Leonard C. Burrello
Executive Director
The Center for Appreciative
Organizing in Education
​In his book In Defense of a Liberal Education, author and CNN host Fareed Zakaria makes the point that a liberal arts education has been demeaned by politicians and the media while the price of higher education has soared. Due to the higher costs, parents, want to see college as vocational preparation and immediate job placement upon graduation. Zakaria’s case is that a liberal education is the better preparation for a modern life filled with uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity and volatility. Liberal education is about critical and independent thinking, writing, and representing yourself in the modern world where the only certainty is change. Essentially, Zakaria posits that the solution to the problems of a liberal education is more and better liberal education.
While this book is not necessarily focused on K–12 education, it offers an insightful analysis of America’s many school successes and limitations as compared to international systems. In short, Zakaria argues that though American schools are often ranked in the low to mid twenties (out of the top thirty-one industrial nations) in math, science, and reading, the United States also ranks number one in the number of publicly listed high technology companies it has. Sweden ranks fifth, and Israel, tenth. The rankings are reversed when it comes to the percentage of GDP each of these three countries puts into research and development investments. Israel is first in venture capital investments, with the United States second and Sweden fourth.
What does all of this mean? Zakaria argues that the United States is one of the most innovative countries in the world. How did it get this way? He explains that in the three countries under discussion, “the work culture is non-hierarchical and merit based. All operate like ‘young’ countries, with energy and dynamism. All three are open societies, happy to let in the world’s ideas, goods, and services. And finally, they are all places where people are confident—a characteristic that can actually be measured.”
Studies reveal that other countries keep students in their education systems longer than the United States, and that curriculum and instruction is more rigorous, emphasizing math, technology, and science in order to pass national exams. But we in the United States better prepare students to think creatively, to problem solve, to argue persuasively, and to manage.
I believe establishing clarity around a district’s purpose and core values is essential to promoting students’ aspirations to become “the architects of their own learning.” These aspirations can begin early in school and must be nurtured as students progress through their education and become more responsible as they define their goals, understand their options and interests, and ultimately make commitments to accomplish their goals.