Thursday, March 16, 2017

The Value of a Liberal Arts Education

Although I am not in love with the politics of liberal journalist Fareed Zakariah, I very much liked what he had to say about a liberal arts education at the 2014 commencement at Sarah Lawrence College in Yonkers.  I commend it to you:

You are graduating from Sarah Lawrence, the quintessential liberal arts college, at an interesting moment in history—when the liberal arts are, honestly, not very cool. You all know what you’re supposed to be doing these days—study computer science, code at night, start a company, and take it public. Or, if you want to branch out, you could major in mechanical engineering. What you’re not supposed to do is get a liberal arts education.

This is not really a joke anymore. The governors of Texas, Florida and North Carolina have announced that they do not intend to spend taxpayer money subsidizing the liberal arts. Florida Governor Rick Scott asks, “Is it a vital interest of the state to have more anthropologists? I don’t think so.” Even President Obama recently urged students to keep in mind that a technical training could be more valuable than a degree in art history. Majors like English, once very popular and highly respected, are in steep decline.

I can well understand the concerns about liberal arts because I grew up in India in the 1960s and 1970s. A technical training was seen as the key to a good career. People who studied the liberal arts were either weird or dumb. (Or they were women because, sadly, in those days, the humanities was seen as an appropriate training for an aspiring housewife but not for a budding professional). If you were bright, you studied science, so I did. I even learned computer programming—in India in the 1970s! When I came to the United States for college, I brought with me that mindset. In my first year at Yale, I took a bunch of science and math courses. But I also took one course in the history of the Cold War. That course woke me up and made me recognize what I really loved. I dove into history and English and politics and economics and have stayed immersed in them ever since.

In thinking about my own path, I hope to give you some sense of the value of a liberal education. But first, a point of clarification. A liberal education has nothing to do with “liberal” in the left-right sense. Nor does it ignore the sciences. From the time of the Greeks, physics and biology and mathematics have been as integral to it as history and literature. For my own part, I have kept alive my interest in math and science to this day.

A liberal education—as best defined by Cardinal Newman in 1854—is a “broad exposure to the outlines of knowledge” for its own sake, rather than to acquire skills to practice a trade or do a job. There were critics even then, the 19th Century, who asked, Newman tells us, “To what then does it lead? Where does it end? How does it profit?" Or as the president of Yale, the late Bart Giamatti, asked in one of his beautiful lectures, “what is the earthly use of a liberal education?”

I could point out that a degree in art history or anthropology often requires the serious study of several languages and cultures, an ability to work in foreign countries, an eye for aesthetics, and a commitment to hard work—all of which might be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age. And I might point out to Governor Scott that it could be in the vital interests of his state in particular to have on hand some anthropologists to tell Floridians a few things about the other 99.5% of humanity.

But for me, the most important earthly use of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to write. In my first year in college I took an English composition course. My teacher, an elderly Englishman with a sharp wit and an even sharper red pencil, was tough. I realized that coming from India, I was pretty good at taking tests, at regurgitating stuff I had memorized, but not so good at expressing my own ideas. Over the course of that semester, I found myself beginning to make the connection between thought and word.

I know I’m supposed to say that a liberal education teaches you to think but thinking and writing are inextricably intertwined. The columnist Walter Lippmann, when asked his thoughts on a particular topic, is said to have replied, “I don’t know what I think on that one. I haven’t written about it yet.”  There is, in modern philosophy, a great debate as to which comes first—thought or language. I have nothing to say about it. All I know is that when I begin to write, I realize that my “thoughts” are usually a jumble of half-baked, incoherent impulses strung together with gaping logical holes between them. It is the act of writing that forces me to think through them and sort them out. Whether you are a novelist, a businessman, a marketing consultant, or a historian, writing forces you to make choices and brings clarity and order to your ideas.

If you think this has no earthly use, ask Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon. Bezos insists that his senior executives write memos—often as long as six printed pages—and begins senior management meetings with a period of quiet time—sometimes as long as 30 minutes—while everyone reads the memos and makes notes on them. Whatever you will do in life, the ability to write clearly, cleanly and—I would add—quickly will prove to be an invaluable skill. And it is, in many ways, the central teaching of a liberal education.

The second great advantage of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to speak and speak your mind. One of the other contrasts that struck me between school in India and college in America was that an important part of my grade was talking. My professors were going to judge me on the process of thinking through the subject matter and presenting my analysis and conclusions—out loud. The seminar, which is in many ways at the heart of a liberal education—and at the heart of this college—teaches you to read, analyze, dissect, and above all to express yourself. And this emphasis on being articulate is reinforced in the many extra-curricular activities that surround every liberal arts college—theater, debate, political unions, student government, protest groups. You have to get peoples’ attention and convince them of your cause.

Speaking clearly and concisely is a big advantage in life. You have surely noticed that whenever someone from Britain talks in a class, he gets five extra points just for the accent. In fact, British education—and British life—has long emphasized and taught public speaking through a grand tradition of poetry recitation and elocution, debate and declamation. It makes a difference—but the accent does help, too.

The final strength of a liberal education is that it teaches you how to learn. I now realize that the most valuable thing I picked up in college and graduate school was not a specific set of facts or a piece of knowledge but rather how to acquire knowledge. I learned how to read an essay closely, find new sources, search for data so as to prove or disprove a hypothesis, and figure out whether an author was trustworthy. I learned how to read a book fast and still get its essence. And most of all, I learned that learning was a pleasure, a great adventure of exploration.

Whatever job you take, I guarantee that the specific stuff you have learned at college—whatever it is—will prove mostly irrelevant or quickly irrelevant. Even if you learned to code but did it a few years ago, before the world of apps, you would have to learn anew. And given the pace of change that is transforming industries and professions these days, you will need that skill of learning and retooling all the time.

These are a liberal education’s strengths and they will help you as you move through your working life. Of course, if you want professional success, you will have to put in the hours, be disciplined, work well with others, and get lucky. But that would be true for anyone, even engineers.

I kid of course. Remember, I grew up in India. Some of my best friends are engineers. And honestly, I have enormous admiration for engineers and technologists and doctors and accountants. But what we must all recognize is that education is not a zero sum game. Technical skills don’t have to be praised at the expense of humanities. Computer science is not better than art history. Society needs both—often in combination. If you don’t believe me, believe Steve Jobs who said, “It is in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts—married to the humanities that yields us the result that makes our hearts sing.”

That marriage—between technology and the liberal arts—is now visible everywhere. Twenty years ago, tech companies might have been industrial product manufacturers. Today they have to be at the cutting edge of design, marketing, and social networking. Many other companies also focus much of their attention on these fields, since manufacturing is increasingly commoditized and the value-add is in the brand, how it is imagined, presented, sold, and sustained. And then there is America’s most influential industry, which exports its products around the world—entertainment, which is driven at its core by stories, pictures, and drawings. (Did I mention that Julianna Margulies was offered $27 million?)

You will notice that so far I have spoken about ways that a liberal education can get you a job or be valuable in your career. That’s important but it is not its only virtue. You need not just a good job but also a good life. Reading a great novel, exploring a country’s history, looking at great art and architecture, making the connection between math and music—all these are ways to enrich and ennoble your life. In the decades to come, when you become a partner and then a parent, make friends, read a book, listen to music, watch a movie, see a play, lead a conversation, those experiences will be shaped and deepened by your years here.

A liberal education makes you a good citizen. The word liberal comes from the Latin liber, which means “free.” At its essence, a liberal education is an education to free the mind from dogma, from controls, from constraints. It is an exercise in freedom. That is why America’s founding fathers believed so passionately in its importance. Benjamin Franklin—the most practical of all the founders, and a great entrepreneur and inventor in his own right—proposed a program of study for the University of Pennsylvania that is essentially a liberal arts education. Thomas Jefferson’s epitaph does not mention that he was president of the United States. It proudly notes that he founded the University of Virginia, another quintessential liberal arts college. 

But there is a calling even higher than citizenship; ultimately, a liberal education is about being human. More than two thousand years ago, the great Roman philosopher, lawyer, and politician Cicero explained why it was important that we study for its own sake—not to acquire a skill or trade, but as an end unto itself. We do it, he said, because that is what makes us human: It is in our nature that “we are all drawn to the pursuit of knowledge.” It is what separates us from animals. Ever since we rose out of the mud, we have been on a quest to unravel the mysteries of the universe and to search for truth and beauty.

So, as you go out into the world, don’t let anyone make you feel stupid or indulgent in having pursued your passion and studied the liberal arts. You are heirs to one of the greatest traditions in human history, one that has uncovered the clockwork of the stars, created works of unimaginable beauty, and organized societies of amazing productivity. In continuing this tradition you are strengthening the greatest experiment in social organization, democracy. And above all, you are feeding the most basic urge of the human spirit—to know.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Class of 2014, Godspeed.


Let’s think together again, soon.

Source: Fareed Zakaria, commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College, 2014, available online at:

Monday, March 13, 2017

Taking Inventory of Our Mental Assets and Liabilities©

Last night I came across a great thought by Napoleon Hill, one of the early apostles of success and positive mental attitude which provoked my thinking. He spoke of taking “inventory of mental assets and liabilities.”(1) This was a new idea to me; one which it struck me was a great one, a very useful one.These days it seems that we only inventory our mental assents but it is rare to consider our mental liabilities.The exception here may be the stark recognition of our nearly total lack of education, or lack in a specific field which interests us. Otherwise there also seems to be a tendency to assume that the right mental assets–good memory, quick mind, and the like will compensate for any liability we may have.

It is useful, however, even if it is hard on the ego, to be honest in evaluating you mental liabilities. To do so, one needs to think broadly about what constitutes a  “liability.” Mental liabilities can go far beyond a poor memory, a bad or mediocre education, or being a bit slow to pick up on complex ideas and principles.  

Mental liabilities may also include mental laziness, cynicism, doubt, mental procrastination, lack of interest in or concern for truth, avoiding problem solving, over reliance on feeling and emotion rather than rational thinking, limited vocabulary, limited ability to express one’s self in writing, dependence on the opinions and thinking of others, poor reading skills, bad attitudes about school and education generally, lack of curiosity, apathy and/or indifference, contentment with one’s opinions, prejudices, biases, and ignorance; lack of understanding of the dangers and limitations ignorance imposes on a person; pride, arrogance, hubris, conceit, being a know-it-all--all of which inhibit your teachability; unreasonable skepticism, hypersensitivity to the opinions of others about you, and a host of others.[Feel free to add to this list in the comment section.]

One must admit that the list in the preceding paragraph contains some fairly lethal liabilities, which if not corrected will at the very least keep us on a low plane intellectually, and at worst to lead to a disastrous waste of one’s life. Introspection about one’s mental liabilities is important because recognizing a weakness is the first step to correcting it; the first step to overcoming mental liabilities. It is a challenging thing to list in two columns one's mental strengths and weaknesses. To do the latter may require more thought than the former, inasmuch as most of us are perhaps more aware of our mental strengths, or what we think they are, than we may be about our mental weakness, which we may tend to ignore. It is quite a challenge. Are you up to it? I urge you to give it a try, it may be a game changer for you.

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Napoleon Hill, cited in Angela Ahrendt, “From the Heart,” commencement address at Ball State University, 8 May 2010, available online at:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Why I Believe: Evidence Fifty-two: Revelations Run Counter to Racial Prejudice and Bigotry in Jacksonian America©

101 Reasons Why I Believe Joseph Smith was a Prophet

Evidence Fifty-two: Revelations Run Counter 
to Racial Prejudice and Bigotry in Jacksonian America© 

A recent publication is the stimulus for this essay. In 2016 the Church published a book to supplement the Sunday School gospel doctrine lessons for 2017 on the Doctrine and Covenants. It is called Revelations in Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants,(1) and contains essays by many authors about various sections or groups of sections of this sacred book. Jed Woodworth is the author of the chapter titled “The Center Place,” and deals with sections 52, 57, and 58. The subject matter is the location of the city of New Jerusalem or Zion, but Woodworth’s careful reading highlight’s the use of a unique title given to a group of people in section 57 with significant and relevant doctrinal and practical implications for our day.
The idea of a New Jerusalem is familiar to many Christians from John’s book of Revelation. In chapter 3 verse 12 the apostle speaks of 
Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out: and I will write upon him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, which is new Jerusalem, which cometh down out of heaven from my God: and I will write upon him my new name.”
For Latter-day Saints the idea becomes even more important because of statements in both 3 Nephi and Ether in the Book of Mormon. Ether 13:2-6 was especially tantalizing to the Saints because it speaks of the New Jerusalem being built “upon this land,” referring to this “choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord.” It isn’t any wonder then that the early Saints should be curious about the location of this “New Jerusalem” in America, nor that an early revelation to Joseph Smith should speak of it. In August of 1830, about five months following the organization of the Church, Joseph received a revelation calling Oliver Cowdery to lead a mission to various tribes of Indians, the ultimate destination of which was the western border of Missouri. West of that border the lands were designated Indian territory.  
For many years white society occupied Indian lands as state after state was incorporated into the United States. In 1821 Missouri became a state. Six years later Jackson County was created on the western border and Independence was the county seat. Yielding to white pressure to remove the Indians from the states, the Jackson administration designated the lands west of Missouri as Indian territory or a reservation in modern terms and its official policy was separation of the races. Five Sac and Fox tribes that resided in Florida and other southern states, along with others were being relocated to the West. By 1831 the Osage Indians who had occupied western Missouri and other large sections had vacated the area. It was to these tribes in the west that Cowdery and his fellow missionaries were sent.

Interestingly, in the revelation calling Cowdery (D&C 28), verse nine reads:
And now, behold, I say unto you that it is not revealed, and no man knoweth where the city Zion shall be built, but it shall be given hereafter. Behold, I say unto you that it shall be on the borders by the Lamanites. (2)
An important part of Cowdery mission was “to rear up a pillar as a witness where the Temple of God shall be built, in the glorious New-Jerusalem.”(3) Cowdery wrote to Joseph, and Parley P. Pratt a member of the mission, returned to Kirtland; one or both may have confirmed Joseph’s belief that this region was the place for the New Jerusalem. Joseph Smith said that in June of 1831 he received “an heavenly vision, a commandment ... to take my journey to the western boundaries of the State of Missouri, and there designate the very spot, for the commencement of the gathering together of those who embrace the fulness of the everlasting gospel.”(4)  Soon after he arrived, Joseph received a revelation on 20 July 1831, in which the Lord revealed that the city of Independence, Jackson County, Missouri was to be  the location of the New Jerusalem or the City of Zion and a temple.(5) But the location of Zion was not the only interesting thing to be found in this revelation.

This and other revelations also answered the question as to who would be invited to live in the New Jerusalem. The Saints were instructed to purchase the land “lying westward, even unto the line running directly between Jew and Gentile.”(6) What is this language–the land between Jew and Gentile? Why not use the usual designations and speak of the land between the Indians or Lamanites and the Gentiles, or even the red men and white men? In reality all these terms are “racial” and cultural in nature, and draw distinctions between the groups, but the use of “Jew” instead of “Indian” or “red man” emphasized a different distinction and did not carry the negative connotations which “red man” or “Indian” did. In the scriptures, and the Book of Mormon in particular, the designation “Jew” has several meanings.(7) Initially it referred to those who were of the tribe of Judah. Eventually it was broadened to refer to those who were of the House of Israel, God’s ancient covenant people, and the Book of Mormon makes it clear that the Lamanites were the ancestors of at least some Indians in the Americas and they were of the House of Israel. This passage speaks of the Indians as “Jews.”  Woodworth points out that according to the Book of Mormon both Jew and Gentile had vital roles in God’s plan of salvation. The clear implication of this passage was that God was inviting them to work together. Other scriptures designated that the gospel was initially to go from the Jews to the Gentiles, but at a later period the process was to be reversed and the gospel was to come from the Gentile to the Jew.(8) In this sense, according to Woodworth, the revelation “echoes this covenantal structure” when it speaks of the Indians as Jews. (9)

Woodworth’s insight then, is that at the time the US government’s official policy was segregation of these races, Joseph Smith’s revelation were moving in exactly the opposite direction. The Indians were to be included in the New Jerusalem rather than to be marginalized and pushed to the outskirts of civilization. God’s holy city of Zion was to be in the very midst of or between the Jew and Gentile. Since Zion is the “pure in heart,” the clear implication is that the Jew/Indian/Lamanite could with “all people” become pure in heart and dwell in Zion.In a day when race issues in and immigration to the United States are the hottest of political topics, this insight gives every Latter-day Saint reason to pause for contemplation and inquiry for inspiration and understanding.  

Woodword also points out that section 58 adds breadth to this vision. It was revealed to Joseph Smith while he was still in Missouri in the summer of 1831. It speaks of the honor which was given to these brethren to lay the foundations of Zion and of  “bearing record of the land upon which the Zion of God shall stand.” Then it refers to the great feast or banquet so frequently spoken of in scriptures “unto which all nations shall be invited.”(10) He also notes that the word “nations,” would resonate with both the whites and the Indians as the word used to describe the largest unit of their political organization.

Well, thank you Jed Woodwroth for these thought provoking insights. Joseph Smith has frequently been accused of grabbing on to all the popular notions of his day and including them in his scriptural writings and theology. In our day many of these issues have been examined and most of them turn out to be just the opposite of what the critics claim. That certainly appears to be the case here.  Joseph Smith is not influenced by the popular prejudice which prompted a national policy of segregation of the Indians. He saw that as children of God they inherited the same potential and could have the same destiny as any other of God’s sons and daughters. The gospel is inclusive; its blessings are for all nations, all kindreds, all tongues, and all people. For me this is one more evidence of the divine inspiration given to Joseph Smith as God’s prophet.

Thank God for Joseph Smith!

Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Matthew McBride and James Goldberg, eds., Revelations in Context: The Stories Behind the Sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2016.  Woodworth’s chapter is found on pages 122-29.

2.  Emphasis added. The original version in the Book of Commandments said “among the Lamanites,” but was later revised to read “on the borders by the Lamanites.”

3. The covenant between Cowdery and those going with him on this mission was published in the The Ohio Star, Ravenna, Ohio, 8 December 1831.  An original has not been found, but there is little reason to believe this is not genuine.  A facsimile reproduction and transcription is available online at:

4.  Joseph Smith to the elders of the Church of Latter Day Saints, Messenger and Advocate, (September 1835), 1:179.

5.  D&C 57: 2-3.

6.  D&C 57:5.

7.  See Woodworth, “The Center Place,” p. 128, n. 24.

8.  Woodworth, “The Center Place,” p. 128.

9.  Woodworth, “The Center Place,” p. 126.

10.  D&C 58:6-9, emphasis added.