Book Review

Author shows liberal arts, science co-dependence

In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed
In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria. PHOTO | DIANA NGILA | NMG 

On average, Kenya deploys Sh7.1 billion per annum in loans towards students at institutions of higher learning with public universities accounting for 93 percent of the allocation.

Whereas there is little, if any, disaggregated data to show how these funds are split across courses, the view that deploying such resources to liberal arts students (those in fields such as Philosophy, Sociology, Political Science and Psychology) is not value for money seems to be gaining traction.

The oft cited defence for this stand is that Kenya’s industrialization agenda creates greater demand for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) graduates than it does for their liberal arts counterparts. In Defense of a Liberal Education, Zakaria tables three arguments to debunk this notion (I should mention at this point that I am a student of liberal arts).

One, a liberal arts education teaches a person how to write. Two, it teaches them how to express themselves. Three, it inculcates analytical thinking. The three ignite one’s intellectual curiosity, their ability to challenge conventional wisdom and in so doing unlock new horizons of learning by themselves.

A point which perhaps needed more emphasis than it received in the book is the view that resource constraints notwithstanding, to think of funding of higher learning programmes as a trade-off between liberal arts and STEM is to be oblivious of the underlying symbiosis between the two. If there is something that should voice the urgent need for a paradigm shift in informing the debate simmering in Kenya, this is it.


I am a firm believer that a good book should mention, or at least recommend, other good books dealing with the same subject and In defense of a liberal arts education lives up to this bill. If you have read William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The miseducation of the American elite, an illuminating read on education in an age where excellence is often defined by one’s ability to take tests, it is mentioned in the book.

The difference between the two books is that whereas Fareed Zakaria's seems to be targeted at policy makers, William Deresiewicz’s targets a much larger audience including students and parents.

An area I felt the book left a considerable gap is that in doing so much to defend the liberal arts, it did so little to prescribe how the teaching of the programmes should be done.

It is not enough to undertake a liberal arts programme, how one is taught determines whether they learn how to write, how to express themselves and how to think critically. Perhaps this is part of the challenge Kenya faces.