Thursday, January 17, 2013

David Brooks's Course on "Humility"

Yes, you read that correctly.  David Brooks, The New York Times columnist, is teaching a course on the subject of "humility" at Yale University.  He is aware that there might be some snickers:

But yes, he knows how it sounds. "The title of the Humility course is, obviously, intentionally designed to provoke smart ass jibes, but there's actually a serious point behind it," Brooks explained via e-mail last night. "People from Burke to Niebuhr, Augustine to Dorothy Day, Montaigne to MLK and Samuel Johnson to Daniel Kahneman have built philosophies around our cognitive, moral and personal limitations. The course is designed to look at these strategies as a guide for life and politics and everything else."

One of those people snickering is Scott Ross, the author of Backslash Scott Thoughts.  He attended the first lecture.  Here is his take:

When it was first announced that NYT columnist David Brooks would be teaching a class at Yale on humility, a lot of people were quick to point out how ironic it was. When the syllabus was first posted this week, Twitter just about exploded as people pulled quotes like “We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities” from the syllabus (keep in mind, it’s a course on humility, at Yale, taught by David Brooks). The syllabus includes readings by or about famous-but-humble minds like Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Moses, Augustine, and none other than David Brooks.

So I decided to go to the first class yesterday with no intention of actually staying. While it wasn’t that excitingly terrible or good, I did end up making a few observations, and of course there were a few points of “you can’t make this stuff up.” Like when we were trying to cram into the room and he needed to get passed dozens of students to get to his seat, and he raised his hands and (I kid you not) said “I feel like Bono!” Or when he was explaining office hours (which are Monday nights at either a cafe or a bar) and said that meeting with students individually was exciting “certainly for them but also for me.” 

Ross storified some more of his snarky observations here.

Frankly, for all the sarcasm and irony, this looks like a great course.  Is it heavy on dead white men?  Yes.  But I would love to take a course in which I interpret primary documents on vocation chosen by Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass and read Peter Brown on Augustine, Edmund Burke on revolution, Dorothy Day on social justice, and Niebuhr on American history.

Here are some of the big questions Brooks will be asking:

How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country?

Why did America reject the values of the Protestant Establishment? What replaced it?

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?

What was the Homeric Honor Code? How did Greeks conceive of hubris?

How does the bible portray heroism?

How did Augustine conceive of pride and sin?  How did he build a moral code around the virtue of 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?

Given his tendency to distrust reason and rapid change, how did Burke believe politics and reform should be pursued?

How did Francis Perkins and Day turn Christian humility into political service?

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?

Is it proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car?

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