Thursday, March 02, 2006

David Brooks (for all you Harvard "kids")

Harvard-Bound? Chin Up


I've got great news! You're young and you're smart and next year you're beginning college. Unfortunately, I've also got bad news. The only school you got into is Harvard, where, as Peter Beinart of The New Republic notes, students often graduate "without the kind of core knowledge that you'd expect from a good high school student," and required courses can be "a hodgepodge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all."

But don't despair. I've consulted with a bevy of sages, and I've come up with a list. If you do everything on this list, you'll get a great education, no matter what college you attend:

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 — 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."

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 — 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.

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."

That core educational principle was abandoned about a generation ago, during a spasm of radical egalitarianism. And once that principle was lost, the entire coherence of higher education was lost with it. So now you've got to find your own ways to learn about history's heroes, the figures who will serve as models to emulate and who will provide you with standards to use to measure your own conduct. Remember, as the British educator Richard Livingstone once wrote, "One is apt to think of moral failure as due to weakness of character: more often it is due to an inadequate ideal."

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."

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."

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.

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

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.

But you can do it. I have faith.


eve said...

This is a great post, with a sound list of "to do's".
I'm going to get right on it.
(In my other life, where I do all the stuff that makes me a better and smarter person)
Also interesting was the Nicholas Leman article in the Mar. 6 TIME: "The success of big universities and their malaise are connected" "...the credential value of the degree is so high that there's no penalty to Harvard for placing the needs of faculty over the best interests of its students. McKinsey and Goldman Sachs will come calling with $90K-a-year job offers regardless of what's in the curriculum."

Tim Galebach said...

Oh goody! Thank you David Brooks! Yet another person telling me why I need a "great books" education, and why I actually haven't gotten anything out of my Harvard education. To me, people who tell Harvard kids what they should do with their education belong to the same class of humanity that submits fan scripts to directors.

Possibly the only thing lamer than a "great books" moron is the humanities guy who thinks neuroscience is so cool.

I do strongly agree with him about learning a foreign language, but that's just part of what I see the point of education as, namely learning how to learn.

Jordan Hylden said...


Actually, I'm probably best described as a "great books" guy when it comes to curricular reform. The position doesn't entail a limitation-- e.g., you can ONLY read the "Great Books"-- but rather, that if you want to really understand Rorty, Nabokov, and Andy Warhol, you'd better know your Plato, Shakespeare, and Michelangelo first.

C.S. Lewis, for one, said that you should read one old book for every two new ones.

There's a theological reason for it, too. If we believe that we're created in the image of God, and that God even now redeeming his world, then we should believe that this world is (although fallen) still a reflection of God's glory. One way in which that happens is through art and literature, which can reflect God's glory either to a greater or a lesser extent (e.g., Dante and Bernini more than Warhol and 50-Cent). So, by reading the so-called "Great Books," we're actually looking for signs of God.

Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, and Gerard Manley Hopkins are good examples of people who held this view.

Anyhow... I'm willing to discuss this more if you want, Tim.

Tim Galebach said...

Too much to respond to Jordan! I'll probably see you around at Harvard one of these days.

2 quick points:

1. I agree that the past is necessary to understand the present/later past. You also need to read a book to have an opinion on it. Or do you?

2. Dante/Bernini = more glory to God because they treat religious subjects = seriously out-of-whack theology of glory. Not to mention the severe historical problems presented by the fact that Christianity was the dominant religion/social force in Europe at the time.

Jordan Hylden said...

Well, I'm not particular about Dante and Bernini, Tim. Dante for one seemed to enjoy a bit too much for my tastes writing his enemies into the furthest reaches of Hell.

But the larger point, I think, stands. I do contend that we are, as members of the body of Christ, capable of reflecting God's glory, to a greater or lesser extent. This isn't OUR doing, of course-- it's the Spirit who sanctifies, who is the power of God to all who believe.

And that's the point. God is redeeming the world, and the Spirit is sanctifying. That means that we can, even now, look for "signs" of God in the wreckage of the Fall. Chesterton said that this fallen world is something like a shipwreck, in which there are still treasures washing up to sea.

Meaning, consequently, that we should be looking out for them! Culture is a reflection of "cult"-- of belief-- and you can tell a tree by its fruits. I think it is no coincidence that we find beauty in the order of a Bach concerto, and ugliness in the disorder of, say, one of those weird Swedish metal paganist rock bands. Or moral frivolity in the latest Britney Spears ditty (which can either be harmless bubble-gum, or nihilism, depending on how you take it).

Culture matters, as it were. And literature, art, music, and etc. are reflections of culture. There is much wisdom that we can gain, I think, from studying the finest that cultures have to offer (not just our own; I'm making no West-only argument here). "Great Books," if we really do believe that God is redeeming the world and that the Spirit even now sancifies, are something which we should take seriously.

And now, back to my thesis. :)

Tim Galebach said...

So...God is redeeming the world, and we can tell the places in which he's at work show their fruits by matching the tastes of conservative 50 year olds.

I have something of a problem with saying that God is most at work in the places that many men agree are great.

Jordan, I don't think that your argument is western-centric or anything. The problem is that it seems that you're very very close to conflating a particular taste or mindset (slight cultural conservatism) with the work of God.

Jordan Hylden said...


Well, I would say that it isn't all that helpful to think of this idea in terms of "conservatism" or "liberalism." If it's a good idea, it's right; otherwise it's wrong. I don't really think about this in any sort of political way; I picked it up more from reading people like C.S. Lewis, Walker Percy, and etc.

But anyway. That's not too much of an issue here, I think. I also don't mean to say that "God's glory" happens to be shown best by whatever the Columbia core curriculum is. It's not something that I see as limited to literature, or art, or anything like that.

Instead, it INCLUDES these fields--God's glory is reflected in His Creation, plain and simple. And there are things in it that reflect God's beauty, goodness, wisdom, justice, and love. Other things exist as inversions and negations, reflecting instead spiritual decay and emptiness.

I'm just saying, if you can see that in the world at large-- and I think you'd agree to that-- then you can also see it in literature, art, and (more broadly) culture. There is a way in which, for example, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings reflects God's glory more than (for example) a five-dollar paperback Danielle Steele novel.

Now, I'm all for examining pop culture, in order to understand it. It reflects the people who made it-- us!-- and so it lets us know what's going on the culture. For instance, I love the movie Donnie Darko-- not because I think it reflects God's glory, but because I think it painfully and beautifully portrays our brokennness without God. This is something we should do.

But we shouldn't do it to the neglect of that which more clearly reflects God's glory; that which is more rightly ordered to God's will. By coming to an understanding of this sort of culture, we're (I contend) in effect learning what it looks like for God to redeem the world. Just the beginnings of it! We have a long way to go. I think, however, we can catch glimpses here and there along the way.

C.S. Lewis said he wrote books in order to reflect this-- literature, he said, served to make our lives more beautiful, to show us what was true and noble. That's a very old-fashioned view; it was changed drastically by T.S. Eliot and those who followed him, to the point where today, we have things like the Tate Modern and MOMA. They're depressing, awfully so-- they reflect the terrible, fallen state of modern man. Whatever else they are, at least they're honest.

I don't think we should "condemn" or stop making modern art. But at the end of the day, I prefer the National Gallery and the Met. I think we need both-- on the one hand, an art that reveals us in our brokenness; and on the other, an art that points us heavenward (like Chartres) towards God.

Whew. Really, Tim, I don't know anything about art. I'm just blowing smoke out of my ass, honestly. This is all a way for me to procrastinate from finishing my thesis. :)