I wanted to like these books, I really did. I am a liberal-arts dean, and frequently find myself promoting liberal education to prospective students and parents. I work at a very fine institution, with outstanding academic programs, but our reputation is mostly regional and students don’t choose us for prestige first. In Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Frank Bruni challenges elitist assumptions about what counts as a worthy education, and Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education defends the usefulness and versatility of the liberal arts. Both books are getting a lot of attention, and it is in my professional interest for their basic claims to be heard and believed. Still, they left me disappointed.
Both books are accessible and clear, written in a journalistic style, combining personal anecdotes and human-interest vignettes with summaries of trends. Both books make a simple and straightforward point. In fact, one wonders whether either thesis needs a book-length treatment. True, many people apparently need to be reminded that you can succeed after graduating from a nonprestigious college, or that liberal education can actually help you later in life. But these are reminders, aren’t they, not groundbreaking new claims?
Misperceptions about prestige and the value of liberal education are, at their root, questions about the purpose of education. A mother recently told me that her son didn’t major in history because he didn’t want to be a history teacher. The remark implies an impoverished understanding of both the career skills and the general human formation that humanistic education can foster. It is difficult to know where to begin responding to her, but she wouldn’t get help from Zakaria or Bruni—her problem isn’t that she seeks prestige, or that she thinks only STEM fields are important.
Many defenders of liberal education would want to respond to the mother by defending the value of the history major “for its own sake,” and condemn the pre-professional instrumentalization of the liberal arts. (“Doesn’t that mother want her son to lead a meaningful life, not just be a cog in the economic machine?”) But that isn’t an adequate response. I don’t doubt that the mother wants her son to lead a meaningful life—maybe she just does not expect history professors to be authorities on what makes life meaningful. But even more basic and troubling, the mother didn’t see the potentially useful—and yes, employable—skills that her son could have learned from studying history.
It isn’t a problem that the primary concern of many parents and students is finding a job after graduation. It is a problem that they have such an impoverished understanding of what kinds of activities can make one employable, and what else might be included in the return on investment of a college education.
This highlights something important about how Bruni and Zakaria conceive of their audience. Neither Bruni nor Zakaria are concerned with the role that education can play in finding a meaningful life. They take for granted that their audience is not seeking meaning. Nor are they writing for parents worried about their children getting a job. They’re writing for parents worried about their children getting the right job. Their concern is more than financial stability and less than a noble life: it is, plain and simple, social standing. The audience for these books is not the wider consumers of college education as a whole, but cosmopolitan elites, anxious about success among their peers. Bruni’s book aims to assuage guilt and temper mania about the role of status in education. Zakaria’s book aims to remind the power elite of the undervalued mojo of liberal education.
This helps make sense of the irony of these claims coming from these authors. Bruni, encouraging parents to look beyond the Ivies, went to Columbia for graduate school. (It is also not incidental that for college he turned down Yale to attend the University of North Carolina.) While Bruni is a solid journalist and a good writer, it is not clear he would have had the career he’s had without the Ivy League credential. And some of his arguments are based on the same prestige-consciousness that he’s supposedly trying to undermine: his evidence of the worthiness of lesser-known schools is often that they have professors from, and alumni who went on to graduate studies at, Cambridge or Oxford or Harvard or Yale.
Zakaria, who is encouraging people to pursue liberal education, was a history major at Yale but admits he dodged Yale’s more substantial, coherent liberal-arts program, Directed Studies. (Full disclosure: I went to Yale a few years after Zakaria graduated, and did the Directed Studies program.) In those days at least, history was a rigorous but popular major among practical-minded Yale students who weren’t pursuing the sciences or economics; Yale history majors were commonly hired by consulting firms and investment banks. (Zakaria grew up in India, and the American system of elite schools with paths to social status other than science and math was a bit of a culture shock to him.)
I DON'T CITE THESE IRONIES as a form of ad hominem criticism, but only to point out that the authors are members of a class that defines success in a particular way, and they are speaking to others who share that conception of success. Bruni’s book offers some valuable life perspective, but how high on the scale of moral urgency is offering consolation to the student or family that didn’t get into, or couldn’t afford, an Ivy League school? Zakaria’s book will for a while put a stop to, or at least qualify, smug remarks by politicians and pundits about the superiority of STEM fields—but how valuable is a defense of liberal education that does nothing to challenge the reigning notions of success?
It’s good to disabuse the ruling class of its delusions, but let’s not confuse that exercise with searching reflection on the purpose and value of education. Both Bruni and Zakaria show that a rhetoric tailored to elites is actually quite base. They appeal to what Plato would have called the oligarchic temperament, seeking to feed the appetites for wealth, power, and security. Bruni does notice the force of upper-middle-class insecurity and shame; but instead of redirecting his audience to a nobler sense of honor, he simply offers them a different strategy for getting what they want: worldly success.
Zakaria’s rhetoric is even more base—democratic in the pejorative, Platonic sense, appealing only to popular concerns. True, he draws on language that suggests the more elevated, reasoning part of the soul, but he is not directing his audience toward wisdom, only security and control. I was struck that his book begins with a quotation from E. O. Wilson: “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom.” When I read that first sentence, I wondered why Zakaria hadn’t gone straight to T. S. Eliot, whose juxtaposition of information and wisdom (and knowledge) is more famous. Then I read on, and saw why. Wilson continues: “The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.” This point isn’t about wisdom, but about power. “The world will be run…” Making choices “wisely” isn’t about the difference between wisdom and information; it’s about being the kind of information-processor who can rule.
Wilson is right: the world will be run by the synthesizers. Acknowledging that, however, does not make for a very robust defense of liberal education. What is missing from both authors is any genuinely inspiring rhetoric for higher education, particularly liberal education. Rather than reorder the soul to point toward higher things, we take for granted that education is to help us get the things we already want. If elites can’t distinguish the shame of not keeping up with the Joneses from the shame of a dishonorable life, perhaps they deserve to suffer in restless dissatisfaction. If “critical thinking” isn’t oriented toward seeking truth and attaining wisdom, then it is nothing more noble than a way to exercise power over others.
These two books will no doubt correct some misconceptions, and they may, inadvertently, help raise the question they don’t ask directly: What is the purpose of education? What disappoints me most is that Bruni and Zakaria are both so sharply attuned to, and uninterested in challenging, the tastes and values of the ruling class. From the evidence of these books, that class is not interested in asking the question of the purpose of education, and—what is more depressing—their tastes and values are shallow. Such tastes do not need to be confirmed and made more effective; they need to be chastised and redirected.
AS FOR THE WIDER PUBLIC, especially the vast middle class with more basic concerns about a future for their children, they will be little moved by these books. Perhaps that is a sign of hope. They do not share the anxieties and prejudices of the elite, and many of them are already more receptive when offered a more elevated, inspiring vision of collegiate education—such as that offered by religious schools, Great Books programs, and a classical curriculum. (I note that utilitarian Common Core standards were imposed by the ruling elite, and the strongest objections to them have come from the middle class.)
Simple truths, isolated from other truths, miss important nuances. Yes, prestige is a poor proxy for educational quality; but campus culture does matter, and for better or worse prestige is one ingredient in campus culture. (Once we realize that, we can begin to inquire about what the other ingredients are.) Yes, the liberal arts can be very useful, but not all liberal-arts education is equal—some fields and some approaches are more intellectually rigorous, spiritually satisfying, and socially beneficial than others. (Once we realize that, we can begin to discern the most worthy manifestations of liberal-arts education.) Yes, students get out of college what they put into it, but there is a lot of luck and serendipity too, and students aren’t crazy for seeking to be in a place with more opportunity, or for wondering how their curricular choices will affect their development. (Once we realize that, we can ask about professors and a core curriculum, and not just about majors.)
Bruni and Zakaria are writing for an audience of elites. Ironically, a book that aimed at a wider audience might be more truly “aristocratic” in the Platonic sense. Such a book would assume that there is such a thing as a noble life, and it would suggest that nobility might not perfectly conform to worldly success. The mother who misunderstood the opportunities of a history major is under no illusion that her son will become part of the ruling class. But in addition to hoping he finds a job, she certainly wants him to live well. In that sense, the Platonic aristocratic approach is more truly democratic, acknowledging the potential of any person to live a noble life. Truly helpful books about college and liberal education would speak to the deeply human desire for this kind of life. They would thereby challenge the prevailing idea of success.