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pomona college liberal artsCollege, for me, has always been something of an interstitial space: an oasis between adolescence and adulthood, between dependence and independence—the last step before I preoccupy myself with a full-time job, with what my mother calls responsibilities. College is that final frontier, the Wild West, the untamed land where students become people, where we experiment and fail and learn, where we form opinions of the world and our place in it, and where those opinions invariably change, ever challenged by new ideas, diverse peers, and thoughtful professors.

W.E.B. Du Bois may have said it best: “The function of the university,” he wrote, “is not simply to teach bread-winning, or to furnish teachers for the public schools, or to be a centre of polite society; it is, above all, to be the organ of that fine adjustment between real life and the growing knowledge of life, an adjustment which forms the secret of civilization.”[i] Pomona College, where I call home, is at its best when it lives up to this ideal, when it attempts to share this secret, to tune our minds to the varied frequencies between real life and our knowledge of it.

But lately, as my senior year dwindles and I prepare to leave my undergraduate education behind, I have come to appreciate my college experience for something else. I look beyond our gates, past the large state schools and fellow private institutions, past the for-profit colleges and the pixellated labs of online learning, and I see a larger world that lacks the intimacy, the familiarity, and the community of my life here at Pomona College. I now realize the value of spending four years with the same people, living in the same place under similar terms, in a world largely apart from the rest of society. I cherish the public interactions, the meetings and social functions, the blurring of work and study and play, the tension between students and administrators over divestment, or alcohol policy, or curriculum changes, or the unionization of our dining-hall employees—because we learn (regardless of our success) how to debate, assess and understand opposing views, empathize with people, respect their ideas, and, ultimately, we strengthen our civic life.

in defense of a liberal educationThis is a way of life that deserves a strong defense—a way of life that has bred, and in some places still breeds, people and communities attuned to the importance of democratic participation. A liberal arts education is, at its core, a civic education. It has been so since the days of our nation’s founding and even since the days of Ancient Greece. And yet this understanding of a liberal education is largely dismissed in Fareed Zakaria’s most recent book, titled, ironically, In Defense of a Liberal Education.

To Mr. Zakaria’s credit, he does defend the liberal arts in multiple ways, lauding them as an excellent training ground for the mind: a place where young men and women come together to build character, develop marketable skills such as teamwork and creativity, learn how to think, and even learn how to learn. The list, despite its drabness and tendency toward cliché, is true enough.

In my four years at Pomona College, I have experienced first-hand the mental maturation this list involves. I have gone from a naïve young freshman to a slightly less naïve and marginally older senior. But my college experience has also taught me much more: namely, what it means to participate in a community—not simply to live in one. Mr. Zakaria misunderstands this distinction. He ultimately defends a liberal education only for what it can offer the individual and, in turn, he defends a politics of individualism. I submit that his type of defense actually undermines the true value and purpose of a liberal education.

“Most people read books, understand science, and experience art, not to change the world, but to change themselves,” Mr. Zakaria writes. “But is our current system of liberal education changing young people for the better?”[ii] He devotes the climactic final chapter, “In Defense of Today’s Youth,” to answering this question. Not coincidentally, this chapter contains some of the most pernicious flaws in his argument for a liberal education.

Mr. Zakaria wishes to defend today’s youth for their lack of political engagement. He notes that, “in general, political activism on campuses has declined in recent decades,”[iii] and that “most Americans are deeply disenchanted with politics. Younger Americans believe that the U.S. government has become dysfunctional and polarized.”[iv] Today’s youth (people like me), he observes, “don’t seem as animated by big arguments as generations of the past did.” [v] But this observation is no lament; instead, he dismisses youth political apathy as “part of the tenor of the times.”[vi]

It is hard to imagine how such a tenor could be defensible, especially in a democratic society—the type of society ostensibly founded on the ideal that the people self-govern, meaning society falls apart if the people cease to care about government. But instead of investigating this line of thought, Mr. Zakaria seeks to avoid it altogether. He attempts to convince us that the liberal democratic project is not really about self-government at all, but rather the continued privatization of the self, the continued removal of the self from self-government.

“We live in a very different age today, one in which there are fewer grand ideological debates with great consequences,” he says.[vii] I suppose that police brutality, encroachments on civil liberties as a result of the ongoing War on Terror, and the threat of extremist violence from abroad (to name just a few) do not spark grand ideological debates, nor do they augur great consequences. “When I was growing up, the Cold War was raging, and that meant there was a great contest of ideas taking place around the world,” Mr. Zakaria reminisces, as if today’s issues were somehow less important.[viii] Even if one could measure the ideological importance of the Cold War against that of the War on Terror, such a measurement would be beside the point. We should not succumb to a view of progress that trivializes the problems of the present simply because they seem less important than the problems of the past. Such an outlook undercuts the value and need for incremental change toward an improved world.

So I am saddened to see Mr. Zakaria do just that. He dismisses today’s ideological debates in the face of those past. “Our age [today] is defined by capitalism, globalization, and technology,” he propounds. We no longer need to worry about politics or our politicians. “The icons of the age are entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople,” and today’s youth “are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics.”[ix] “It’s a new world, and the young know it,” he writes. “But is this so bad? Are the issues that students today think about less important than those of war and peace? Are their heroes inferior to those of past ages?”[x]

Mark Zuckerburg

Mark Zuckerburg

The short answer to all these questions is yes. But I will endeavor to explain myself using more than a series of rhetorical questions. I will go in reverse order, last question first. Deifying men like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos is a dangerous proposition indeed.[xi] These are men who have been successful in the job of accumulating personal financial wealth. They are the heroes of our economic system. They are, like Bill Gates, some of the “first larger-than-life private figures in contemporary America.”[xii] Private is the operative word. Elevating private leaders above our public ones sends a clear message: glory is to be had in the private realm, success is to be had in the private realm, the private realm is more important than the public. In short, the advice is to aspire to the private realm.

Public and Private

Such a message has fatal democratic consequences. It assumes that success can be had in the private realm without the safeguards put in place by the public. In other words, you cannot separate economics and technology from politics and geopolitics. Men and women like Mr. Gates can only flourish in the private realm because they operate within a political system that provides them the opportunity to do so. Centuries of civic work to make this country a place of free people and free markets has enabled Mr. Gates to make his fortune, to become a hero. The only reason we could plausibly call a man like Gates a hero is because men like Washington and Lincoln came before him.

Gates depends upon the government’s copyright protection for his intellectual property. He employs people whom the rest of society paid to educate. He transports products using roads our tax dollars built. As another example, consider Uber, a big winner in our free marketplace, which recently poached dozens of scientists and researchers from Carnegie Mellon’s robotics department—a department that has received millions of dollars in federal funding. Those freshly minted private roboticists will bring their new employer a wealth of knowledge financed at the people’s expense. Companies like Uber, despite their independent intentions, rely on us to be more than simple consumers.

Bill Gates

Bill Gates

But Mr. Gates, in his private quest for public betterment, is not to be deterred. He forges ahead on a range of health and education initiatives, throwing hard-won capital at his decided problems by the truckload. Despite his assuredly good intentions, this private model of philanthropy undermines collective government, especially where his work with education is concerned. We do not decide where to put the money; Mr. Gates does. We do not decide how to spend the money; Mr. Gates does. We do not even get to question Mr. Gates’ proposed solutions. His deep pockets buy him ever more influence as government funding shrinks and school districts become strapped for cash. And those school districts, blinded by the celebrity and private success that accompany his generous donations, often subscribe to whatever educational philosophy he and his crew put in front of them. Do not bother to check the slipshod track record of Mr. Gates’ many attempts to reform American education, because, trust me, this time he knows what he is doing, never mind what you think.[xiii]

But, you might ask, should not a private individual decide how to spend his or her own money? Certainly, but when that individual is making decisions on behalf the public, should not the people have a say as well? Should not teachers and families, doctors and technicians, lawyers and laymen all contribute to the process? This is the distinction between plutocracy and democracy. Mr. Zakaria and Mr. Gates may prefer the former; I choose the latter.

Democratic government, and the laws we have implemented by it, lays the groundwork for private success. Yet Mr. Zakaria seems to suggest that enough energy has already been spent, that we can dust off our hands and enjoy private lives, irrespective of the public realm. That is not true. Our democratic system requires constant maintenance, constant vigilance lest its strength wear thin. We cannot afford to be apathetic or distracted by the technological success of today. In that sense, preoccupation with entrepreneurism is less important than issues like war and peace. Issues like war and peace undergird any hope for entrepreneurism. If we stop caring about the former, we have no chance for the latter. The latter must be secondary. And in case Mr. Zakaria forgot, war and peace are still issues on the table. Look to our continued presence in the Middle East, and elsewhere.

“But is there really something soulless about trying to make a living, create a home, and raise a family?” Mr. Zakaria asks. “One of the higher achievements of the liberal democratic project is surely that people today can spend less time worrying about revolution and war and focus instead on building a private sphere within which they can find meaning, fulfillment, and happiness.”[xiv] Perhaps this pursuit is not soulless, but it is misguided and it misunderstands both the importance of a liberal education and the meaning of the liberal democratic project. We cannot focus on the private life instead of the public life simply because the geopolitical issues of today do not stack up as high as they might have when Mr. Zakaria was a young kid in college. We still owe it to ourselves—to the liberal democratic project—to improve our society as best we can. This is a public pursuit, and our commitment to family and to home cannot be divorced from the realities of self-government.

The liberal democratic project is an experiment in liberty and self-government. Call it the liberty to engage in self-government. Pursuing meaning, fulfillment, and happiness solely in the private sphere bypasses this ideal. The liberty to engage in self-government is, at its core, a very public act—an act that our founders intended to be of the utmost meaning, fulfillment, and happiness. And our founders knew that this type of democratic engagement demands citizens be informed, critical, and capable of living and learning as a community. Put another way, democratic engagement demands that citizens be educated in the liberal arts. Artes Liberales: those arts of liberty which emerged in the Middle Ages to give freemen the requisite education to participate in civic life, distinct from types of education that would prepare a man for a specific trade or life of servitude.

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush

Benjamin Rush, the founder of Dickinson College and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, fervently believed that “education upon the pious and liberal principles… will extract all acrid humors from our veins and fill them with the poet’s ‘milk of human kindness.’ It will melt us into the common mass of peaceable citizens and make us better rulers as well as better citizens in a republican government.”[xv] This republican government, a dawning American experiment, “has created a new class of duties to every American,” wrote Rush. “It becomes us, therefore, to examine our former habits upon this subject, and… adapt our modes of teaching to the peculiar form of our government.”[xvi] He knew that any government reliant on the will of the people would fail if the people were not properly educated, and that a proper education would be grounded in the liberal arts.

Mr. Zakaria attempts to defend the liberal arts. He also attempts to defend a shift away from democratic participation. These two claims border on contradiction. A proper defense of the liberal arts, as Rush would tell you, should be made in support of democratic participation. Yet in his effort to defend today’s youth, Mr. Zakaria strips liberal education of this crucial democratic component. He strips away the type of public learning that occurs at small liberal arts colleges like Dickinson and Pomona.

The Quest for Community

The civic experience of attending a small liberal arts college cannot be understated. I have a professor who is fond of telling her students, “You might not learn much while you’re here, but you’ll learn how to navigate the dining hall at Sunday morning brunch while all the memories of last night are walking about you.” The point—delivered with a sly grin that invariably draws laughs—is that at a small liberal arts college you learn how to live with other people. Private life is rare at a small liberal arts college, especially a residential college like Pomona. We have no families to go home to at the end of the day. We eat our meals together, attend classes together, socialize together, sleep together, work together, study together, play on sports teams together, party and drink together. We regularly bump into our professors walking across the quad; we have meals at their houses and meet their kids. We live a shared experience that teaches us to care for this place and for one another. Caring for our personal, private lives should require us to care for our community; this college community becomes our family. When we fail to include one another in this family, our civic fabric frays.

Of course, in the most obvious sense our educational experiences are about each of us as individuals. We alone take the tests, write the papers, get the grades, etc. Each individual develops a separate identity, a separate set of beliefs, a distinctive style of argumentation, a favorite book. But an individualistic view of the liberal arts experience is incomplete. Those tests, those papers, those grades all come from a communal labor. What we have is not quite self-government, but it’s close. Through living and learning together we begin to share a sense of responsibility for our education. The knowledge we acquire from living life under similar terms seems different from the type of knowledge that Mr. Zakaria appears to have gained from his liberal arts experience. Perhaps this is because Yale, unlike Pomona, is a large research university where undergraduate education is not the first or only priority.

Academics_classThis aspect of scale is important. Were Pomona College to grow much larger, I would worry we would lose the closeness that binds us together and promotes our strong civic life. As the size of a school increases, the fewer people and the fewer places a student can know. Each student makes up an ever-smaller percentage of the total population and develops a smaller stake in the whole. As the size of the administration increases, so too do the layers of bureaucracy through which one must wade in order to get anything done. It becomes tougher to effect change, one has less accessibility to the people and relationships that matter. This type of large, amorphous university lacks intimacy and loses that central civic space: the quad. People are apt to forget about each other. Community suffers. Rush was right once again when he said, “I prefer four colleges in the state to one or two, for there is a certain size of colleges as there is of towns and armies, that is most favourable to morals and good government.”[xvii]

But because of our smallness at Pomona College we do not face these difficulties. We learn what it means to participate in common. We learn together, challenge one another’s assumptions, and exercise ownership over our environment: we invite speakers, hold meetings, create clubs, set up conferences, revise our laws, paint our walls (yes, we do), protest, engage in community service and local outreach, and fight for what we believe in. This experience produces a very public type of meaning, fulfillment, and happiness—a type of meaning pursuant to the liberal democratic project (much the opposite of Mr. Zakaria’s new-age individual techno-paradise). This meaning arises from participation in the public realm; it emerges out of living and learning the values of civic life.

Consider the words of Hannah Arendt in analyzing Thomas Jefferson’s vision for the ward system. “The basic assumption,” she wrote, “was that no one could be called happy without his share in public happiness, that no one could be called free without his experience in public freedom, and that no one could be called either happy or free without participating, and having a share, in public power.”[xviii] Pomona College is our Jeffersonian ward. It offers us a share of public power.

But, as Mr. Zakaria has demonstrated, civic life is not a concern of this book, and this lack of concern becomes increasingly prominent in Mr. Zakaria’s discussion of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). “We are moving toward a time,” he writes, “when anyone can get elements of a liberal education and yet be disconnected from the experience—and cost—of attending a liberal arts college.”[xix]

According to Mr. Zakaria, the rise of MOOCs has created a space for individuals around the world to take preprofessional and general education classes. This is true. And Mr. Zakaria is not lying when he tells us that elements of a liberal education can be had through online courses. But the elements one might gain from taking classes online are not particular to a liberal education. A MOOC is nothing more than a very full, online lecture hall. Liberal arts colleges have lecture halls (though most of them are small), as do public and for-profit universities. The only potential similarity between a MOOC education and a liberal education is the opportunity for breadth. In either case, the students are free to follow whatever whims of curiosity may guide them. But defining the liberal arts on the basis of breadth is reductive, to be polite.

online-educationMr. Zakaria thinks that “important aspects of this [liberal] education [can] be provided to millions of people around the world at a fraction of the cost,”[xx] despite, as I have argued, that the true value—the true particularity—of a liberal education derives from vibrant communal life. A breadth of online lectures (essentially the MOOC promise) will never compete with small classes and face-to-face interactions between dedicated peers and professors. But that is beyond the point. MOOCs, by their very nature, cannot replicate the lived experience—and the lessons learned from that experience—of spending four years in a single, physical place with a cohort of your peers.[xxi] Zakaria clearly realizes this, but does not think it much of a problem. For him, the important aspects of a liberal education can be spread to individuals, sitting in front of individual screens, considering individual lives. The campus and the campus experience—the most particular and important aspects of a liberal education—go unconsidered.

Unfortunately, this is not surprising. Mr. Zakaria is far from alone in his individualized view of education. What Is the Point of College? runs a recent headline in The New York Times Magazine. The article situates college as a means for accomplishing one of two things or, if you are lucky, both: developing a self and developing the skills for a job. Our tendency is to value college for the latter. When individuals are required to bear the burdens of pricey tuitions, it’s natural that they would care about cost and return on investment. It is the mindset that motivated the Obama Administration to create College Scorecard, a college rankings system released through the U.S. Department of Education. Upon visiting the Scorecard website’s page for Pomona College, three prominent metrics immediately standout: “Average Annual Cost,” “Graduation Rate,” and “Salary After Attending.” The individual and financial rationale behind choosing the right college is clear.

Doubtless, these are all important metrics for prospective students to be aware of. And developing a self and preparing for a job are goals we all ought to strive toward. Mr. Zakaria’s defense of a liberal education succeeds, to some degree, at defending these two goals. But he fails to defend—even properly to consider—a third way of conceiving the liberal arts college: as a place to learn the values of community and communal learning which undergird successful democratic participation. This failure exonerates today’s youth for their lack of political engagement and promotes a culture of individualism that is anathema to the liberal democratic project. Politics, for Mr. Zakaria, are no longer important. Liberty, for Mr. Zakaria, is no longer preserved by politics, but by capitalism. I suppose such is the “tenor of the times.”

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


[i] W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, (Bedford/St. Martin’s) p. 87.

[ii] Fareed Zakaria, In Defense of a Liberal Education, (W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.) p. 149.

[iii] Zakaria, p. 161.

[iv] Zakaria, p. 162.

[v] Zakaria, p. 162.

[vi] Zakaria, p. 163.

[vii] Zakaria, p. 164.

[viii] Zakaria, p. 163.

[ix] Zakaria, p. 165.

[x] Zakaria, p. 166.

[xi] Zakaria, p. 165.

[xii] Zakaria, p. 166.

[xiii] Gates has, obviously, done some good in the world, but for a more detailed critique of Gates and philanthrocapitalism, see David Bosworth’s The Cultural Contradictions of Philanthrocapitalism. Relevant evidence: “In 2008, the New York Times reported that the chief of the malaria program for the World Health Organization, Dr. Arata Kochi, had ‘complained that the growing dominance of malaria research by the BMGF risks stifling diversity of views among scientists and wiping out the health agency’s policy-making function.’” And: “‘Gates funding was so large and widespread,” writes education advocate Michael Klonsky, ‘it seemed for a time as if every initiative in the small-schools and charter world was being underwritten by the foundation. If you wanted to start a school, hold a meeting, organize a conference, or write an article in an education journal, you had to consider Gates.’” Much more here.

[xiv] Zakaria, p. 168.

[xv] Benjamin Rush and L. H. Butterfield, Letters of Benjamin Rush. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1951.

[xvi] Benjamin Rush, The Selected Writings of Benjamin Rush. Edited by Dagobert Runes. New York, New York: Philosophical Library, 1947.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution, (Penguin Books) p. 247.

[xix] Zakaria, p. 133.

[xx] Zakaria, p. 134.

[xxi] See here.

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