Finally, after taking 20,000 words+ to summarize and review author and historian Fareed Zakaria’s book, In Defense of A Liberal Education, I present the summary of the final chapter (6). It is entitled “In Defense of Today’s Youth”. Much of this impressive book is about critical thinking, the history of liberal education, knowledge (and its benefits). In general, like many before him, Zakaria posits there is a fundamental difference between the teaching and learning of facts such as names, dates, formulae, and vocabulary on the one hand, and the more basic, utilitarian, secular-humanistic, classic, fundamental approach of critical thinking. Indeed, learning to think is a profoundly valuable asset we would do well to inculcate in our children. This last chapter primarily concentrates on how liberal education fits in with the advances and challenges that this new millennium entails – specifically, “youth today”. Ipads, “the Me Generation,” and “the rat race” are explored. If you happened upon this page, you might want to consider starting with the review of chapter one and going from there.
On page 150 of this short and sweet book about liberal education, Zakaria begins strongly: “One of the enduring benefits of a liberal education is that it broadens us. When we absorb great literature, we come face to face with the ideas, experiences, and emotions that we might never otherwise encounter in our lifetime. When we read history, we encounter people from a different age and learn from their triumphs and travails. When we study physics and biology, we comprehend the mysteries of the universe and human life. And when we listen to great music, we are moved in ways that reason cannot comprehend. This may not help us make a living, but it will help us make a life.”
“There is a big difference between more sales or money and more happiness or fulfillment. The kind of growth that seems the most important to people is the kind of growth you can’t count.”
Zakaria notes that “A liberal education gives us a greater capacity to be good workers, but it will also give us the capacity to be good partners, friends, parents and citizens.” It reminds me of this neat epigram: “In philosophy an individual is becoming himself” byIt requires philosophy and heroism to rise above the opinion of the wise men of all nations and races” ~
On page 151, the author transitions to “the Me Generation” and critiques (or at least sets the table for a critique) of modern youth. He sees kids today as lackluster in applying philosophy to your life and being too selfish, materialistic, impatient, digitally-oriented, success-oriented individuals. “To put it bluntly, the charge is that they are achievement-oriented automatons, focused on themselves and their careers.” No less a thinker than Aldous Huxley shows that the youth of almost every civilization has been criticized, more or less, as not living up to the standards of the generation before them:
“Many young people, it is true, do not seem to value freedom. But some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.”
Social critic and conservative commentator, David Brooks characterizes our future leaders of business and other social institutions as busy, busy, busy, and wider than deep. They are claimed to lack a certain social or broad viewpoint. It is as though kids are so worried about “making it” (however you want to define that, such as income, prestige, or impressing the largely-successful generation of “Baby Boomers”) that they don’t stop and smell the roses – let alone taking a botany class. A class on botany, anthropology, philosophy, or history would seem like a drag and very distal from the program to many. Their “tiger moms” and “Jewish mothers” and “controlling fathers” would not much approve – especially at $60,000 a year in tuition at elite private schools. Liberal education seems to have gone the way of radio, unions, civil civility, and NASA – that is, dead or dying.
“Most of the MBA students [I interviewed] admire people for their hearts more than their heads – they admire people who do good. But why, if you greatly respect one way of life, would you feel compelled to pursue an entirely different course? It isn’t easy to give yourself permission to pursue your dreams, follow your heroes, and seek your inner truth.” ~ Mark S. Albion
Zakaria sees in Brooks’ essay entitled “The Organization Kid” that what takes up the mental space and the time and energy of today’s college-bound is “…an intense set of activities [that is] mostly in the service of building a resume and came with little intellectual curiosity. Even more noticeable to him was the total lack of desire to think about moral issues, to be introspective, or to focus on the building of character or virtue.” Indeed, Brooks pointed out that “They are responsible, safety-conscious, and mature. They feel no compelling need to rebel – not even a hint of one. They not only defer to authority, they admire it.”
If Abigail Adams was correct, that “Great necessities call out great virtues,” one can theorize that America has been in one long, slow decline in morals, character, and grit since the days of John Adams and his contemporaries. Fighting the mighty British Empire, forging a Constitution, and riding through snow on horseback seems to have given way to instant information searches online, fewer students choosing to work when in school, multiplayer computer games, “sexting,” depression as a result of pernicious social media, and very low voter turnout in the 18-25 age bracket. The idea of studying liberal education and prizing the career of an author, artist, truly educated woman, or “man of arts and letters” seems the furthest from most teenagers’ minds. Nearly 40% of college students major in business or marketing.
The author describes essayist William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, noting that during his tenure as a professor at Yale University, he came to see undergrads as trying desperately to get into the elite educational institution, but being aimless once they matriculated. As well, “They had jumped through one hurdle after another in order to get a liberal education, but they didn’t know what to do with it once they had their degree” (Zakaria). I don’t know if I should laugh or cry when Deresiewicz describes the pampered blue-bloods as “entitled little shit[s].” Wow.
He also found them, as Zakaria puts it, “intellectually and morally uncurious, uninterested in exploring the larger questions about the meaning of life, and unwilling to take intellectual risks. They are comfortably bourgeois and achievement-oriented, but they care little about the inner self and the soul.” Gulp! Interestingly, this is not true in Fareed’s case; he chose Yale but he engaged in a brave quest to study history and political science and other aspects of liberal education, despite the fact that it is not terribly popular amongst educated, upper-class Indians (i.e., his parents). Here is a book about kids’ overcrowded, myopic, frenzied, pedantic existences.
“The main hope of a nation lies in the proper education of its youth.”
He then goes into the culturally-relativistic and historically-informed idea that “The notion that young people are somehow callow and morally unserious is not a new charge.” Hesiod and the Greeks, the Romans, and the Victorians all decried what had become of their youth. In fact, Athens put Socrates, the world’s most influential philosopher, to death for corrupting the minds of the youth. Society seems to see change and get nervous, be it the Puritans to the young wanting to protest the status quo (e.g., the “freedom rides” that fomented the struggle for civil rights in America, the crass materialism and dubious social change of the 1980s (can you say Reagan?), or the 1950s concern about Elvis’s hips and jazz. I am not absolutely sure how I come down on this issue; I can see that this is a chimera, but I can also believe that modern-day America has seen a kind of slippage and decay that does not bode well. I would note, though, that it is a 71-year-old President Trump who is more impulsive, iconoclastic, reckless, and entitled than 99% of youths could ever be pronounced.
In addition to the two aforementioned social critics (Deresiewicz and Brooks), Zakaria references recent complainants Allan Bloom’s (author of the book The Closing of the American Mind) and Anthony Kronman (Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life). Kronman’s book, which I read, is a solid look at how the humanities (the core of a liberal education [essentially what a bachelor of liberal arts is]) lost the unique position it had based on its honoring of secular humanism and classic sense in which a teacher actually teaches rather than just serves time teaching two classes a semester as a way to buy the right to do original research in a specialized area of academia. Here is a revelation I quite like by Kronman:
“What I learned in Professor Lawrence’s seminar forty years ago was that an institution of higher education is one of the places where the question of what living is for can be pursued in an organized way. I had left [my college] looking for a place where the question has more reality than I thought it ever could in school. What I found when I returned was the place for which I had been searching.” One can also see the former professor and dean of Yale Law School’s heart and soul with this quotation about liberal education: “…my deepest belief has remained unchanged: that a college or university is not just a place for the transmission of knowledge but a forum for the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful but critical reading of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination that we have inherited from the past.”
“I chose the road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference.” Robert Frost
Interestingly, Zakaria notes how “the complaints of today are quite different than the reactionary concerns of the past.” For, unlike prior eras, when the young were perceived as too reckless, rebellious, or flighty, “the problem today, it appears, is that they are not rebellious and disrespectful enough. They aren’t willing to challenge conventional wisdom….” Hmm. Food for thought. I thought of a quotation by C. P. Snow: “When you think of the long and gloomy history of man, you will find far more hideous crimes have been committed in the name of obedience than have been committed in the name of rebellion.” One of history’s great original thinkers, Oscar Wilde, adds this to the mix: “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress had been made….” Zakaria believes that “the youth now are scorned for being too bourgeois.” Considering the struggles surrounding the Vietnam War, Watergate, The Pentagon Papers, the Civil Rights struggle, and efforts toward the ERA, he may have a point.
Kronman backs this up with his understanding of why the humanities are “almost a laughingstock,” despite its former glory: “The conception of diversity that now enforces a chilling sameness of opinion in many humanities classrooms gives lip service to these values [diversity, pluralism, etc.]. But it fails to honor them in their deepest and most challenging form. It fails to take them seriously, substituting for a real and disturbing diversity a superficial one whose implicit demand is that everyone think and judge alike.” Though I think that people such as Anne Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulous are basically full of shit, the idea that students would virtually riot to prevent them from speaking on campus is a unique take on students being too rebellious and too free-thinking, too politically correct and too deifying of homogeneity. At heart, Kronman’s complaint is that liberal education is weakened not only by political correctness and “the research ideal” dominating universities, but also a self-induced wound of ceding the moral authority to assist students in questioning things such as meaning and values using philosophy and the long line of influential classics of literature and plays in the Western tradition. I see his point for sure.
‘The great use of a life,’ William James said in 1900, ‘is to spend it for something that outlasts it.’ This outlasting cause was then, as in earlier days, the happiness of mankind.” ~ Ralph Barton Perry
On 155, Zakaria concludes that “the picture that the critics paint certainly does ring true in its focus on the culture of achievement that dominates student lives at the top educational institutions today. But it’s strange to blame them for something that is largely beyond their control.” What he is referring to is the testing movement that has so changed the educational system, or the nature of the “highly competitive job market” that has seen employment reach near capacity, but wages dismal compared to corporate profits, and the corporate culture that means that workers might be given a pink slip at any time and occasionally see their pensions dry up. I am thinking the lessons of Enron and the lure of Wall Street’s pay and perqs.
Zakaria showed the unique angle of a liberal education with this interesting question about admission to elite schools he asked of an Ivy League head of admissions: “Do you take in many kids who have failed in some significant way in high school?” The answer: no. It was a shot across the bow of a system that requires GPAs near (or above) 4.0, SATs of impressive caliber, extracurriculars, and still routinely accepts 10% of its applicants! Imagine working extremely hard and toeing the line, and still having to apply to eleven top schools just to ensure an entrance at one of them. And then paying $50,000 or more for four or five years for the diploma. It makes majoring in history or education or philosophy or similar pillar of liberal education seem like quite a questionable choice. The jockeying that elite institutions engage in to outcompete rivals in college rankings apparently doesn’t allow for much risk-taking or novel admission criteria.
The author points out that once the top student enters a great school, the pressure doesn’t wane. “The process of getting hired at a prestigious bank or consulting firm now involves a marathon of interviews and examinations, with thousands applying for the few positions on offer.” Argh, it kinda makes my skin crawl. I feel much happier imagining the nature of liberal education and some of the wonderful classes offered in the humanities. I am glad I didn’t enter “the rat race” and just slowly worked my way up from a junior college student who didn’t play a sport (and paid $50 per unit!).
“The quieter you become, the more you can hear.” ~ Baba Ram Dass
On page 156, Fareed Zakaria starts to begin to defend today’s youth. He is of the opinion that “students’ focus on achievement has not, so far as I can tell, produced young men and women who are, in some way, mean, selfish or cruel. There’s really no evidence for this at all.” He points out that they seem to be marked by less bigotry, sexism, and racism than students have in the past, and which is allows is “something that’s easy to caricature as political correctness….” I suppose I would agree with him on this point. If I were to critique “Generation X” and younger “generations,” I don’t think they are indeed more morally repugnant than their elders. In fact, it can be heartening to hear them lambaste Donald Trump for his bigotry, sexism, sexual impropriety, and political incorrectness.
Zakaria reports “I have spent time on college campuses and around young people, and certainly I find them to be thoughtful, interesting, and stimulating. He points out that UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute has queried recently-matriculated freshmen since 1966 and “over the last four decades, students have become more conscious of the need to make money.” As I understand his point, since 1987, it hasn’t risen, as much as stayed static. He then points out that due to the nature of the economy, the kind of insecurity it can create might make the acquisitive attitude on the part of students functional and “rational.” Robert Reich agrees:
“Even before the crash of 2008, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics at the University of Michigan found that over any given two-year stretch, about half of all families experienced some decline in income. And those downturns were becoming progressively larger. In the 1970s, the typical drop was about 25 percent. By the late 1990s, it was 40 percent. By the mid-2000s, family incomes rose and fell twice as much as they did in the mid-1970s, on average. Workers who are economically insecure are not in a position to demand higher wages. They are driven more by fear than by opportunity.” As well: “Fifty years ago, when General Motors was the largest employer in America, the typical GM worker earned $35.00 an hour in today’s dollars. By 2014, America’s largest employer was Walmart, and the average hourly wage of Walmart workers was $11.22.” Indeed, Zakaria writes this about insecurity and a concomitant desire to put income potential in the #1 category: “In such circumstances, to be concerned about one’s future might be a sign of intelligence!” I like the following quote about liberal education and finding fulfillment in life:
“If you’re talking about making a lot of money, I’d say major in economics, get your M.B.A. and then be dull for the rest of your life. If you want a productive and meaningful life, do what you want to do and try to make enough to live on in the process.” ~ Robert Reich
On pages 159 and 160, the author spends some ink praising or correcting some misinformation about “millennials” (and compares them with my generation, “Generation X”. He cites marketing expert Scott Hess’s TED talk: “Instead of being ‘slackers,’ ‘judgmental,’ and ‘anti-corporate,’ Hess said, millennials are ‘leaning forward,’ ‘engaged,’ ‘inclusive,’ ‘tolerant,’ and they believe that ‘commerce can be lubricated by conscience.'”
He does concede that “a constant refrain one hears about the young…is that they utterly focused on themselves.” A contrast is made by noting that David Brooks offered the example of World War II General George Marshall declining to take the lead on the D-day invasion of Europe. He writes that he loves that story, but he also “recognize[s] that he lived in a different age. Those were times when institutions – private and public – dominated life. They were powerful and stable, and they looked after individuals for their entire careers. Your task was to fit in, to put the interest of the institution above your own, and to be a good team player.” He notes this is how one found success and security in that time period.
Indeed, university students engage in much less political activism than in times past. This is probably somewhat related to the relative deprioritization of liberal education in modern research-oriented universities. The era of protesting the Vietnam War, agitating for civil rights, or lobbying for “women’s lib” is over. Now, much besides right-wingers speaking rouses student ire or creates solidarity. What does Zakaria make of it? “That lack of enthusiasm for politics again reflects a broader social trend. Most Americans are deeply disenchanted with politics. Younger Americans believe that the U.S. government has become dysfunctional and polarized.” Yah, true that.
“We have four billion people on this planet who aren’t getting two meals a day. None of us, no matter what our resources are, can cure that problem, but each of us can make a difference. Pick your spot where you want to make a difference.” ~ Mark S. Albion
What Zakaria and I find most interesting – and we’re getting closer to liberal education with this next point – is that UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute finds that among freshmen, developing a meaningful philosophy of life has dropped precipitously. 86% of 18-year-olds found it essential or very important back in 1967, but a few years ago only 45% did. Wow. “That number is probably what Brooks, Deresiewicz, and others are describing in richer detail in their portrayals of college campuses today. And it makes them worried about the present and feel nostalgic for an earlier age.”
This paragraph of the book I cited earlier (Anthony Kronman) about liberal education is enlightening; I shall quote it at length.
“It is the goal of every undergraduate liberal arts program to provide its students with …a means to acquaint its students with a wide range of human pursuits and to equip them with a general knowledge of themselves and of the world that will prepare them to meet the personal, ethical, and social challenges of life, regardless of the career they eventually choose. All liberal education is defined in consciously non-vocational terms. It is not a preparation for this job or that, for one career or another. It is a preparation for the ‘job’ of living, which of course is not a job at all.”
“The genius is a symbol for an individual’s potential: all that a person may be that lies locked inside during the early years of development. So, when we say as educators that we want to help students to develop their potential, we’re essentially saying that we want to assist them in finding their inner genius and support them in guiding it into pathways that can lead to personal fulfillment and to the benefit of those around them.”
Earlier in his impassioned book (p. 6) he shares his vision of liberal education and how it can benefit students, and thus, citizens:
“For all this time, through all the different roles I have occupied in my career, my deepest belief has remained unchanged: that a college or university is not just a place for the transmission of knowledge but a forum for the exploration of life’s mystery and meaning through the careful but critical reading of the great works of literary and philosophical imagination that we have inherited from the past.”
Wow, I can hardly imagine a more full-throated endorsement of the “great books” approach to higher education. As a member of the Yale faculty and former dean of the law school, he is no airy-fairy, tweed-wearing Shakespeare scholar, but a true man of arts and letters who believes he sees what has gone wrong with students, and colleges. He lays much of the blame on the inappropriate adoption and deification of “the research ideal” – i.e., the belief that original, specialized, tireless research is the proper function and stance of humanities teachers. He believes it is much better suited to the natural and social sciences, and believes that trying to be the quintessential scholar has ensnared virtually all humanities educators and thus led to the diminution of the formerly-glorious pursuit of wisdom and true education via the liberal arts. Kronman also derides extreme political correctness, multiculturalism, and post-modernism.
As well, Kronman indicates, I think, that yes, college students come in many colors and flavors, and one significant version is hyper-focused on achievement, vocational preparation, and getting by without much critical thinking or philosophizing. However, this vacuousness probably has little to do with some kind of genetic or subcultural “defect” in late adolescents, just as generations in the past primarily reflected the era and cultural milieu in which a given cohort found itself. In a word, the apparent shallowness and alleged selfishness on the part of students are likely institutional, societal, and macro- in origin, rather than characterological or endogenous. Here is an interesting insight by Kronman:
“Take rest; a field that has rested gives a beautiful crop.” ~ Ovid
“For roughly a century, from Charles Eliot’s appointment as president of Harvard University in 1869,…secular humanism continued to give credence to the idea that the question of life’s meaning is one that can be taught. …Today, increasingly few teachers of the humanities believe they have either the competence or duty to offer their students an education in the meaning of life. Even those who express this view in private are generally reluctant to do so in public. …A subject that was once, at the dawn of American higher education, a universal topic of instruction and later the special responsibility of the humanities, is thus today no longer taught in these fields.”
Regarding the statistic showing that less than half of students particularly care about “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” causing commentators such as Kronman, Brooks, Bloom, and Deresiewicz to despair, Zakaria opines thusly: “I understand the nostalgia. Today’s students don’t seem as animated by big arguments as generations of the past did. They don’t make big speeches about philosophical issues. They don’t stay up late arguing about Nietzsche or Marx or Tolstoy. But that is part of the tenor of the times, something students reflect rather than create.” He goes on to note that the Cold War had a way of galvanizing and energizing students, just like everyone else was impassioned (McCarthy, anyone?). I think I agree students reflect rather than create, for the most part. On page 164, he adds: “We are living in a very different age today, one in which there are fewer grand ideological debates with great consequences.”
I can accept that. I also think it is wise to tie in other aspects of modern culture, such as the intense pressure to measure up, succeed, win, and simply not drown in a sea of competition and flagging pay. Think of this statement made by economist and Columbia University Professor, Joseph Stiglitz: “Modern capitalism has become a complex game, and those who win at it have to have more than a little smarts. But those who win at it often possess less admirable characteristics as well: the ability to skirt the law, or to shape the law in their own favor; the willingness to take advantage of others, even the poor; and play unfair when necessary.” It is a wonderful example of how society at large and powerful social currents shape the minds, values, aspirations, and capacities of the young.
“Because societies are in practice trusted to be ‘meritocratic,’ financial achievements are necessarily understood to be ‘deserved.’ The ability to accumulate wealth is prized as proof of the presence of at least four cardinal virtues: creativity, courage, intelligence, and stamina” noted philosopher
Scholar David Callahan puts it baldly: “America’s moral ills were defined in the ‘80s and ‘90s in terms that reflected the traditional conservative worries, with a focus on things like crime, drugs, premarital sex, and divorce. Other concerns – little problems like greed, envy, materialism, and inequality – have been excluded from the values debate.” Add in the juggernaut that is technology and science, and it seems plain that adolescents just aren’t disposed to spend much time thinking about the big ideas such as ethics, the meaning of life, and making a difference. “Stopping to smell the roses” is not something many parents who send their kids to Phillips Exeter or Bishop Gadsden are keen on. Heed these words, parents: “In this competitive, ego-centered world, parents are often so intensely interested in their kids’ grades and auditions and teams that their kids can easily get the impression that these things matter more than anything else. Therefore it’s important to develop a family lexicon and communication pattern in which character is more highly prized than anything else”
“A culture that lionizes the materially successful can prompt the downtrodden to feel they are not bound by the moral standards of this society that rejects them.”
“As a result, our youth are not very ideological. They combine a mix of impulses – capitalist, socially liberal, supportive of social welfare, but uncomfortable with bureaucracy and regulation. It doesn’t quite add up to a passionate political philosophy. And certainly, it doesn’t take them to the barricades. Our age is defined by capitalism, globalization, and technology. The trends changing life comes from those forces…. The icons of the age are entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople. …The young reflect today’s realities. Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with identity and geopolitics,” Zakaria maintains. I think it holds water.
I would like us all to reflect on this, though: “What we want to go back to in educating for character is virtue: these universally-agreed-upon habits and dispositions, the world over, from all cultures and faith traditions, agree to be worthwhile and good for the individual and the community” Those who claim to agree with Socrates that the rational pursuit of the knowledge of virtue is the right way to live face a hard test the moment they turn away from Plato’s early works to face the rest of their lives.” I get that life is complex and society is an extremely powerful force for shaping individuals. I do, however, feel like a bit of an iconoclast when I reflect on the merit of the vast and important literary tradition, the power of excellent liberal education, and the examples of moral and spiritual leaders such as Socrates, Voltaire, Gandhi, Confucius, W. E. B. DuBois, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
“There is more to life than increasing its speed.” ~ Mohandas K. Gandhi
Zakaria ends this interesting vein of thought with: “…there is less scope for grand theorizing, fewer late-night bull sessions, less stirring eloquence at the student forums and political unions. It’s a new world, and students know it.” I’m not sure if that makes me optimistic or elicits a bit of anxiety. We should not shrug and go back to sipping our lattes and applying for business school though, I would urge. So would Aldous Huxley: “Modern technology has led to the concentration of economic and political power, and to the development of a society controlled (ruthlessly in the totalitarian states, politely and inconspicuously in the democracies) by Big Business and Big Government.” I am feeling a bit conservative – not a typical state for me, I must say! – and am reflecting on this thought by modern writer and proponent of slowing down, Carl Honore: “The Romantic movement of artists, writers, and musicians that swept across Europe after 1770 was partly a reaction against the modern culture of hustle and bustle, a harking back to a lost idyllic era.” I feel like much from the past is being replaced by technology, marketing, militarism, acquisitiveness, and anomie, and there is not sufficient reason to believe that future generations will be any more prosperous (on the whole), happier, or virtuous than previous ones.
Indeed, he writes: “But is this so bad?” We are asked to think of Bill Gates. “A technology entrepreneur and businessman, Gates was one of the first larger-than-life private figures in contemporary America.” Yah, we know, helping kids in Africa and such. It’s also worth noting that he and Jeff Bezos and Warren Buffett own as much wealth as half of the U.S. population. That is the equivalent of going to a dinner at a restaurant for “Community Appreciation Month” and you see casserole being served. You notice one person eating a plate that is 25″ wide, piled three feet high. You and your companion are amazed to see the server place a plate in front of each of you that has nothing but a pea and a macaroni noodle on it.
I am not really exaggerating, either. Note also that Bezos owns The Washington Post. That’s right; the paper that put out The Pentagon Papers is now owned by the second richest person in the country. This last holiday season, 89% of online shopping went to Amazon.com (founded by Bezos). It’s a new world, perhaps, but it looks suspiciously like the one in which J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, and J. Paul Getty slithered around. Gates has Whether the Internet and iPads and self-driving cars can assuage our angst remains to be seen.
“We Americans like stuff. We like accumulating material stuff, we always seem to need more stuff, and we also like to compare our stuff to our neighbor’s stuff. And we go stuff-crazy around the holidays, especially. Instead of filling up our lives with stuff, let’s concentrate on substance. Have a meaningful conversation with someone. Smile and offer to help someone. Sit still for 5 minutes and listen. Make time for older and wiser members of our population to impart some wisdom on the younger generations. If everyone asked a neighbor or a stranger they encountered ‘What is it like to be you?’ this world could be a better place filled with more empathy and kindness and less stuff.”
Business Insider isn’t really critical, but fawning, with this story: “With a net worth of $88.3 billion, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is the richest man in America. It shouldn’t be too surprising that one of the wealthiest people in the world also has an insanely extravagant home. It took Gates seven years and $63 million to build his Medina, Washington, estate, named ‘Xanadu 2.0’ after the fictional home of Charles Foster Kane, the title character of Citizen Kane. At 66,000 square feet, the home is absolutely massive, and it’s loaded to the brim with high-tech details.” Jesus Christ, that is like an antidote to liberal education and lofty virtues such as egalitarianism, modesty, and class. And considering this trend, we might want to smoke ’em if we got ’em: “Cities all over the world have caught America’s affluenza – surely one of the most infectious diseases ever known to man”
O happiness, our being’s end and aim,
Good pleasure, ease, content – whate’r thy name,
That something, still that prompts the eternal sigh:
For which we bear to live, or dare to die.
Zakaria scatters seed on more fertile soil, in my opinion, when he notes that “Gates’s friend, Warren Buffett, the second-richest man in America, is giving away most of his wealth to the same cause [I believe he means “saving the largest number of human lives it can, no matter where they live, what color their skin is…” via the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation] – without asking for any credit, not even to have his name put on the foundation’s door.” I have read Maimonides’s hierarchy of charity, and I know that giving without pride is the real deal. I just think that accumulating that much wealth is morally dubious, and spending it profligately and engaging in conspicuous consumption is highly questionable. In this regard, though, I would agree that Buffett has more class than Gates.
Near the end of the book, Zakaria defends modernity: “In his writings and talks, David Brooks emphasizes his concern that the young lack a language about virtue today. They are, he believes, ‘morally inarticulate.’ And it’s true that we don’t use words like honorable, noble, and virtuous much these days, but surely that is how Gates’s and Buffett’s actions should be described.” Well, I for one use words such as honorable, noble, and virtuous quite a bit, and as a reader, I imagine you can appreciate that. He heaps praise on our modern-day captains of industry with this effusive praise: “Their model is surely as inspiring as any statesman or general of the past who spoke in lofty tones about good and evil, honor and sacrifice. Not everyone can do what Gates and Buffett are doing.” For better or for worse, no, Dr. Zakaria, they cannot.
“Always be a first-rate version of yourself, instead of a second-rate version of somebody else.” ~ Judy Garland
That beautiful quote above reminds me of a real dog: “A-B-C: ALWAYS BE CLOSING!” by David Mamet. Baldwin turns in a stellar performance in Glen Garry, Glen Ross (3-min clip on YouTube). It is a withering critique of materialism and acquisitiveness. Money values rather than life values.
“College students today search for morality and the meaning of life in different ways than in prior ages, as with any new generation, especially in times of tremendous change. They are more incremental and practical. They seek truth, but perhaps through quieter avenues than the heroic ones of the past. They try to combine their great urges with a good life,” Zakaria believes. He cites poll data that indicate that the second most alluring goal to students (after making money) is being a father or a mother. The family life. The author acknowledges: “It’s a bourgeois concern. But is there really something soulless about trying to make a living, create a home, and raise a family?” I would answer “No” to that question. It’s laudable. He admits that “there are plenty of challenges abroad and at home, injustice and imbalances that need to be reformed,” and his rejoinder is that this is one of those times, those historical opportunities based on fortuitous timing and blood, sweat, and tears (and luck) by our forbearers, “…where people are lucky enough that private virtues might be cultivated.” He wisely and aptly offers this John Adams quote, a little-known but supreme example of the values of development, maturation, and progress:
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
“How can we discover and invent a global vision of planetary flourishing of our own species into the fullness of our vast potentials for health, wholeness, and a higher sanity that might be called wisdom?”
I believe that liberal education is one of society’s highest goods, and the fact that enrollment is down, tuition is up, and teachers in the humanities have been cowed by the research ideal to surrender their noble charge. Zakaria allows: “These are not the sorts of ambitions that have people rallying to the ramparts and declaiming it in purple prose [spoken like a true believer in liberal education, Dr. Zakaria!], but they are still real and authentic and important.”
As his concluding remark, he “defends” the young and their values, harkening back to the name and the intent of this concluding chapter in the marvelous book In Defense of A Liberal Education:
“This much I will concede: Because of the times we live in, all of us, young and old, do not spend enough time and effort thinking about the meaning of life. We do not look inside of ourselves enough to understand our strengths and our weaknesses. We do not look around enough – at the world, or in history – to ask the deepest and broadest questions. The solution is surely that, even now, we could all use a little bit more of a liberal education.” Well done, sir, well done.
I will end my 6-part summary and critique of Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of A Liberal Education by presenting a few quotations that feature the word flourishing by scholar Daniel N. Robinson. If human flourishing is probably the highest good; if “first things” are truly primary and actually sublime, then ending this look at education should indeed culminate with a few thoughts about the noblest aspiration humans can produce.
“For Aristotle, the ultimate answer, after the question has been reduced further and further, is that we perform actions for the sake of eudaimonia. This central term is a challenge to translate. In many translations, eudaimonia is ‘happiness.’ Everything that we do, we do for the sake of happiness, but this is not merely sensuous pleasure and the avoidance of pain. The best understanding of eudaimonia is not that it’s some point reached; it’s not some transient state but a veritable form or mode of life. It’s life of a certain character and stripe, properly described as a flourishing life – eudaimonia is flourishing.”
“It has even been regarded by our species that the emotional side of life certainly is as important and is as central to our well-being and flourishing as the intellectual and cognitive sides of life. We are, after all, not merely computational devices spitting out solutions to arithmetic problems. We are creatures that feel and fear and love and seek happiness and get angry and tell jokes and the like….”
“What’s the defining task we [human beings] have? In Greek, the idion ergon – the unique mission? The unique mission, of course, is to perfect ourselves at the level of moral and intellectual virtues; to live in a manner consistent with our very nature – which is the nature of a rational being. A being that is brought to terms with its own rationality through a flourishing and proper form of civic life.”
“The right kind of life finds us committing ourselves and our rational powers to what is worth thinking about. Given a choice between contemplating issues of philosophical consequence and contemplating changes in the stock market, a more flourishing life is lived by those who contemplate the former rather than the latter.”
How do I find such apt quotations? I have spent eight or ten cumulative years searching for them one by one and putting them into The Wisdom Archive. You can search it for free. It is my privilege and honor to facilitate your learning and your enlightenment in that way. Adieu!