Teaching People to Think (… or Not): Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education

Wizard: Why, anybody can have a brain! But they have one thing you don’t have … a diploma! Therefore, by the authority vested in me, I confer upon you the honorary degree of THD.

Scarecrow: What’s THD?

Wizard: Why it’s Doctor of Thinkology!

Scarecrow: The sum of the square root of any two sides of an isosceles triangle equals the square root of the remaining sides! Oh joy, oh rapture! I’ve got a brain!


There were two competing lists on the wall of the suite where I lived with nine other men during my final year of Harvard College.  Five of us marked the rare times we attended a class. The other five marked another list when they missed.  Twenty-five years later, I can’t correlate the list with success after graduation.  Missing class did afford me the time to get good at beer darts.

I liked college. I majored in Slavic Languages and Literatures, which was interesting. I had a great girlfriend. I coasted, and snagged honors anyway. But it all could have been much more intense, and much more effective.  Fareed Zakaria defends all this in his book In Defense of a Liberal Education with the same words I remember my parents using: “A liberal arts education teaches people to think.” But somewhat for me, and definitely for most graduates, liberal arts college failed in all three aspects: the goal of improving “thinking,” the use of “teaching” to do it,  and the ability to impact a lot of “people.”


No one would argue that teaching thinking is a bad idea.  But what exactly is thinking? Analyzing a Chekhov play?  Doing math? Meditating to quiet one’s mind and cultivate a sense of gratitude? Planning a career? Or figuring out how to get honors with least possible effort, horrendous study habits, and a mind uncluttered with facts and formulas three days after the test was passed? Thinking when drunk or sober?

Zakaria vaguely describes his personal definition.  He values writing, speaking, and independent learning.  He then lists out a bunch of other things that a hodgepodge of CEOs, writers, academics care about, like critical thinking and ability to observe, for example.  A lot of us would agree with his points.

The biggest problem I have with this book is Zakaria frames the debate over the goals of education as a choice: liberal arts education versus “skills-based” education.  Liberal arts is in the Platonic tradition – Plato advocated learning as a pure end in and of itself.  In this vein, “Veritas” is Harvard’s motto.  Zakaria defends this view, the liberal arts view, against those that would push aside quixotic subjects in favor of learning of practical skills.  But they are the same.  In fact, learning to learn – learning to seek truth – is the most important and practical skill of all.  If a genie gave me only one wish I’d wish for more wishes.  If I had one thing to teach, it would be a love of learning.  In fact, the ability to learn is the skill that Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of HR, says is his #1 hiring criteria.

In our knowledge-driven world, skills that interested Plato, Zakaria, the Liberal Arts advocates converge with what’s needed to work.:communication, collaboration, learning skills, and even skills like mindfulness. All this stuff applies equally to the pursuit of Greek mythology, philosophy or marketing.  But it works both ways – one can gain these skills while studying computer science or anthropology.  These fundamental thinking skills underpin all practical pursuits.  This gets us through the raging debate about science vs. liberal arts as well – the “two cultures” famously described by CP Snow in 1959 remains a hot topic today.  The fundamental thinking skills I’m talking about unite cultures.  One of my favorite books about education makes the case that this is true even for motorcycle maintenance …

“A motorcycle functions entirely in accordance with the laws of reason, and a study of the art of motorcycle maintenance is really a miniature study of the art of rationality itself.” – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig, p. 90.

We need a more rigorous definition of “thinking.”  If we unpacked “thinking” we could define chunks so clear they could be paired with any subject.  College could be set up completely differently. Instead of subjects that fell into the categories of “liberal arts” vs. “practical,” students could pursue virtually any interest.  Educators could focus on helping to improve the underlying thinking skills to help them meet their own goals.  And we have the luxury to do this because we no longer need to rely on the teacher to be the expert in a specific subject–- it is all out there on the Internet.

A more rigorous definition of thinking could be clear enough to be assessable.  That’s one reason why we are all so confused about the value of a formal liberal arts education – there’s no way to measure it. You take the SATs to get into college, but there’s no test to see if you ever got any better at “thinking”.  Colleges differentiate based on vaguely defined brands, not outcomes. Zakaria resists being pinned down into such precision, saying some of these things are “wholly outside the realm of tests and skills” – but I think it is possible, and essential.

the 21st century learnerThis led me to work a bit last year with Charles Fadel and the Center for Curriculum Redesign.  Charles authored a popular book called 21st Century Skills and just published Four-Dimensional Education. He has developed a framework to be a normative list of fundamental thinking skills and character traits.  Zakaria mentions the all-important OECD PISA test that is often used as a way of comparing national education systems.  Charles is working with the OECD to widen the categories they measure from subjects like “reading and math” to include a pretty comprehensive list of skills like creativity or curiosity that most people feel are more important to living a good life in the next century.  Perhaps changing the OECD test and coming up with standards and tests for this stuff will help educators clear up their fuzzy thinking about thinking.

I should say that many other people are moving forward towards this idea.   The KIPP charter schools focus on developing seven traits: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence, and curiosity.  The Minerva Project, a new college that finished its freshman class in 2015 and raised one of the largest seed rounds in history, maps 147 habits of mind to their four-year curriculum and continually talks about and measures them.  In Teaching Minds, Roger Schank (who founded the discipline of learning science), offers a framework of 12 basic cognitive processes. And I’m sure there are others, and that some colleges are more rigorous in this regard than others.  But Zakaria’s defense leaves things all too vague for me.  These other efforts make sense – if thinking is the goal, let’s define it, explain it to students, and measure it.


We all know that very few faculty in our research Universities are concerned with teaching, particularly teaching undergraduates.  Student success – at learning thinking or anything else – is not a big goal, and doesn’t relate to faculty pay or status. In fact, their teaching load is often less than a course per semester.

But even if they did, “teaching” as a model is backwards.  Learning is what works.  Socrates new this, Maria Montessori knew this, and recently a whole battery of “learning scientists” have rediscovered it.  Minerva founder Ben Nelson has a great bit that sums up the point.  He did a one-week wine exploration of Argentina guided by an expert, and a similar one-week tour of Chile that he had to research and organize himself.  Two years later, Ben remembers barrels about Chilean wine and only drops about Argentinian.  If learning is the objective, we can do much better than the lectures, exams, and even subjects that constitute teaching today.  Humans mistake the pleasurable sensation of understanding for actual learning that will stick. Learning means rewiring the brain, which takes active engagement.

So I disagree with Zakaria that we just need more of the same.  He writes, “The solution is not that people need to major in marketing in college, but that their liberal education should be more structured and demanding.”  The whole thing: subjects, tests, grades, classrooms, professors, tenure, even the practice of going to college for four years from ages 18-22 should be overhauled.  This topic – the “how” people learn – deserves more exposition.  Fortunately many people are working on this, too.

But it is not time to throw molotov cocktails into college quads to start a revolution.  I like a lot of the features of 4-year liberal arts colleges.  First, it is fun.  As I said above in my genie example, if college did nothing more than connect learning with fun for people, I’d take it.  The Charles Eliot innovation in the late 19th century that Zakaria points out – giving students wide choice of academic subjects – is also the right idea.  I’d keep the abundance of extra-curricular choices as well.  Let students have time to find out what they are interested in doing.  But let’s marry those pursuits with teaching them to think.  Employers certainly sense that much of the good learning happens outside the classroom.  Let’s be a little more rigorous in making sure the teamwork learned on the pitch can be more easily transferred to work. Also, the very idea of a campus works for me. I agree with Harvard’s historian Samuel Eliot Morison that you need the proximity and peers to develop character.  And character is what we must develop.

I’d add that probably the biggest innovation of all is in giving high school graduates time to go out into the world, reflect, and to discover themselves.  I’d go farther.  We don’t do that enough later on.  Of course, I’m preaching from Barcelona, in the middle of what I’d call the third major “sabbatical” I’ve taken in my career, not counting college.  My first was graduate school.  And for many, indulging in four years and a racking up huge debt before their career even starts precludes them from taking a break from work later, once they have some life experience to really fuel the reflection.


Only about 39% of 18 to 24 year olds go to college.  So the system is not even serving half our kids. That’s a fail for the “people” part of the equation, right there.

Furthermore, the majority of the people that complete a 4-year liberal arts school are dumped into unemployment, underemployment and debt.  We have a widening “skills gap.”

In November 2015, the youth unemployment was 11.20% in the US and 3-4 times that in countries like Spain.  And this doesn’t include many more graduates that are unable to get “good” jobs. Ironically, companies report that it is hard to hire. The US has over a trillion dollars in government-backed student loans that these underemployed kids can’t repay.  Here’s a dramatic 2-minute trailer for a movie about this impending financial shockwave called “Ivory Tower.”  Why isn’t supply and demand working in our labor markets?

The whole thing is a system. It is a (beer) dartboard, on which a Harvard four-year AB degree is the bullseye.  All the colleges that compete & imitate, the high-schools that prepare, the parents raising kids to go, and all the other educational options are part of the game we set up for our youth play. It is pretty tough to reform all the other parts without making changes to the bullseye. For example: Harvard requires subjects like history and algebra, the pursuit of which manages to turn off a large chunk of kids to the whole idea of school before age 13.
Maybe Zakaria’s most persuasive argument is that U.S. liberal arts colleges are graduating leaders that are thoughtful, creative, brave, and well-tooled for the modern economy.  These  innovative entrepreneurs are creating valuable companies more often than anyone on the planet.  Zakaria’s argument is that a mark of their aptitude is that they are doing this despite the fact that the broader US workforce is measurably weak in knowledge and skills.

He’s right – the current 4-year liberal arts college system does work for a few.  It worked for Zakaria.  It worked for Mark Zuckerberg.  It worked for me!  Why? The system does work for kids who have interests that happen to coincide with a faculty member, or who discover an extracurricular passion. They go through college engaged, working hard, and reaping rewards.  For some, at 18, the view from the Ivory Tower is thrilling and gripping.  But the quadratic equations and platonic verses that stuff the core curriculum don’t do it for most people.  We only develop skills when we wrestle with ideas, and most of us only do that when something we care about is on the line.

Some of us also get stronger wrestling with the system itself. Regardless of how the system is built, we’ve got to avoid losing that aspect. The idea to take from this is that the learner must be in charge, not the teacher.  Real learning is an exploration of our own insides, and lecture halls are not where this happens best.  And educators should never pack the schedule so full of learning-to-think “stuff” that the students have no time for freethought.  But we shouldn’t keep the system as crappy as it is so we can spawn a few rebels who grow strong by opposing it, and cutting class.

Do we risk dragging down a system that is producing a very effective elite? Maybe we just need something separate and different for “the people?”  First of all, I’m not so sure that liberal arts college is what is producing our great elite.  I’ve met three Thiel Fellows, who have been paid $100,000 by this billionaire that famously hates our college system to start companies and skip college.  They are some of the most well-tooled entrepreneurs I’ve ever met.  Plus, at 19 they have a head-start on their peers and negative debt.  Could it be that these entrepreneurial qualities are more the product of broader US culture than campus culture?

But, still, as Zakaria discusses, the four-year liberal arts colleges, and the whole education system that orbits it, are a major force in producing our culture.  So I guess if you are happy with our culture, leave it be.

But I am not. The rich/poor gap is unacceptable.  The skills gap is unacceptable.  And this system leaves most kids out and turns off most of the ones that are in.  Frustrated young people destabilize political systems.  And not only in the Middle East. David Simon, producer of TV show “The Wire” about Baltimore  sums this point up well in his recent “Two Americas” speech.  If we care about fixing this, we must change the education system.  In his recent mega-hit book about increasing income inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty sums it up, “Over a long period of time,” he writes, the main force in favor of greater equality has been the diffusion of knowledge and skills.”

We can’t hold our people together as a society by giving them a common reading list of great books.  It turns out that only a few will read them, even if they can afford $200,000 and four years off work to do it.  We need a new set of standards for thinking, not standards for what you do with the thinking.  Then we can meet people where they live, where they are interested.  And, I’m guessing, in this place, the key is going to be connecting learning to earning. Thinking is the most practical thing there is, and everyone could get better at learning to learn to do it, if only you can uncouple it from things they see as frustrating and useless.

Let’s overhaul education. There should be no sacred cows, and just because some of us enjoyed our liberal arts degrees, we shouldn’t spare the idea of liberal arts.  Could it be an evolution as Zakaria advocates?  Yale in Singapore? Maybe. I could see how you might couch the changes in the language of the academy.  Let’s return to working on “rhetoric” and using the true “Socratic method.” But college is working for most of the people that are becoming our leaders today, making it even harder to see a change happening from the inside.  This is the trap I fear.  Kids going to college to chase the glory days their parents talked about are already ending up in debt, underemployed, and unprepared for the coming century.

I think most of the innovation will come from the outside.  Zakaria tells the story of how Charles Eliot wrote an article that got him appointed head of Harvard in 1865.  Once there, he made sweeping reforms.  Today, a single article would likely drown in the information tsunami.  So I’m going to build an institution that impacts the system the way that article did.  And I’m happy to be joining alongside many others that are following this same calling.

Daniel Hoffman
Entrepreneur, Learner, Synthesizer, Designer, Connector, Ne'er-do-well

Leave a Reply