When I was a young man, so long ago memories are starting to fade, I played basketball from grade school through college and there was always a guy on the team who thought he should call a huddle outside of the coach’s earshot. Invariably, after we huddled around him, he would say, “Ok, listen up!” He would keep saying “listen up!” until he was sure he had the attention of everyone of us. All Americans should huddle around Fareed Zakaria and read his wonderful new book, “In defense of a Liberal Education”, not so much to delve into the details of a Liberal Education but rather because Fareed is saying to all Americans, “Listen-up!”, you need to hear this if you want to help save our democracy.

Zakaria most appropriately places the following quote from, the famous American biologist, E.O. Wilson, prominently within the first pages of the book, setting the tone for the remainder.

“We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

He also reminds us through-out of Thomas Jfferson’s great concern,

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be. . . . whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them right.”

In their comprehensive study of education, the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz note “(Early )Americans were part of an economy that was new and dynamic, so that technology kept changing the nature of work and with it the requirements for jobs. Few wanted to lock themselves into a single industry for life.” Americans, weather they knew it or not, were proponents of a liberal education.

In 2015, 88% of Americans, 25 years of age and older, had a high school education. However, that percentage fluctuated over the last few decades.

Between 1940 and 1980 the number of Americans continuing their education through high school increased from 40% to just over 80%. Then things appear to have stalled. The percentage of Americans with a high school education remained pretty much the same at 80% from 1980 until around 2005 when it started to rise to its current 88%.

In the spring of 2017, overall college-level enrollments decreased 1.5 percent from the previous spring. Enrollments decreased among four-year for-profit institutions (-10.1 percent), two-year public institutions (-2.5 percent), and four-year private nonprofit institutions (-0.2 percent). Taken as a whole, public sector college enrollments (two-year and four-year combined) declined by 0.9 percent this spring.

Writing for Atlantic Magazine, Derek Thompson, reports “the number of college enrollees has declined for five consecutive years. While the bulk of the decline in 2015 came among students over 24, “the main story is enrollment has gone down for four straight years. It peaked in 2011, and since spring 2011 colleges have lost over 1 million enrollments.

Things are clearly changing for the children of baby boomers who saw unprecedented increases in college attendance during their college years. This apparent turning away from higher education comes at a perilous time. America is facing some of it’s most divisive debates in decades and citizens need to think critically more, not less, if they are to resolve those debates peacefully.

The gap between more and less educated is starting to appear in the polarization of our politics. According to Pew Research, in the 2016 election, a wide gap in presidential preferences emerged between those with and without a college degree. College graduates backed Clinton by a 9-point margin (52%-43%), while those without a college degree backed Trump 52%-44%. Pew goes on to report “This is by far the widest gap in support among college graduates and non-college graduates in exit polls dating back to 1980”.

For example, in 2012, there was hardly any difference between the two groups: College graduates backed Obama over Romney by 50%-48%, and those without a college degree also supported Obama 51%-47%. Due largely to the dramatic movement among whites with no college degree, the gap between college and non-college whites was wider in 2016 than in any past election dating to 1980.

In an even more recent study Pew noted the nation’s two major political parties are diverging in key areas like race, age, religion and education. The Democratic Party is becoming more diverse, less religious, younger and better educated than the nation as a whole, while the Republican Party trends the opposite way: whiter, more religious, older and less educated than the country overall.

When Democracy was founded in Greece’s the Greeks believed it required a simultaneous innovation in education. Citizens had to be properly trained to run their own society. The link between a broad education and liberty became important to the Greeks.

According to Zakaria, Early on education in Greece centered on the development of “arête”, roughly meaning excellence or virtue. By the first century BC, however, education was formalized into “the seven liberal arts.” The curriculum was split between science and humanities, the theoretical and the practical, respectively. Centuries later, it was often divided into two subgroups:

the trivium

  • grammar,
  • Logic
  • rhetoric

the quadrivium

  • arithmetic,
  • geometry,
  • music
  • astronomy

No one thinks American politics will become more civil and effective if we all study rhetoric and astronomy but there are things education can do to help us all get along at least enough to solve mutual problems. Zakaria believes “Proponents of a liberal education are defensive about its virtues, while its opponents are convinced that it is at best an expensive luxury, at worst actively counterproductive. In certain conservative circles, the phrase “government schools” has become as ubiquitous as it is contemptuous, which is why candidate Trump promised to take a sledgehammer to what he called “failing government schools.”

Regardless of attendance at public or private schools all can advance democracy and a civil society by simply becoming more thoughtful. By “thoughtful” I don’t mean kind or nice, although there’s nothing wrong with that. By thoughtful I mean showing careful consideration or attention to a subject we should address.

Perhaps the most important aspect of being thoughtful is never avoiding thoughts about things that are unpleasant, if they require our attention. There are some who avoid thinking about spending priorities because they don’t want to go without something. There are parents who would rather not face the fact their child is using illegal drugs and there are those who refuse to accept the needs of others simply because it would be unpleasant or uncomfortable. These are all issues that require people to be thoughtful and think beyond the unpleasantness and discomfort but at the basics they are issues that require us to be more thoughtful than emotional, which is really all A Liberal Education is asking us to do.

Being thoughtful is really all Professor Wilson and President Jefferson asked of us. They asked us to “be well informed” and to “think critically”. After reading “In Defense of a Liberal Education” most will find that is all Fareed Zakaria wishes to impart as well, so please, “Listen up!”

Zakaria, Fareed. “In Defense of a Liberal Education” W. W. Norton & Company

Husband for 49 years. Dad forever! Very lucky man.