In Defense of a Liberal Education – Fareed Zakaria


Dear Partners in thought,

I would like to tell you about a wonderful book published in 2015 as it directly and indirectly deals with many key subjects we regularly cover, which is the famed “In Defense of a Liberal Education” by Fareed Zakaria. This book and his author are actually emblematic of major issues facing us today such as immigration, globalisation, meritocracy and what – and implicitly where – we (well, mostly but not only, our kids) should study in an age focused on securing jobs and lives constantly redefined by the tech revolution.

Fareed Zakaria was born and raised in Mumbai in a Muslim family (a fact not so well-known – he is secular and non-practising), educated at the Cathedral and John Connon School in Mumbai. Then he came to America in 1982, having been accepted at Yale (his older brother, Arshad, had gone to Harvard a few years earlier – they never played the Game). He was a President of the Yale Political Union and a member of Scroll & Keys society (He was actually quite politically conservative there while considering himself a centrist today). He went on to do a PhD in Government at Harvard (political sciences in the local lingo) studying under Samuel Huntington (well-known for “The Clash of Civilisations” in 1993) and Stanley Hoffman, the latter a great Vienna-born immigrant and European Affairs guru I mentioned in my brief 1982 dealings with. Interestingly Fareed eventually would help set up the Yale-NUS program (National University of Singapore) creating a strong Asian presence for Yale and mixing the best of both worlds (*). At age 28, he became the Managing Editor of Foreign Affairs, the Bible of the Council of Foreign Relations, which as you know, has been the NY-based establishment beacon of American foreign policy-makers for decades. Today, while being known for his CNN work (see below), he also has a weekly column in the Washington Post (Go see “The Post” with Streep and Hanks by the way) and has contributed to Newsweek, The Times and the Atlantic Monthly. Fareed is indeed a most accomplished chap and a very professional one too, also oozing balance and modesty. He is the embodiment of the American dream and why immigration, a pillar of American success, is key to the continued growth of the indispensable country.

Fareed is the “trailblazer” representative of the rising Asian-American class, many of whom, still very often not-American born, have excelled at integration and literally invaded Ivy League world and the likes (I was at the Yale Commencement Ceremony last May and had a feeling New Haven, CT was a suburbs of Singapore). Typically only 10-11% of college classes of Harvard, Yale and Princeton are comprising foreigners but the proportion of Asian-Americans far exceeds that number today, based obviously on merit that cannot be ignored by admission committees in spite of quota rumours and pressures often heard. In all fairness these Asian-Americans are culturally far more American than Asian, as I have noticed with my very interesting and enriching encounters and friendships – one in particular. What is key is their successful blending of the hard work ethics, often dismissed discipline and, to some extent, scientific approach provided by their Asian roots with the entrepreneurial freedom, conventional wisdom challenging and”sky is the limit” ethos traditionally breathed by their country of adoption. They simply have brains, work hard, are focused, want to succeed and benefit from the greatest learning environment. They also show immigration can be very successful for the host country as they will go on to expand the American (apple) pie. One could be forgiven to say that they are the very kind that Make America Great Again (with or or without the red cap). This is an interesting feature for us to realize during those times of immigration tragedies and debates even if the comparison could be simplistic as illegal immigrants may not all possess the same qualities or aspirations as they cross the border simply to escape strife, persecution and/or desire a better life. And they are illegal, which these Asian-American Ivy Leaguers are not, even if a tiny few may have been initially.

Another feature linked to topics often debated is Fareed’s first really widely recognised opus in 2003 which was “The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad”. In this book he was the precursor, 12 years before the rise of Western populism, of the dangers that democracy itself (“democracy is the worst of all systems except for all the others” to quote Winston Churchill) could have hidden in its midst and was indeed hidden so far, especially in America, as voting participation was so low and considered the game of the “educated” or knowledgeable ones. In its aftermath came “The Post American World” published in 2008 which was also an extension of the message of “The Future of Freedom” as America, in the midst of the Iraq quagmire, was confronted with the demise of the unipolar world arisen from the ashes of the Berlin Wall (I found this book so good that when on holiday in Cambridge, Massachusetts I bought a few copies and sent it to mentors and friends – usually the same!). I also recommend their reading as they provide an unusual rear view mirror which Fareed did not think about then, so much his visions came true across the Western world (and elsewhere – Read the FT’s Gideon Rachman’s Tuesday 26th June excellent piece on “Trump Leads a Global Revivalism of Nationalism”).

Coming back to the current note on the book published in 2015 (his latest), Fareed stressed that liberal arts education was under attack as many states governors had then pledged not spending taxpayer money on subsidising them while he lamented that English and History majors were in decline. Fareed remembered the focus he had known in India for “skills-based” education so students could simply find good jobs. He explains his journey to the top of American learning, discovering literally a new world. He then goes on explaining why that skills-based approach is short- sighted and mistaken. He offers a brief history of liberal education and then expounds on the key virtues of a liberal arts education: How to write clearly, how to express yourself convincingly and how to think analytically. In fact he goes back to the roots of education which is not to focus on a job but to make one “thinks” so one can do whatever she wants, including finding a great job. This mission of education and universities in particular to shape thinking abilities is crucial and immemorial for many good reasons tested by history. Technology cannot replace this even if it can provide different tools and media to shape thinking as long as it does not replace it or individuals do use it as a mean instead of an end. Fareed takes engineering as an example stressing that this skills-based value-added profession is great but that it is strongly enhanced by creativity, lateral thinking, design, communication, storytelling and importantly learning and keeping at it – all gifts of a liberal education. A liberal education can also provide the tools to empower individuals to think for themselves and not be subjected by ready-made opinions that fit too nicely what one wants to hear – the problem of our times. Liberal education can be the guarantor of a working democracy as it usually comprises and therefore safeguards values that have defined our Western societies – those old Western liberal values (you see the full circle here).

The book is also a very enjoyable read as Fareed is very witty, starting on the very first page as what one should do when coming to America today (I will let you enjoy it). While focused on liberal education, he also goes through the key developments that led to the creation of an unparalleled meritocratic educational system, very much representing the views of the founding fathers, which perdures until today. To expand on his views, it is remarkable that in 2018 “everybody” can go to Harvard, Yale or Princeton if one has a great story to tell and achievements to show. While cultural background of course matters as well as, some would say, zip codes – as it gives those applicants a privileged environment to have grown into -, money is no object thanks to the massive endowment funds that will keep funding excellence: Harvard has a USD 35bn endowment while Yale and Princeton rely upon a USD 25 bn fund each that are run by dedicated asset managers and the highest level professionals in the trade (such as David Swansen for Yale) devoted to funding tuitions for students in need as well as research to keep these places of learning at the top of their leagues worldwide. Admissions Committees also want diversity as they value its benefits to all so not all NY Upper East Siders go enjoying the ivy. However it is true that there is a finite number of slots (1500 per class at Yale College) and admission committees need making choices among a pool of extremely highly talented applicants, not all of whom who will make it. Higher education, particularly at the top, still is a key American competitive advantage, an indispensable creator of leadership material and the perfect example of the symbiosis of business and society that has so well defined America. And many of them are focused on liberal education even if one should never forget the likes of MIT and the very suitably Valley-located Stanford (the latter, yes George, Nikos and Haitao, which I am told has a great business school 🙂 ).

I would also like to recommend you to join the Fareed Zakaria daily Global Briefing (Google and subscribe) which is a very quick summary of key issues you can get every day from main headlines selected by Fareed (it is enjoyable as it also takes one minute to read). I also recommend for those who do not fear weekly challenges (usually on Sunday) to take the Fareed quiz: ten questions on international relations news, some obvious, many trivial. It is a real test of ego as I do not know anyone who did 10/10 and most fall below 5 (my record is 8/10 but I was lucky on one or two questions) http://www.cnn/ (If you do a ten please let me know). Lastly, I find his CNN GPS on Sunday very good (11 am EST/3 pm London/4 pm Paris/5 pm Athens) as he covers key topics of international relations with maestria, inviting key people and not just those easy to handle (he had a famous and quite friendly and civilised one hour exchange with Steve Bannon when the latter was holidaying with the Northern League recently).

So the word of the day is “Think” and the message is that society, whilst needing to protect its core identity, gets richer through diversity as America amply demonstrated thus far. Fear of the unknown can be helped through education, liberal of course, like our values.

This book note is dedicated to Qi, a close friend and mentee, but first and foremost a Yalie gentleman and scholar, who came from China age 6 and is ensuring the American dream goes on while quietly taking, during the storm, the leadership mantle that America and the world need.

I wish you a great summer. I am now off to Paris and then to Boston, where it all began.

Warmest regards,



(*) Back in 2013, my daughter mistakenly applied to Yale NUS thinking she was applying to Yale, making for some funny developments. It turned out she went to the main Yale, became a History major and now is going to work in Boston for a great strategy consulting boutique. And to think she did not have the benefit of reading Fareed’s book! (I assume too much maybe 🙂
And if I may, by the way, getting into the Ivy League is not about whom you know or you can bribe. It is about core values. It is about merit. Relentless hard work. Discipline over years. Abnegation. Dedication. As I am sure you know.
Last point on immigration, lest my message may be misconstrued. Recognizing immigration as a tested component of American excellence does not mean foregoing a regulated approach to it and the need to maintain “identity”. It means understanding American history and ethos, going away from bigotry and also ensuring through appropriate legislation that good women and men looking for a better life have a fair shot at contributing to building that unique American pie in all walks of life and, of course, not only via the hallowed grounds of Harvard and Yale.


Serge Desprat- June 2018 (Prague)