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By Ben Feuer

Fareed Zakaria struck a blow on behalf of liberal arts education (and, to a lesser extent, the humanities more generally) in his op ed in the Washington Post.  Zakaria’s upcoming book explores in detail the ‘decline’ of liberal arts education in America and its corollary, the rise of STEM.

On one level, it’s hard to argue his basic point.  After all, he’s just calling for a better ‘balance’ between STEM and the humanities.  Who doesn’t want that?  The question that students (and those who work with them) need to be asking, however, is just how much of an imbalance does the system have currently, and in which direction exactly does it skew?  In other words, is America’s ‘obsession with STEM’ really what is holding the country’s educational system back?

One of Zakaria’s first arguments is that America, land of the “Steve Jobs” success story, can’t afford to pooh-pooh innovation.  But Jobs was a college dropout, a polymath and an autodidact, as was his contemporary Bill Gates – those men would have succeeded in pretty much any situation they found themselves in, because they had exceptional gifts.  The men who worked beneath Jobs and Gates – the men who designed and built the Apple II and coded MS-DOS – were predominantly STEM graduates.  America’s educational system does not exist for the exceptions, it exists for the masses, and its role is to educate them and prepare them for productive lives the workplace.  Jobs and Gates don’t need it – their thousands of employees do.

Zakaria clearly knows this on some level – he goes on to applaud the United States for offering an education to ‘everyone’ in the 19th century, unlike Europe.  But he conflates a ‘widely available’ education with a ‘well-rounded’ one.  19th century American education was many things, but it was not well rounded.  American schools were focused on basic skills, such as literacy and arithmetic and languages, because Americans wanted to climb the ladder in the hierarchy of nations.

Today, of course, entrepreneurship is in vogue, and from what he writes, Fareed seems to think that every American liberal arts graduate will either find a job in a startup or found one himself.  In fact, it seems likely that the startup bubble, with its limited job security and speculative risk-taking, is a free market attempt to make up for all the good jobs that were lost after big business broke the social contract it had with its employees.  The elites who used to be drawn to the top of GM are now founding Flixtr and Quazeeble.  Good for them, but again, this isn’t ABOUT them.  And by the way, good luck building any startup without engineers, one of the most in-demand professions in America and a classic STEM profession.

In the end, innovation is a sidebar.  Entrepreneurs are the exception, not the rule.  The rule is middle managers, small business owners, and tradesmen.  Our current system of education MAY produce more geniuses than China, but it also produces the largest prison population in the world because it fails to serve so many.  The only way to justify that trade-off is to argue, implicitly or explicitly, that those prisoners are the unavoidable cost of those geniuses.  If you believe that, you’re living in a utilitarian utopia where some vast invisible meritocracy is handing out laurels to the winners and handcuffs to the losers, and that, quite frankly, just ain’t where it’s at.  Expanding STEM and trade-school offerings, which Zakaria is against, just might cure what ails America.  It might not even harm innovation much – we haven’t gone nearly far enough to know.  What we do know is that the current system is failing too many students to simply perpetuate it.

Zakaria finishes up his article by critiquing Asian models of education at length, but they’re a straw man.  Most American education observers aren’t interested in emulating China (although frankly, a lot of that is myopic flag-waving on our part — we could learn a lot from the Chinese system, which is much older than our own and consistently produces superior bureaucrats and a highly socialized, technically competent workforce).  Most Americans are interested in systems like Germany’s.   Germany has a complex, multi-tiered system of education driven by the states, where students can test into a range of occupational training or attempt to proceed to colleges and higher-level academic institutions if they so choose.  This is a wise approach.  Students’ performance should determine their outcomes to a greater extent than it currently does in America, if only because it would curtail the influence of money, another major flaw with the ‘liberal arts’ mentality.

A liberal arts education is a beautiful thing and a valuable thing.  But not every student has ten years to cast around ‘finding herself’, and not every student is ready for the responsibility of ‘finding herself’ the day she turns 18.  Many students seek a transactional education experience – hard work in exchange for a decent, steady job that will allow them to live and raise a family.  America is failing those students right now, and putting 4-year liberal arts colleges on a nostalgic pedestal doesn’t serve our long-term interest as a country.