Thursday, January 24, 2013

Brooks and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Conservatism”

David Brooks, New York Times columnist, public intellectual, moral scold, and man about town, is teaching a course at Yale on Humility. His syllabus is here. Do I hear titters there in the back?

Oh, ye of little faith. Why are you so afraid? Should David Brooks rebuke the winds and the sea and bring about a great calm?

Do you believe that David Brooks has not the depth of wisdom to only assign readings that agree with his preconceptions, the humility to assign his own work, the breadth of scholarship necessary to skim the titles of several books mostly about famous, dead, white men? Why should we not think that Brooks is capable of all these great virtues, yea, the greatest of great virtues, for has not the Brooks so spaken . . . er. . . spoken?

According to this interview, which may also be a subtle parody, this syllabus actually is for David Brooks’s course at Yale. Here, then, is the humiliated, or humbletastic, Mr. Brooks’s syllabus to the privileged, the special few, of Yale to teach unto them their virtues.

"All of us have been raised in a culture that encourages us to think well of ourselves and to follow your passion and all that kind of stuff," he continued. "I don't see why it is ridiculous to spend a few months reading people who tell us not to be all that self-impressed, to suspect you aren't as smart, virtuous and aware as you think. Surely this is a potentially useful antidote for me or anybody else."

Indeed, Mr. Brooks sees not the humor of poking fun at his course since, verily, is not humility a virtue? Is not goodness good? Wherefore, then, the wisecrackery?

I shall, as fellow alum of the greatest, least humble, of the non-coastal US universities, explain for Mr. Brooks the joke. I provide the complete syllabus not to steal his ideas but to emphasize (I hope) that I am not treating him unfairly.

His Title:

The Humility Course

Perhaps the above-linked interview was fraudulent. (Perhaps the interview was conducted by email. How do we even know that this “David Brooks” character exists? Could he have been created by malicious Samoans?) “The” Humility Course? Isn’t it obvious that its designation as the unique humility course is decidedly not humble? Perhaps Brooks wishes to teach the concept of humility by means of contrasts? But still, one need not be humble to teach humility. (Nor need one be a member of the upper class to have something to teach the elect, of course, but Brooks’s preferences notwithstanding, we shall not let that detain us here.) And so we must go on to the substance of the course.

The instructor:

David Brooks

Office: Rosenkranz 343

Our second piece of evidence that this is subtle parody: Is this a real building? Has Brooks been sent to Yale to die, clueless, his life and death only an afterthought in the grand play of the cosmos? Is Brooks’s life (to borrow from a different drama) “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”? Is this office Brooks’s recognition of the futility of his existence, finally a sign of humility? Also, why didn’t Guildenstern get a building?
Here is the description and some readings.

Course Description:
Everyone says character is important to leadership but few people know how to build it. This course will survey one character-building tradition, one that emphasizes modesty and humility. The strategies covered here start from a similar premise—that human beings are blessed with many talents but are also burdened by sinfulness, ignorance and weakness. Character emerges from the internal struggles against one’s own limitations.

We will start in the current moment. How do we conceive of character building today? We will then trace this humility tradition in its different forms over the centuries—from Moses to Augustine, to Montaigne, Burke, Niebuhr and so on. We will make special effort throughout to connect the themes of each session to practical politics and leadership.

Course Texts:
General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman” by Ed Cray; Publisher: Cooper Square Press (June 6, 2000)

“Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do And Who We Should Be” by Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass; Publisher: Eerdmans Pub Co (May 15, 2006)

Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan; Publisher: Free Press (October 1, 1998)

“Augustine of Hippo” by Peter Brown; Publisher: University of California Press; Revised Edition (August 7, 2000)

“How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer” by Sarah Bakewell; Publisher: Other Press (October 19, 2010)

Lordy, lordy, we cannot read the great men’s works themselves but must rely on biographers to explain their thought to us? Are Augustine’s Confessions too overwrought? Montaigne’s essays too long for our precious Elis? Can anyone, really, other than a Neocon, interpret Pericles? Were his famous orations too oratorical for Brooks’s humble mind? Or are the words of the greats so humble that they would inflame the Yalies’ brains like sunlight inflames a vampire? Can the intellectual leaders of tomorrow not comprehend ideas without a guide ready to hand to provide interpretation, like a Faith Partner’s Bible, leading them to a preordained (forgive the pun) conclusion? Or might that guide be intended as maybe, just a little, a touch, a skosh, to support Brooks’s worldview?

Continuing on, we have more readings:

Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke; Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA; Reissue edition (June 15, 2009)

“The Long Loneliness: The Autobiography of the Legendary Catholic Social Activist” Dorothy Day; Publisher: HarperOne (December 6, 1996)

The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr; Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (May 1, 2008)

Now, it seems we have works worthy of direct inspection from thinkers as diverse as the Anglican founder of modern conservatism Edmund Burke, to a Catholic pacifist (at least she wouldn’t endorse invading Iraq!) and social activist Dorothy Day, to the protestant minister and public ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr. In other words, our thoughts directly on the topic of humility (rather than interpreted by another author) run the gamut of religious conservatism to religious activism to religious political realism. Is virtue the sole province of the religious? Who could doubt it? Not Mr. Brooks.

Some more readings and assignments:

“Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman; Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 2011, Reprint edition (April 2, 2013)

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin; Publisher: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher (1993)

Assignment 1: Mid-Term paper of 2,500 words. Students will be asked to grapple with the indictment of their generation made by Christian Smith, Alasdair Macintyre and Jean Twenge. Due Date: February 26. Deliver Hard Copy at end of class. 40% of the final grade.

Course Readings and Schedule

Week 1: The Reticence Code (January 15)
How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country? We will survey episodes from the lives of George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and various “Wise Men.” We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities.

Indeed, what can be learned of humility except in the study of the most privileged in our society? Does he think the only way to appeal to anyone is by holding up a mirror? Or is it only Mr. Brooks who thinks solely of himself?

Week 2: The Cultural Shift (January 22)
Why did America reject the values of the Protestant Establishment? What replaced it? We will explore the cultural shift that took place between 1950s and today against the character code of the old elite, including the thinking of Carl Rodgers and a more meritocratic system.

Are our assumptions showing here, like a staid undergarment, revealed through embarrassingly sheer outerwear? Has ‘humility’ now been revealed as the thin pretext for a course extolling conservative religious values? Indeed, has America rejected the “values of the Protestant Establishment”? Did some other set of values replace them? I will leave aside any comment on the grammar of the final sentence above, except to wonder if we are supposed to oppose meritocracies. (One can imagine why Mr. Brooks might oppose such an idea. . .)

Brooks’s preconceptions are on display in these questions: Our society should have the conservative, Protestant (mostly), cultural, religious, and moral values.
Reading: The Organization Kid, The Atlantic Monthly by David Brooks

What, was there no biography of David Brooks available?

Week 3: The Effects (January 29)
What have been the effects of this cultural shift? Has there been a rise in narcissism? Is the culture less effective at transmitting a character code? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this culture?

Reading: Passages From Leading Lives that Matter. Edited By Mark Schwen and Dorothy Bass

Has Mr. Brooks not written enough about the narcissism of American culture? Must he speak on and on about the narcissism of contemporary America? Note the subtlety: Is the culture less effective in transmitting this ‘character code’? (Whatever a character code is. Anyway, hmm, I’m guessing his answer is ‘yes’, call me crazy or prescient or sentient.) And then: “strengths and weaknesses”? Careful, Brooksie, old bean, don’t give away the game. Good job.

The syllabus continues:

Week 4: Pericles (February 5)
We begin our historical survey with Athens. What was the Homeric Honor Code? How did Greeks conceive of hubris? We conclude with an examination of Pericles, the man who sought eternal fame through service to the nation.

Reading: Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy by Donald Kagan

Week 5: Moses (February 12)
Moses was the opposite of a Greek hero. He was described as the most humble man on earth. How does the bible portray heroism? We look at the Jewish formula of character building through obedience to law. We look at the way the rabbinic tradition has interpreted the struggle between internal goodness and the evil urge.

Reading: The Book of Exodus.

Week 6: Augustine (February 19)
We look at how Augustine conceived of pride and sin. We look at the way he built a moral code around the virtue of humility

Reading: Augustine of Hippo by Peter Brown Chapters 1-12, 15-20, 22, 26-31

Week 7: Montaigne (February 26)
From moral and religious humility, we begin our shift to epistemological humility. How did Montaigne believe we can best understand ourselves? How did his way of observing the world differ from grander and more systematic methods?

Reading: How to Live by Sarah Bakewell Pages 1-221

Week 8: Burke (March 5)
Edmund Burke argued that the power of reason is weak and that people are wiser to rely upon just prejudices and tradition. Given his tendency to distrust reason and rapid change, how did Burke believe politics and reform should be pursued?

Reading: Reflections on the Revolution in France by Edmund Burke Parts 1-8

Week 9: Florence Perkins and Dorothy Day (March 26)
Perkins grew up in Maine and was inculcated with a sense of mission at Mount Holyoke. After witnessing the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire she devoted herself to worker safety and public service. Day was a young suffragette who founded the Catholic Worker and many other institutions of social action. How did Perkins and Day turn Christian humility into political service?

Reading: The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day

Week 10: Martin Luther King and Reinhold Niebuhr (April 2)
Niebuhr devised an Augustinian vision for modern times, holding that by his sinfulness man is a problem to himself. He argued for political action, while understanding that power is inherently corrupting. How did Niebuhr believe power should be used? Why did he oppose idealism? How was MLK and the civil rights movement influenced by Niebuhran thought?

Reading: The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niehbuhr

Brooks’s continuing preoccupation with religious conceptions of humility, service, and sin become disturbing.

Week 11: Seemliness (April 9)
Modern societies have become economically and socially more unequal. We will explore status competition and the desire for social distinction—executives who feel unabashed when asking for lavish salaries. We will ask whether it is proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car. We will look at codes of social modesty and ask whether modest people make better business leaders

Readings: Online essay: Level 5 Leadership by James Collins. Harvard Business Review
Passages from Leading Lives That Matter

Here is the butt of so many internet jokes. No Yale stickers in my window? How will anyone know to crap on my car? Can I put a Harvard sticker on there, provided the car’s primary color is Bondo? Is a University of Chicago t-shirt ok, or must I wear a hairshirt instead? If Brooks does not intend this trivializing of a serious concept as humorous, then I must needs do more to explain the nature of humor to Brooks before he will understand the internet titters (titwitters? twittitters?).

Week 12: Cognitive Modesty (April 16)
Over the past thirty years we have learned a great deal about the operations of the brain. One core finding is that much of our thinking happens below awareness at a cognitive level that is fast, associative, sloppy and sometimes misleading. How should we make decisions and calculate risks if we can’t even be sure of our own thinking.

Reading: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (Relevant sections to come)

No one had previously noted the inaccuracy of human thought processes. Perhaps Brooks is more an example of “fast, associative, sloppy and sometimes misleading” thought than he is an elucidator of those concepts. Perhaps as an undergraduate in a great books program he thought too quickly, associatively, sloppily, and misleadingly to recognize the contribution of philosophers (aside from just Montaigne) to the debate over the limits of human reason.

Seriously, though, there is nothing wrong with keeping up with recent research on cognitive psychology and the limitations of our knowledge. What I dread is the superficiality of Brooks’s understanding of it given his need to teach from a popular, non-academic book. If you would know about the limits of human reason, you would not rely on the Sparknotes version of Descartes’ Meditations.

Week 13: Fate (April 23)
In the 1940s researchers began a longitudinal study tracing the life courses of Harvard Men. These men had every advantage, but a third of them had their lives ravaged by alcoholism and other setbacks. However well one is trained for life, one cannot control life. We’ll look at the Grant study and other studies of how lives develop.

Reading: What Makes Us Happy by Joshua Wolf Shenk. The Atlantic

The Hedgehog and the Fox by Isaiah Berlin

Dare I say it? Perhaps all the advantages the elite power structure in America could give these Harvard Men was somehow inadequate to full moral, intellectual, and social fulfillment. Brooks allows that one cannot control one's life. If I am struck by frozen effluvia falling from a passing jet, that is beyond my control. If fully a third of these men have their lives ravaged, this might be more than cause for recitation of the Serenity prayer but instead a reason to consider that something is wrong with the social circumstances that led to this outcome. We might consider that something in their upbringing and culture was responsible for this fact. Perhaps I am unfair to Brooks—perhaps he does take this data as critique of the elitist social structure that led to these ravages—but blaming fate tells us nothing. (Unless, perhaps, the problem is not enough God and humility.)

Final comments:
I tried to give Brooks the benefit of the doubt and consider that his course might have some salutary effect on the presumably (?) pampered elites of Yale, but every sentence exudes self-satisfaction and smugness as Brooks leads ever onward from superficiality to superficiality to reach a predetermined outcome. Every reading and summary suggests that religious conceptions of the self, knowledge, and the universe should lead to a conservative view of human nature and our role in society, and that humility, apparently conceived as abasement before the dark god of Christianity (who punishes us with alcoholism if we fail to be properly Christian), is the best way to lead us to lives of service to others. (Caution: Service may include bombings and invasions of other countries based on scanty-to-non-existent evidence. But live-and-learn, fate is cruel, and humans are fallible, associative thinkers, and whatnot; no harm no foul; no need to bicker and argue about who killed who.)

Let me, as a teacher, explain the joke to Mr. Brooks. It is not the superficial design flaws (e.g. a course in humility taught using your own works) in your course that give rise to such humor. It is the fundamental design flaw in your course. The goal of a course is not to proceed linearly from assumption to preordained destination, but to explore a set of ideas and reasons with a view to encouraging the students to reach their own conclusions, even if those conclusions are diametrically opposed to your own, based on the best reasoning (e.g. the best first-hand sources of arguments and ideas) available. A college course is a rambling trek through a rugged, uncharted country, a struggle up hills and through hazardous terrain, with the constant danger of pitfalls and bogs, and “Here there be dragons”. Mr. Brooks seems to believe a college course is a breezy stroll along the surface of his mind, a paved sidewalk past a manicured lawn, eventually reaching a preordained destination, a foregone conclusion if you will. Education is not a popular book made up of a few superficial observations assembled into a rickety edifice that sways in the slightest breeze of criticism or doubt. The point of teaching, for the teacher as much or more than for the students, is to question one’s deepest convictions, to make the strongest case one can against one’s own predispositions, and challenge oneself to meet those arguments, or failing that, to admit one’s failure and consider alternatives. True care for education, requires that “Challenge thyself” be as fundamental a precept as “Know thyself”. Sadly, Mr. Brooks appears to do neither.

1 comment:

  1. I maintain that "Reading: “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman (Relevant sections to come)" means "I haven't actually read this yet, but someone told me it would be relevant."