More—and Better—Liberal Education

In 2015 Fareed Zakaria joined the crowd of those publishing polemics on liberal education. His was different to many of the others, however, in that it self-consciously wrote for an audience far wider than academic circles. Where others were written from an academic perspective, and largely for academics, Zakaria took his experience growing up in India and then choosing to study at Yale to explain in more universal terms the appeal of a liberal education.

In amongst a range of issues, Zakaria suggests that “The solution to the problems of a liberal education is more—and better—liberal education.”

That seems right to me, though why it does has taken some thought. The sentence even seemed vaguely circular, for to me liberal education’s problems are largely definitional: colleges provide the resources for a liberal education, but because students aren’t clear on what exactly that is supposed to mean, they don’t know how to best make use of them to gain a liberal education. Is a liberal education a faster way up a managerial career ladder? Or is it four years to transform your life, to discover how to build meaning into your days? Those two words can mean different things to different people, even in the same conversation, and solving liberal education’s “problems” has meant for me encouraging a coherent view about what value it can really bring to people’s lives.

And I found it hard to decipher which view of liberal education Zakaria subscribed to, since at various points he discusses both. The first part of the book focusses on the extrinsic reasons for a liberal education, repeating the often-cited data of how it encourages the skills that employers these days want most. And yet the latter part—and seemingly Zakaria’s conclusions—focus on a more intrinsic, meaning-focussed view of the liberal arts, where students learn to become good people.

I need to think more on whether the two views of the liberal arts are mutually exclusive, but for now I interpret Zakaria as intending a broad definition of the liberal arts. His view of the liberal arts is not so much what happens inside it—whether it is career-focussed or meaning-focussed—but rather that the liberal arts in general, as opposed to the education systems of the rest of the world, are a good thing and should be expanded. The “better” part of the sentence is what is particularly confusing, then, as that requires determining which parts of liberal education itself, and which interpretations of it, are worth pursuing and bettering. And ultimately, without at the same time bettering liberal education, I’m unsure if its mere expansion is enough to fix its problems.

Regardless, I’m merely questioning small parts of what overall I agree with. Zakaria’s is a straightforward and compelling exposition of liberal education and why it’s worth defending.

And in a separate discussion I’ll perhaps save for another day, it was interesting to read Zakaria’s strong case for Yale-NUS College, which he calls “the most interesting and ambitious effort to reform liberal education in the twenty-first century”. It is always fascinating to hear others speak of Yale-NUS in broad brushstrokes as an idea, a project, when I’ve lived it daily for three years.

A Video About Cycling (and Life)

I’ve been sitting here for thirty minutes thinking of what ideas have shaped my day today, and whether I could write about any of them. It’s not that there haven’t been ideas, and it’s not that I don’t want to write about them. But after cycling over 160km in the past 24 hours, my mind just isn’t sharp enough for that kind of writing.

So I’ll post something else, which in light of not writing today may start to seem somewhat meta. It’s one of those cheesy “take back your life” videos. But what’s not to like about beautiful Italian scenes, Steve Jobs’ Stanford commencement address, and cycling?

What Is Our Time Here For? Redux

Note: This article was originally published in The Octant, the Yale-NUS College student newspaper.

As part of the Yale-NUS inaugural classes’ orientation week in June 2013 we sat through a lecture by Professor of Humanities (Literature in English) Rajeev Patke titled “The Liberal Arts: Making the Most of Your Yale-NUS College Education.” I don’t remember much from the lecture in what was a week far-too-filled with them. But what strikes me now, at the beginning of my final year at college, is how there was probably no more a prescient lecture that could have been delivered to an incoming class of students. Education isn’t something that merely happens to us; we must reach out and grab it. Guidance on how to do so is what I for one most needed at the start of my time here.

At that point I felt I had a good grasp on what the liberal arts were. They were one half of my decision to come to Yale-NUS, the other being its location in Singapore. My desire to study the liberal arts had arisen from feeling restricted when I looked at university study in New Zealand or elsewhere in Asia—I didn’t want to specialize yet. I didn’t want to spend my four years studying solely law or International Relations, and coming out with very little idea of anything besides. I still wanted to take more literature classes, some history, philosophy and economics, and, who knows, maybe even some cosmology.

What I also knew was that companies want graduates who have studied the liberal arts. The admissions office here at Yale-NUS, and every other small liberal arts college I looked at, stressed that the liberal arts would give me skills and knowledge that were in short supply. Liberal arts graduates were perfectly suited to be leaders, because they would have—and these are Yale-NUS’s words—“the appreciation and understanding of breadth and complexity of issues, capacity for critical thinking and problem solving, and effective communication and leadership skills.” Yale-NUS called those three components the “critical outcomes of a traditional liberal arts education.” Surprise! They are precisely the three things we’re told companies today need in their leaders. All this gave me a strong (if vague) sense that as a liberal arts graduate I’d leap ahead of all those who had done specialist degrees.

Yale-NUS made an effort to describe the other ways that a liberal arts education would benefit us, capturing this idea in the phrase “Four years to transform your life”. But after my first week at the College, I quickly began to forget about this amidst classes, extracurriculars, and the pressure from CIPE to start planning out my next summer. I wanted my life transformed, but it became difficult to transform anything apart from my next essay as life became a string of deadlines and events.

What also began to happen was that the pinnacle of each academic year became a prestigious internship or an exciting international “opportunity”. Dining hall conversation began to turn to this topic from the end of first semester, and reached fever-pitch a few weeks into second semester. CIPE’s events talked about the importance of internships in setting us up for careers. Thanks to the subtle pressures within each semester at Yale-NUS, I started to think that the purpose of my education was to fast-track my career. I began to confuse “transforming my life” with getting a prestigious job. The lines began to blur, and I found myself taking classes I didn’t particularly care for but which would look good on my resume; I found myself choosing a major based on what was most relevant to the job I expected to get after graduating.

I now find myself with one year left to “transform my life”. In my junior year I realized that it is for a very good reason that the liberal arts and residential colleges go together. A college is a microcosm of life, where you are exposed to people and to life, where everything and everyone is closer. The beauty of a liberal arts college is that you are given an environment in which to make sense of all those conversations, emotions, and relationships, where books shed light on your life in dining halls, suites, and behind closed doors.  At what other point in our lives will we have the space, the time and resources to figure out what we like and dislike, what we want and do not want?

As I wrote in an article last semester, “The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations.” And the thing I’d repeat to myself, if I was to do-over my first two years at Yale-NUS, is that nothing is more important than building those foundations. A career can rest on them, but the foundations of who you are as a person cannot rest on a career.

The essays and assignments, events and pressures won’t disappear during these four years. But what can change is our understanding of what all this time is for, and how we choose to respond to unavoidable pressures. That is something we all can grasp, and is the starting point for taking control of the books we read, the conversations we have, the time we spend, and, most importantly, the ways we learn to live our lives.

The Danger of Becoming the Stories We Tell

The idea of the “personal narrative” is that we take selective events or periods from our lives and combine them with larger ideas and purpose in order to get somewhere else.

In order to get somewhere else. Perhaps it’s a job interview, or in conversation at a conference; maybe you’ve been asked to give a speech, or you’re applying to graduate school. The reality is that in living our lives daily we do not think about a “personal narrative” so clearly defined. If we meet someone in a casual social situation, we may describe ourselves, but it will not be in the same way as we would describe ourselves in an interview. The “getting somewhere” is what separates describing ourselves to someone and telling a personal narrative; the former is done simply for its own sake, the latter to get somewhere or something.

Not that a personal narrative need be untruthful, but in their selectivity and in their tailoring to the “somewhere” that we are trying to get, personal narratives are likely to anchor us to parts of ourselves that in daily life are not necessarily most important. We may emphasise certain skills or personality traits that, true, we do possess, but which our friends would not think to mention if describing us.

The difference in what we describe in a personal narrative as opposed to what we would tell a friend is the difference between what David Brooks calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. We describe the parts of ourselves that will help a company grow its bottom line, or which will impress a graduate school program—skills, past work experience, competitiveness. Yet those are not the things that make us who we are. To our friends and family, or to the people we go cycling with during the weekend, what matters is whether we are kind and caring, thoughtful and conscientious, able to switch off from work and enjoy life, interested in others’ lives.

The danger in telling a personal narrative is that we may come to believe it; that in repeating so often and so forcefully the kind of person we are, other parts of self may start to fall away. The narrative, to repeat, may not be untruthful, but a narrative is by necessity never the whole truth. “I am an a, b, c” kind of person, “and x, y, z events from my life show that”, and “that’s why I’m perfect to get this (job, graduate program, etc)”. You are a, b and c, but also much of the alphabet besides, including qualities and values that are far more important.

In our attempt to “get somewhere”, the personal narratives we tell focus on the external parts of our lives that when all is said and done matter very little. And if we aren’t careful—if we spend our time climbing, always looking for the next thing, always “applying”—we will come to embody the personal narratives we tell, lacking in humanity and virtue as they necessarily do.

Between the Organization Kid and Hippiedom

“The Organization Kid” are the three words New York Times columnist David Brooks used to define a generation. Brooks travelled to Princeton and other elite institutions in the early 2000s and came away scared at how “The young men and women of America’s future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”

I don’t think we’re Organisation Kids, but I think we have parts of that kid in us. We reject the conformity that leads to happily boring lives in a single job for life. But sometimes we find ourselves pushed towards that because it’s the “right” thing to do. We want college to force us to ask the important questions in life, to force us to confront our own character. Yet all too often we take classes that will look good on our resume. Some of us almost rejected the traditional path of a summer internship to instead spend the summer writing and travelling. But we didn’t, and worked 9-5.

Sometimes we find ourselves wanting a life without the internet. We want a private life where we can be ourselves and develop inner character without anyone watching. Other times we want followers and likes, the Instafame and instant gratification. Sometimes we want to ignore everyone in the world to be inwardly humble, to live as we believe we should live, and other times we throw ourselves at conformity to know that we are succeeding and will be remembered.

If the Organisation Kid “worked for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and didn’t see a contradiction”, the “kid” today sees the contradiction and flips a coin to decide. We work at Goldman Sachs and do yoga and read Peter Singer, or we work at Save the Children and read The Economist. The contradiction is visible and we grasp for both worlds, too scared and too smart to leap at one and not the other.

Our dilemma is whether we become the mindless and busy conformists that Brooks was so scared of, or instead move forward into a hybrid of Organisation and Hippiedom.

Knowing more and wanting more, but seeing “easy” and wanting easy. That’s us.

Selling the Liberal Arts

This is how the Council of Independent Colleges, an organising body for many small liberal arts colleges, describes the liberal arts:

A liberal arts education means studying broadly—taking classes in many different subjects—and building skills that are geared toward more than just one profession. By studying the liberal arts, students develop strong critical thinking, problem solving, and communication skills. Liberal arts students learn to approach questions flexibly and to think across multiple disciplines. These are skills employers say they value most, even more than a specific major. In today’s labor market, career paths are changing rapidly, and graduates must draw from a variety of skillsets to adapt to challenges and capitalize on opportunities.

I understand the attempt to appeal to what future colleges students think they should want by highlighting the liberal arts in an employment context. But doing so anchors these future liberal arts students to the idea that their time at college is about maximising their employment opportunities. Before they’ve even started college, they’ve given up on what the liberal arts are meant to be about.

Yes, this approach might succeed in attracting more students to the liberal arts; but it does so with the wrong reasons, diminishing the chance of a liberal education actually being received. For studying at a liberal arts college does not mean you are receiving a liberal education; the latter is, of course, up to what the individual makes of it.

The approach makes even less sense when, in a rather inane dialogue meant to explain the liberal arts, the same website describes liberal education as being about “the abilities or skills appropriate to a person who’s free.” Which is it? Are the liberal arts a fast-track to a management career, or about learning how to be free in a deep sense?

The confusion over how the liberal arts are sold means that most of us liberal arts students, and most of our professors, aren’t sure what we’re meant to be receiving or what to be teaching. Is it employable skills? Or how to be wise? The difference could not be more stark, and it explains why in my time at college I’ve had to do assignments ranging from an infographic (because employers love that, my professor said) to being asked to write my own eulogy.

If the liberal arts are to mean anything beyond being a new marketing strategy for small colleges, we (and I mean students, professors, and college administrators) must promise what we actually mean. Only then will students expect to have their lives fundamentally changed at college, and be open to the experience.

A Sense of Motion Without Moving

We treat productivity as if it were an objective task, something clear and defined that we must all pursue.

The notion of productivity itself requires an endpoint, a goal. Productivity is a means to something else (even if, much of the time, we seem trapped into thinking of it as its own end). To treat productivity as objective requires, then, that we have in mind the same endpoint to productivity as everyone else.

And that endpoint isn’t too hard to decipher. It consists in checking off tasks, being efficient in one’s work so that one may get a promotion or advance in some vague sense. Productivity is the means of moving through the world faster.

That is despite Parker Palmer’s forewarning that “The tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on”.

If one sees through that endpoint, one sees through the trap of productivity thinking. If you don’t believe in moving upwards, forwards, onwards for its own sake, you cannot believe in productivity as we are forced to pursue it. 

To believe in both that hollow endpoint and the notion of productivity is merely to have, in Ray Bradbury’s words, a sense of motion without moving.