Fareed Zakaria: STEM and the Liberal Arts Were a Power Couple. Let’s Get Them Back Together.

In its ancient origins, the liberal education featured science as an abstract elective rather than a practical subject that would net you a job. That science leads to a career while English and other liberal arts are subjects for stimulation is a very modern concept.

Fareed Zakaria: In its origins a liberal education always had science in it. Though interestingly, people studied science in ancient Greece and Rome and the Middle Ages until very recently for precisely the opposite reason that people are now told to study it. We are now told you should study it because it’s a practical skill that you could use in the real world. Well in ancient Greece, the practical skills that got you jobs and got you a career were rhetoric and oratory and a study of history and law. Science was seen as a kind of abstract quest for knowledge. The only reason you were doing it was mental stimulation. And yet for hundreds and hundreds of years, people studied science really just to try to answer the big questions. There was no sense that it could be applied in a way that was practical, would provide you with a career. That’s a very modern conception of science. And so I think what’s interesting is that even then when we thought science was useless, we studied it — useless in a practical sense — today my argument would be, you know, think about that length and breadth of history when you say that English is useless.

Yale has opened a campus in Singapore and what they’ve done is they’ve tried to reimagine what a liberal education would look like and they’ve also tried to reimagine what it would look like in a global context. There is a core that for the first two years there is a series of required courses. But the requirements are more in method of inquiry. That is in critical thinking rather than in a particular subject or a particular set of books. You study Aristotle, but at the same time you read Confucius, who was Aristotle’s contemporary. And you ask yourself why did Aristotle have certain concerns about politics, but Confucius had others? What explains this difference?

So the idea here would be to try to understand that the West is not the only thing in the world. That there is a much broader universe and you understand the differences and similarities. All these subjects have deep, long traditions and feed various parts of the human brain and the human soul. And so recognize that what seems fashionable when one era will not seem fashionable in another, but they all together interact and comprise a liberal education.

 

In its ancient origins, the liberal education featured science as an abstract elective rather than a practical subject that would net you a job. Science was studied for stimulation, to attempt to grasp truths about the universe. The current mindset that science will provide you with a career is a very modern concept. Journalist Fareed Zakaria explains that we should continue to prioritize liberal arts and subjects such as English, history, and rhetoric for the same reasons why our predecessors valued science before it became practical or fashionable to do so.

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