Brooks On Being Edumacated

by F.

David Brooks wrote an Op-Ed in which he gave tips to new graduates about how to end up with a decent education wherever they might land—wether Harvard or Bellevue Community College or Wichita State. This was originally published back in March in The New York Times. It’s an interesting take.

Read Reinhold Niebuhr. Religion is a crucial driving force of this century, and Niebuhr is the wisest guide. As Alan Wolfe of Boston College notes, if everyone read Niebuhr, “The devout would learn that public piety corrupts private faith and that faith must play a prophetic role in society. The atheists would learn that some people who believe in God are really, really smart. All of them would learn that good and evil really do exist ā€” and that it is never as easy as it seems to know which is which. And none of them, so long as they absorbed what they were reading, could believe that the best way to divide opinion is between liberals on the one hand and conservatives on the other.”

Ok, this piece doesn’t start off too well…. Next!

Read Plato’s “Gorgias.” As Robert George of Princeton observes, “The explicit point of the dialogue is to demonstrate the superiority of philosophy (the quest for wisdom and truth) to rhetoric (the art of persuasion in the cause of victory). At a deeper level, it teaches that the worldly honors that one may win by being a good speaker … can all too easily erode one’s devotion to truth ā€” a devotion that is critical to our integrity as persons. So rhetorical skills are dangerous, potentially soul-imperiling, gifts.” Explains everything you need to know about politics and punditry.

The Gorgias is cool, but I would draw the opposite conclusion: rhetoric is the key skill. Rhetoric runs the world. Truth is either irrelevant or unattainable, or both.

Take a course on ancient Greece. For 2,500 years, educators knew that the core of their mission was to bring students into contact with heroes like Pericles, Socrates and Leonidas. “No habit is so important to acquire,” Aristotle wrote, as the ability “to delight in fine characters and noble actions.” Alfred North Whitehead agreed, saying, “Moral education is impossible without the habitual vision of greatness.”

Maybe. But since no one reads this stuff, there is unlikely to be any consensus that we should look to classical Greece as a paragon. So this is irrelevant. I like it, personally, but I’m in a very small minority. I’ve spent a lot of time reading Plato, Aristotle, Sophocles and the rest of those dudes and I’m not sure it’s that beneficial, actually. 2,500 years was a long, long, long time ago and there’s been a lot of books published in the interim that may be more relevant.

Learn a foreign language. The biographer Ron Chernow observes, “My impression is that many students have turned into cunning little careerists, jockeying for advancement.” To counteract this, he suggests taking “wildly impractical” courses like art history and Elizabethan drama. “They should especially try to master a foreign language as a way to annex another culture and discover unseen sides to themselves. As we have evolved into a matchless global power, we have simply become provincial on an ever larger stage.”

This is right about learning the language. Not sure about the rest. My bullshit meter is vibrating.

Spend a year abroad. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland believes that all major universities should require a year abroad: “All evidence suggests this, more than any other, is a transforming experience for students that lasts a lifetime.”

This is right.

Take a course in neuroscience. In the next 50 years, half the explanations you hear for human behavior are going to involve brain structure and function. You’ve got to know which are serious and which are cockamamie.

This is absolutely right. But it is entirely incompatible with his first suggestion—all that hooey about “evil” and religion and stuff.

Take statistics. Sorry, but you’ll find later in life that it’s handy to know what a standard deviation is.

This is absolutely right. It’s not logic that leads to truth; logic and argument are more like rhetoric than science. But statistics (and probability) is the foundation of empiricism.

Forget about your career for once in your life. This was the core message from everyone I contacted. Raised to be workaholics, students today have developed a “carapace, an enveloping shell that hinders them from seeing the full, rich variety of intellectual and practical opportunities offered by the world,” observes Charles Hill of Yale. You’ve got to burst out of that narrow careerist mentality. Of course, it will be hard when you’re surrounded by so many narrow careerist professors building their little subdisciplinary empires.

I’m not sure about this one.