If you want to live a good life these days, you know what you’re supposed to do. Get into college but then drop out. Spend your days learning computer science and your nights coding. Start a technology company and take it public. That’s the new American dream. If you’re not quite that adventurous, you could major in electrical engineering.
A classic liberal education has few defenders. Conservatives fume that it is too, well, liberal (though the term has no partisan meaning). Liberals worry it is too elitist. Students wonder what they would do with a degree in psychology. And parents fear that it will cost them their life savings.
This growing unease is apparent in the numbers. As college enrollment has grown in recent decades, the percentage of students majoring in subjects like English and philosophy has declined sharply. In 1971, for example, 7.6 percent of all bachelor’s degrees were awarded in English language and literature. By 2012, that number had fallen to 3.0 percent. During the same period, the percentage of business majors in the undergraduate population rose from 13.7 to 20.5.
It isn’t only Republicans on the offensive. Everyone’s eager to promote the type of education that might lead directly to a job. In a speech in January 2014, President Barack Obama said, “I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.” He later apologized for what he described as a “glib” comment, but Obama has expressed similar sentiments during his presidency. His concern—that in today’s world, college graduates need to focus on the tools that will get them good jobs—is shared by many liberals, as well as conservatives and independents. The irrelevance of a liberal education is an idea that has achieved that rare status in Washington: bipartisan agreement.
The attacks have an effect. There is today a loss of coherence and purpose surrounding the idea of a liberal education. Its proponents are defensive about its virtues, while its opponents are convinced that it is at best an expensive luxury, at worst actively counterproductive. Does it really make sense to study English in the age of apps?
In a sense, the question is un-American. For much of its history, America was distinctive in providing an education to all that was not skills based. In their comprehensive study of education, the Harvard economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz note that, historically, Britain, France, and Germany tested children at a young age, educated only a few, and put them through a narrow program designed specifically to impart a set of skills thought to be key to their professions. “The American system,” they write, “can be characterized as open, forgiving, lacking universal standards, and having an academic yet practical curriculum.” America did not embrace the European model of specific training and apprenticeships because Americans moved constantly, to new cities, counties, and territories in search of new opportunities. They were not rooted in geographic locations with long-established trades and guilds that offered the only path forward. They were also 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. Finally, Goldin and Katz argue, while a general education was more expensive than specialized training, the cost for the former was not paid by students or their parents. The United States was the first country to publicly fund mass, general education, first at the secondary-school level and then in college. Even now, higher education in America is a much broader and richer universe than anywhere else. Today a high school student can go to one of fourteen hundred institutions in the United States that offer a traditional bachelor’s degree, and another fifteen hundred with a more limited course of study. Goldin and Katz point out that on a per capita basis, Britain has only half as many undergraduate institutions and Germany just one-third. Those who seek to reorient U.S. higher education into something more focused and technical should keep in mind that they would be abandoning what has been historically distinctive, even unique, in the American approach to higher education.
And yet, I get it. I understand America’s current obsession. I grew up in India in the 1960s and 1970s, when a skills-based education was seen as the only path to a good career. Indians in those days had an almost mystical faith in the power of technology. It had been embedded in the country’s DNA since it gained independence in 1947. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was fervent in his faith in big engineering projects. He believed that India could move out of its economic backwardness only by embracing technology, and he did everything he could during his fourteen years in office to leave that stamp on the nation. A Fabian socialist, Nehru had watched with admiration as the Soviet Union jump-started its economy in just a few decades by following such a path. (Lenin once famously remarked, “Communism is Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.”) Nehru described India’s new hydroelectric dams as “temples of the new age.”
I attended a private day school in Bombay (now Mumbai), the Cathedral and John Connon School. When founded by British missionaries in the Victorian era, the school had been imbued with a broad, humanistic approach to education. It still had some of that outlook when I was there, but the country’s mood was feverishly practical. The 1970s was a tough decade everywhere economically, but especially in India. And though it was a private school, the tuition was low, and Cathedral catered to a broad cross section of the middle class. As a result, all my peers and their parents were anxious about job prospects. The assumption made by almost everyone at school was that engineering and medicine were the two best careers. The real question was, which one would you pursue?
At age sixteen, we had to choose one of three academic streams: science, commerce, or the humanities. We all took a set of board exams that year—a remnant of the British educational model—that helped determine our trajectory. In those days, the choices were obvious. The smart kids would go into science, the rich kids would do commerce, and the girls would take the humanities. (Obviously I’m exaggerating, but not by that much.) Without giving the topic much thought, I streamed into the sciences.
At the end of twelfth grade, we took another set of exams. These were the big ones. They determined our educational future, as we were reminded again and again. Grades in school, class participation, extracurricular projects, and teachers’ recommendations—all were deemed irrelevant compared to the exam scores. Almost all colleges admitted students based solely on these numbers. In fact, engineering colleges asked for scores in only three subjects: physics, chemistry, and mathematics. Similarly, medical schools would ask for results in just physics, chemistry, and biology. No one cared what you got in English literature. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)—the most prestigious engineering colleges in the country—narrowed the admissions criteria even further. They administered their own entrance test, choosing applicants entirely on the basis of its results.
The increased emphasis on technology and practicality in the 1970s was in part due to domestic factors: inflation had soared, the economy had slumped, and the private sector was crippled by nationalizations and regulations. Another big shift, however, took place far from India’s borders. Until the 1970s, the top British universities offered scholarships to bright Indian students—a legacy of the raj. But as Britain went through its own hellish economic times that decade—placed under formal receivership in 1979 by the International Monetary Fund—money for foreign scholarships dried up. In an earlier era, some of the brightest graduates from India might have gone on to Oxford, Cambridge, and the University of London. Without outside money to pay for that education, they stayed home.
But culture follows power. As Britain’s economic decline made its universities less attractive, colleges in the United States were rising in wealth and ambition. At my school, people started to notice that American universities had begun offering generous scholarships to foreign students. And we soon began to hear from early trailblazers about the distinctly American approach to learning. A friend from my neighborhood who had gone to Cornell came back in the summers bursting with enthusiasm about his time there. He told us of the incredible variety of courses that students could take no matter what their major. He also told tales of the richness of college life. I remember listening to him describe a film society at Cornell that held screenings and discussions of classics by Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. I had never heard of Bergman or Fellini, but I was amazed that watching movies was considered an integral part of higher education. Could college really be that much fun?
My parents did not push me to specialize. My father had been deeply interested in history and politics ever since he was a young boy. He had been orphaned at a young age but managed to get financial assistance that put him through high school and college. In 1944, he received a scholarship to attend the University of London. He arrived during the worst of the blitzkrieg, with German V-2 rockets raining down on the city. On the long boat ride to England, the crew told him he was crazy. One member even asked, “Haven’t you read the newspapers? People are leaving London by the thousands right now. Why would you go there?” But my father was determined to get an education. History was his passion, and he worked toward a PhD in that subject. But he needed a clearer path to a profession. So, in addition, he obtained a law degree that would allow him to become a barrister upon his return to Bombay.
Though my mother was raised in better circumstances, she also faced a setback at a young age—her father died when she was eight. She briefly attended a college unusual for India at the time—a liberal arts school in the northern part of the country called the Isabella Thoburn College, founded in 1870 by an American Methodist missionary of that name. Though her education was cut short when she returned home to look after her widowed mother, my mother never forgot the place. She often fondly reminisced about its broad and engaging curriculum.
My parents’ careers were varied and diverse. My father started out as a lawyer before moving into politics and later founding a variety of colleges. He also created a small manufacturing company (to pay the bills) and always wrote books and essays. My mother began as a social worker and then became a journalist, working for newspapers and magazines. (She resigned from her last position in journalism last year, 2014, at the age of seventy-eight.) Neither of them insisted on early specialization. In retrospect, my parents must have worried about our future prospects—everyone else was worried. But to our good fortune, they did not project that particular anxiety on us.My brother, Arshad, took the first big step. He was two years older than I and fantastically accomplished academically. (He was also a very good athlete, which made following in his footsteps challenging.) He had the kind of scores on his board exams that would have easily placed him in the top engineering programs in the country. Or he could have taken the IIT exam, which he certainly would have aced. In fact, he decided not to do any of that and instead applied to American universities. A couple of his friends considered doing the same, but no one quite knew how the process worked. We learned, for example, that applicants had to take something called the Scholastic Aptitude Test, but we didn’t know much about it. (Remember, this is 1980 in India. There was no Google. In fact, there was no color television.) We found a pamphlet about the test at the United States Information Service, the cultural branch of the U.S. embassy. It said that because the SAT was an aptitude test, there was no need to study for it. So, my brother didn’t. On the day the test was scheduled, he walked into the makeshift exam center in Bombay, an almost empty room in one of the local colleges, and took the test.
It’s difficult to convince people today how novel and risky an idea it was at the time to apply to schools in the United States. The system was still foreign and distant. People didn’t really know what it meant to get into a good American university or how that would translate into a career in India. The Harvard alumni in Bombay in the 1970s were by no means a “Who’s Who” of the influential and wealthy. Rather, they were an eclectic mix of people who either had spent time abroad (because their parents had foreign postings) or had some connection to America. A few friends of ours had ventured to the United States already, but because they hadn’t yet graduated or looked for jobs, their experiences were of little guidance.
My brother had no idea if the admissions departments at American colleges would understand the Indian system or know how to interpret his report cards and recommendations. He also had no real Plan B. If he didn’t take the slot offered by engineering schools, he wouldn’t be able to get back in line the next year. In fact, things were so unclear to us that we didn’t even realize American colleges required applications a full year in advance. As a result, he involuntarily took a gap year between school and college, waiting around to find out whether he got in anywhere.
As it happened, Arshad got in everywhere. He picked the top of the heap—accepting a scholarship offer from Harvard. While we were all thrilled and impressed, many friends remained apprehensive when told the news. It sounded prestigious to say you were going to attend Harvard, but would the education actually translate into a career?
My mother traveled to the United States to drop my brother off in the fall of 1982, an uneasy time in American history. The mood was still more 1970s malaise than 1980s boom. The country was in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression. Vietnam and Watergate had shattered the nation’s confidence. The Soviet Union was seen as ascendant in our minds. Riots, protests, and urban violence had turned American cities into places of genuine danger. Our images of New York came from Charles Bronson movies and news reports of crack and crime.
All of this was especially alarming to Indians. The country’s traditional society had interpreted the 1960s and 1970s as a period of decay in American culture, as young people became morally lax, self-indulgent, permissive, and, perhaps most worrisome, rebellious. The idea that American youth had become disrespectful toward their elders was utterly unnerving to Indian parents. Most believed that any child who traveled to the United States would quickly cast aside family, faith, and tradition for sex, drugs, and rock and roll. If you sent your kids to America, you had to brace yourselves for the prospect that you might “lose” them.
In his first few weeks abroad, Arshad was, probably like all newcomers to Harvard, a bit nervous. My mother, on the other hand, returned from her trip clear of any anxiety. She was enchanted with the United States, its college campuses, and the undergraduate experience. She turned her observations into an article for the Times of India titled “The Other America.” In it, she described how concerned she had been before the trip about permissiveness, drugs, and rebellion at American colleges. She then went on to explain how impressed she was after actually spending time on a campus to find that the place focused on education, hard work, and extracurricular activities. The students she met were bright, motivated, and, to her surprise, quite respectful. She met parents who were tearfully bidding their children good-bye, talking about their next visit, or planning a Thanksgiving reunion. “I feel I am in India,” she wrote. “Could this be the heartless America where family ties have lost their hold?”
Indians had it all wrong about the United States, my mother continued. She tried to explain why they read so much bad news about the country. “America is an open society as no other. So they expose their ‘failings’ too as no other,” she wrote. “[Americans] cheerfully join in the talk of their own decline. But the decline is relative to America’s own previous strength. It remains the world’s largest economy; it still disposes of the greatest military might the world has known; refugees from terror still continue to seek shelter in this land of immigrants. It spends millions of dollars in the hope that someone, somewhere may make a valuable contribution to knowledge. America remains the yardstick by which we judge America.” As you can see, she was hooked.
In those years, it was fashionable in elite Indian circles to denounce the United States for its imperialism and hegemony. During the Cold War, the Indian government routinely sided with the Soviet Union. Indira Gandhi, the populist prime minister, would often blame India’s troubles on the “foreign hand,” a reference to the CIA. But my mother has always been stubbornly pro-American. When my father was alive, he would sometimes criticize America for its crimes and blunders, partly to needle my brother and me and partly because, as one who had struggled for India’s independence, he had absorbed the worldview of his closest allies, who were all on the left. Yet my mother remained unmoved, completely convinced that the United States was a land of amazing vitality and virtue. (I suspect it’s what has helped her accept the fact that her sons chose the country as their home.)
Along with photographs and information brochures from her trip, my mother also brought back Harvard’s course book. For me, it was an astonishing document. Instead of a thin pamphlet containing a dry list of subjects, as one would find at Indian universities, it was a bulging volume overflowing with ideas. It listed hundreds of classes in all kinds of fields. And the course descriptions were written like advertisements—as if the teachers wanted you to join them on an intellectual adventure. I read through the book, amazed that students didn’t have to choose a major in advance and that they could take poetry and physics and history and economics. From eight thousand miles away, with little knowledge and no experience, I was falling in love with the idea of a liberal education.