: http://amzn.com/0393247686


And so here begins some quotes from the article and my thoughts:

A liberal arts education is the best preparation for many careers, especially in the U.S., given today’s global technology-driven economy

Actually, no, a STEM education is much better preparation for a technology-driven career. By understanding how to use and program computers, one is much better equipped to move forward in a career which is dependent upon these technological advancements. Furthermore, understanding the scientific and engineering processes is imperative for many careers. For example, the primary thing engineers are taught is problem solving – regardless of the problem. With a liberal arts education, many students do not even learn how to think through technical problems or get practice with the engineering and scientific methods. They may learn how to analyze and think critically, but they are not taught the advanced math, science, or engineering skills which are obtained through a STEM education. It is these advanced skills that are necessary to succeed in many careers.

“The future of a country like the U.S. rests on our ability to master how technology interacts with how humans live, work and play,” Zakaria said to The WorldPost. “And that depends on skills fostered by the liberal arts, such as creativity, aesthetic sensibility and social, political and psychological insight.”

STEM education fosters creativity. Insight into the world’s problems is a must for many STEM majors, since they’re the ones who are going to create (ah, there’s creativity!) methods by which to solve these problems. Engineers are also key designers for electronics, which must be aesthetic by necessity in order to be financially successful.

Because of tough economic times, the rising cost of higher education and an increasingly competitive job market, too many Americans — and American politicians — are turning away from the liberal arts under a false perception that they are a poor career option, Zakaria says.

And yet, many of the highest paid career options are STEM careers. While salary does not make the best indicator of  a career option, it indicates the value of the college degree to the employer. And when looking for a job immediately out of college, rates have shown that it is much easier to get a STEM-related job than a non-STEM job, which is incredibly useful if you have student debt. Zakaria mentions that non-STEM salaries and career prospects may reach the same salary and unemployment rate as STEM majors later in life. But as I mentioned, this does not help a soon-to-be college graduate when faced with trying to pay bills, including student debt.



Liberal arts subjects — such as English, philosophy and political science — teach people how to think, write and communicate; those skills remain useful through the many twists and turns of a career in today’s ever-changing digital economy, he argues. And, he says, it is dangerous to overemphasize STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education as separate from or more important than the liberal arts.

STEM disciplines also teach one how to think. I will admit that I wish my engineering studies would have emphasized writing and communicating more, but these were things I could get elsewhere. In fact, my skills were strengthened through my involvement in other activities, such as giving campus tours, attending and presenting at conferences, and writing technical papers – not to mention my Master’s thesis and Doctoral dissertation. I will also admit that I think STEM outreach does sometimes focus on the technical skills, and should perhaps include more arts, reading, and communication skills. With that said, I know many STEM outreach programs which are trying to encompass all these skills, with an emphasis on the engineering and scientific methods. Zakaria mentions this technique as “cross-pollination” and suggests that creativity and innovation excel when liberal arts and STEM fields are mixed during the education process.


And so, I came to the conclusion I mentioned in the second paragraph. I agree with Zakaria’s conclusion – that STEM and liberal arts need to be integrated to develop the next generation of thinkers. But I disagree with how he has been going around advertising this bottom line.


What do you think? Feel free to add your thoughts in the comments, I’m eager to hear other opinions on this topic!



2 thoughts on “Opinion: Fareed Zakaria’s “In Defense of a Liberal Education”

  1. I agree with everything you said. It seems like there is so much to learn today as compared to even 50 years ago. I feel like even within STEM we have deviated to much from the fundamentals towards teaching tools. What if instead we try to give undergraduate students really good grasp of basic principles and focus on skills like communication and problem solving. I also sum time wonder if we reframed some of our lessons to be in a more historical context if that would also help students broaden their horizons. I love engineering and literature and there are some great works out there that are examples of both.

    What this may mean is that a student may complete his or her B.S. in engineering and not know how to used Ansys but may be a better writer. Based on my experience there are quite a few juniors who know how to use Ansys but have a very poor grasp of how Ansys works.

  2. If he didn’t make such statements, they wouldn’t want him on the shows. The headline is what gets people to watch/read/listen. Kudos to you for taking the time to really understand what he is advocating for. And I do agree that we don’t do a good job in preparing engineering graduates for how to communicate in a business world and present their findings effectively. Even though I was thrilled to be able to ‘test out’ of my undergrad English requirements, I would have benefited from a writing and/or presenting class.

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