We Need The Liberal Arts More Than Ever In Today's Digital World, Fareed Zakaria Says

04/20/2015 10:49 EDT | Updated 04/20/2015 12:59 EDT
Fareed Zakaria, a journalist with CNN, attends the Clinton Global Initiative, Monday, Sept. 24, 2012 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

A liberal arts education is the best preparation for many careers, especially in the U.S., given today's global technology-driven economy, CNN host Fareed Zakaria says.

"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."

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.

In his new book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Zakaria writes that America's success was built on a liberal arts education -- on multidisciplinary study for the sake of learning rather than vocational study for the sake of a set career path. 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.

Rather than pitting the liberal arts against STEM, Zakaria says, there should be more cross-pollination between the two groupings. Creativity and innovation occur when disciplines cross paths, he says. There are numerous examples of this in Silicon Valley. Facebook co-founder and CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, who was a psychology major before he dropped out of Harvard University, said Facebook is "as much psychology and sociology as it is technology."

Steve Jobs, co-founder and former CEO of Apple, credited a course in calligraphy for the font aesthetic of the Mac computer. When unveiling a new edition of the iPad, he said, "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough. It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing."

Zakaria notes that science used to be a bigger part of the liberal arts, and he advocates further integrating science -- especially technology -- into the liberal arts and creating hybrid programs. Some universities have already done so, with programs such as Stanford University's hybrid music and technology degree and various universities' digital humanities programs. Zakaria points to a new liberal arts school that's a partnership between Yale University and the National University of Singapore as a model. In addition to traditional liberal arts core requirements such as history and literature, Yale-NUS requires various science courses, ranging from computer science to biotechnology, with an emphasis on scientific thinking rather than memorization of facts.

However, such hybrid programs are far from plentiful. Zakaria says too many students faced with job-prospect pressures are lured not into STEM (which not everyone has the aptitude for) but into professional-sounding but debilitatingly narrow majors, such as business and communications.

A couple of years ago, statistician and writer Nate Silver pointed out the same trend, finding a rise in people majoring in health professions, hospital administration, nursing and business as well as some newer professional degrees such as criminal justice. Silver says this likely has to do with the fact that college has become a norm for a broader range of students, including some who may choose careers more associated with the middle class, such as nursing.

So are fewer people actually majoring in the liberal arts? There are varying reports since the liberal arts cover so many majors, and the data varies by major. But the pressure to be on a career track is clear. Last year, President Barack Obama said (and later apologized for saying), "Folks can make a lot more potentially with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree." And the governors of Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Wisconsin have all suggested cutting liberal arts programs on the premise that they're not job creators.

They point to data that show liberal arts majors have relatively high initial unemployment rates and low initial earnings compared with STEM majors. And it's true: Many liberal arts majors have a rough start. However, it may get better with time. Zakaria points to a study showing that, later in their careers, liberal arts majors actually make slightly more on average than STEM majors and unemployment levels even out as well.

The WorldPost spoke with Zakaria about the role of the liberal arts today.

Why are the liberal arts important in today's digital world, in which technology is disrupting cultural norms and so many industries?

There's no question that the world we are living in is defined by two great forces: globalization and technology. Given globalization, you need some understanding of the rest of the world, which the liberal arts foster. The technological revolution has meant that a good deal of basic industrial work -- which used to be done by a skilled craftsman or even a low-level engineer -- is now fairly routine, commoditized and either being done by technology or through outsourcing. In other words, a machine is doing it, or a person in China is doing it (obviously that's exaggerating). For advanced industrial countries, the real challenge is doing something that is value-added -- something that adds some bells and whistles to this routine, commoditized work.

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. And that depends on skills fostered by the liberal arts, such as creativity, aesthetic sensibility and social, political and psychological insight. Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, told me that the world of bits and bytes is bumping up against the world of atoms. In other words, the digital world is bumping up against the real world. And that collision, which of course Uber is at the heart of, means that you have to understand computers but you also have to understand the world. And as Uber is finding out, part of that is understanding everything from local politics to traffic issues to work habits.

Anyone now can make a $30 sneaker somewhere in the world. The question is, how do you sell it for $300? To do that, you have to be great at branding, marketing, advertising and design. And that's a metaphor for almost every industry. To pull it off, you're going to need some education beyond basic STEM skills.

In the sciences today, some say we are playing (or even creating) God by building artificial intelligence, modifying genes, colonizing Mars and more. What role do the liberal arts play here?

There's a very important question that we forget to ask: To what end do we use science? It's a political, economic and moral question. We need a broad understanding of how these sciences will affect humans. Rather than having an ethical philosopher in every company, everybody involved should have some breadth of perspective. And that can be deepened with some training in the liberal arts.

You write that, "The greatest shift in liberal education over the past century has been the downgrading of subjects in science and technology." Explain.

Science was always a central part of the liberal arts. "Art" just meant as opposed to "craft." In ancient Greece and Rome and in the Middle Ages, people used to study science for exactly the opposite reason they study it now. Now, many people study it because it's intensely practical. In 1400, the reason you studied science was because you were searching for abstract knowledge. It had no practical application. If you wanted to get ahead in a career, you studied law, history and politics.

There was a conception that the liberal arts (including science) were interrelated largely because knowledge and wisdom came from a supreme deity. The interconnection was all part of God's magic and mystery. As science began to unravel that idea in a way, people began to compartmentalize, and science became something that scientists studied but that didn't have applications in philosophy, history, etc. That took hold by the late 19th century, and it created these two separate cultures: the sciences and non-sciences. And we're all poorer for it. It's unfortunate that there's such a high degree of scientific illiteracy in America today and that scientists are not as well trained as they could be in the humanities.

The liberal arts-versus-science division is particularly true with STEM, which, more than other sciences, is seen as vocational. I studied international political economy at Berkeley, and it never occurred to me to venture over to a separate college on campus to take a computer science course. But if students are encouraged to do that, they might feel less anxious about choosing a liberal arts major. Should the liberal arts be updated to include some basic technology and engineering courses?

Yes, very much so. We do need to think more about how to integrate the more technical subjects of STEM into the liberal arts. I think of coding as similar to learning a foreign language. It broadens you and allows you to understand the inside of the machines that dominate our lives. We need to conceive of these kinds of course requirements for the liberal arts.

One problem is that, when I was on the board of Yale, I found that science professors were often not very eager to teach courses for non-specialists. I'm going to caricature but the great physicist would say, "Physics is hard. If you want to take it, then you've got to take Physics 101, then Physics 102 and so on. And you need to know advanced calculus. We're not going to teach physics for poets." And that's a mistake. It's important to try to educate people in basic concepts no matter what their eventual specialization. That is at the heart of the liberal education.