The Write Education

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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A liberal education helps you write a good sentence, form a narrative out of whirling thoughts
It is all about skills and jobs nowadays. You do not go to college to become a poet or philosopher; you get an education that will prepare you to be a winner in the marketplace, where what matters is not your Shakespeare but your digital wizardry. PPE-ists still rule Britain, and one of them is its prime minister, but an Oxford degree in philosophy, politics and economics is not the most coveted prize for the so-called best and the brightest, unless you aspire to get a ticket to the highest echelons of British public life. Whizkids are elsewhere, and the old Dostoevskian dictum, ‘beauty will save the world’, has been rephrased. The great Russian was singing praises to imagination, to literature. Technology has replaced beauty, or more correctly perhaps, technology is where the imagination is.

It is in this world of skill-is-salvation that Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (WW Norton & Company, 204 pages) makes for a brilliant note of dissent. Though the state of America is his immediate provocation, this book is relevant in any country where the demands of a competitive market economy have reduced a good education to mere groundwork for a good job. He quotes Philip Roth’s Alex Portnoy, born of immigrants, “I have to speak absolutely perfect English.” He could be in a minority in an America where President Obama had said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” Obama, himself a product of a liberal education, later apologised for the “glib” remark. The common mindset is: ‘Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.’ Or: ‘How many PhDs in philosophy do I need to subsidize?’

Zakaria’s own story, briefly told here, is a repudiation of such anti-arts attitudes. His journey from a school in Bombay to Yale, following the footsteps of his brother who had joined Harvard, and the making of a stellar career in media as an expert in international politics, is itself a case study of the uses of a good education in liberal arts. He made his choice at a time when a degree in medicine or engineering was the predominant aspiration. In the beginning, a liberal education was seen as ‘practical and philosophical’. Humanistic subjects made the smartest fit for a career in politics, law or trade. It was a lofty calling, and Zakaria quotes Cicero to prove the point: ‘For it is from knowledge that oratory must derive its beauty and fullness.’

In today’s world, where the future is shaped by data and the digital, does the nobility of liberal arts make you a misfit? It makes you realise the worth of a good sentence. ‘Writing the first draft of a column or an essay is an expression of self- knowledge—learning just what I think about a topic, whether there is a logical sequence to my ideas, and whether the conclusion flows from the facts at hand. No matter what you are—a politician, a businessperson, a lawyer, a historian, or a novelist—writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas,’ writes Zakaria. The simplicity of these sentences carries a larger truth: writing has become too specialised, or maybe so demanding an activity that few can manage it efficiently today, unless it is your vocation. Writing a job application itself requires training. It is as if writing has become the preserve of those who make a living of it. A liberal education helps you write a good sentence, form a narrative out of whirling thoughts.

A liberal education also makes you a better speaker. ‘Articulate communication’, as required in the classrooms or seminar rooms of liberal arts, is a way of mastering your own mind. And it is something that is less practised in this part of the world where, as Zakaria correctly says, the emphasis is on memorisation and hard work. Conversation is instruction as well. The third advantage is a logical culmination of the first and second: a liberal education teaches you how to learn. ‘I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. I learned to ask questions, present an opposing view… And most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure— a great adventure of exploration.’ A liberal education sets the tone of a good argument.

That said, Zakaria’s defence of a liberal education is not an argument against the skill-and-job centric education that continues to be encouraged not just in America but everywhere. In a world where ideas, goods and people move faster and destinies are interconnected, and where imaginations are manifested not only in novels but in smartphones as well, what Zakaria says is that a Steve Jobs with a dash of Cicero is pure pleasure. In the age of ‘the creative economy’, knowledge is power is technology. How many of its prodigies can write a short essay on that?