One of the ongoing debates in higher education is whether or not liberal education is relevant in the modern day. Part of the problem is that liberal education comes with the baggage of privilege; one of the hallmarks of elite education in the 19th and early 20th century (which is maintained today) is that liberal learning was essential for those who came from privileged families where practical competencies and skills were not required in order to have a life of gainful employment and purpose.
Coming from an unexpected place, a young man who came to the U.S.A. as an international student from India where practical education (i.e. engineering, medicine, business) is the compelling (and sometimes only) goal of families, Fareed Zakaria provides the background of how his family came to accept his older brother’s study at Harvard and Fareed’s at Yale. Not only were Fareed and his brother bucking the family expectation of lucrative career preparation, they were pursuing education in America where, from an Indian family perspective, youth became disrespectful and disconnected as a result of the liberality of their learning and living environment.
Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education (2015) provided some background about liberal education over time and in the U.S.A., making the particular point that liberal education is both practical and philosophical. He also made the point that liberal education is often coupled with other experiences that take learning outside of the classroom. He quoted Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard historian, who wrote, “Book learning alone might be got by lectures and reading; but it was only by studying and disputing, eating and drinking, playing and praying as members of the same collegiate community, in close and constant association with each other and with their tutors, that the priceless gift of character could be imparted.” This mouthful, while antiquated in terminology, is hard to beat in terms of describing the holistic learning environment that research has found to be most powerful and that student development educators work so hard to create.
The challenge that Zakaria ultimately addresses by example is the perception among many that liberal education is just for elite, privileged individuals who have the luxury to study subjects that cannot possibly be relevant to most hard-working middle class students who attend mainstream public higher education institutions. He challenges this perception with the example of the liberal arts and sciences model established in partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore. Zakaria characterizes the plan as radical and innovative in restoring “sciences to its fundamental place in an undergraduate’s education. It abolishes departments, seeing them as silos that inhibit cross-fertilization, interdisciplinary works, and synergy.” Like the Harvard curriculum idealized by Morison, the Yale-NUS liberal arts and sciences model includes “projects outside the classroom, in the belief that a ‘work’ component teaches valuable lessons that learning from a book cannot” and it adds to the body of knowledge that has been at the core of U.S.A. liberal education by restoring science to its proper place, combining core with open exploration, and incorporating knowledge of new countries and cultures as a central, rather than a peripheral, component of education.
I genuinely got excited about the type of learning advocated by Zakaria and hope that the 2011 Yale-NUS model of liberal arts and sciences takes off in Singapore and in other areas of the world where new ways of learning are being explored. This new kind of learning will be transformative in the way it combines various aspects of the student experience with math, science, and other subjects at the same time it focuses on the ultimate objective of fostering creativity, imagination, and innovation.