Sunday, March 29, 2015

What to study in college

I was glad to hear Fareed Zakaria defend the importance of the liberal arts and sciences on his CNN interview today with Anderson Cooper.  Zakaria is the author of a forthcoming book,  In Defense of a Liberal Education.

He mentioned Mark Zuckerberg, who mastered languages, including Latin and Greek, then studied psychology along with computer science at Harvard (before dropping out).  The young Facebook mega-billionaire agrees with Jeff Bezos of Amazon that a grounding in the basics--thinking, writing, understanding behavior--along with technical skills is essential for young people going to college.

Bezos requires his Amazon employees to have strong verbal skills. They must, according to Zakaria, write a polished six-page memo to indicate their ability to handle critical thinking and language.  He doesn't want just computer nerds.

The liberal arts are not a waste of time, Cooper added. Often high school graduates, having had required math, history and English courses for 12 years, understandably want to pursue something practical, something they believe will produce income. But that is not the purpose of a college education, as I have said many times in print and in person over the years.

It is good to see that highly successful people today concur in defending the liberal arts tradition, which does not train the student to do something but educates the whole person. I often quoted Justice John Paul Stevens of the Supreme Court, one of many English majors to pursue the law, who recommended the study of poetry as the best preparation for law school.  Why?  Because of the close reading of texts, the analysis and interpretation of a piece of work, resulting in a carefully crafted essay.

There is still an important place for the English or history and certainly the psychology major in college. Don't major in marketing, Zakaria said on his show, just because it sounds business-like; rather, learn to think. Read widely.  Combine technical subjects with the classic liberal arts curriculum--writing, philosophy, language, mathematics, science, psychology, etc.--to become a thinking adult who can communicate: that is what most employers want.

So if you're a high school student heading for college, or know one, you might mention the new book by Zakaria along with the advice not to dismiss the core liberal arts tradition in higher education.

P.S.  Since writing this, I came across a website listing prominent people, many in business, who majored in English. They include  Conan O'Brien, Sting, Mitt Romney, ex-Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, Michael Eisner, ex-Disney CEO, Steven Spielberg, Barbara Walters and Diana Sawyer and Andrea Mitchell and John Dickerson (network journalists), Garrison Keillor, Bob Woodward, Mario Cuomo, Paul Simon, Emma Watson, Sally Ride, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Rollo May and B. F. Skinner, as well as Supreme Court Justices Stevens and Thomas. Not to mention ex-CEOs of Xerox, NBC, Avon, MTV and Xerox.

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