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College and the Intellectual Journey

What I learned about a liberal arts education from The Second Mountain by David Brooks.

April 30, 2019

Who knew that David Brooks began his intellectual career as a Democratic Socialist? His particular opiate was copies of The New Masses, which he found buried in the library stacks at (you guessed it!) the University of Chicago. He was sufficiently confident in his theories about the world that he agreed to debate Milton Friedman about economics and politics on television.

Here’s his description of how that went: “I would make a point that I regurgitated from some left-wing book, then Friedman would destroy my point and the camera would linger on my face for what felt like several hours as I tried to think of something to say.”

Brooks tells the full story of his journey in a chapter called “Intellectual Commitments”, about midway through his new book, The Second Mountain.

I loved reading it because I think the twists and turns of all intellectual travels tell us something about what education ought to do. I loved the section on Howard University in Ta Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me for the exact same reason.

For me, the most fascinating part of Brooks’ journey is where he wrote about being assigned Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke is a conservative traditionalist, and deeply skeptical of both revolutions and revolutionaries.

Brooks the Marxist revolutionary hated him. “I wrote paper after paper pouring scorn on it … Burke argued against everything I believed in, or thought I believed in.”

When he graduated, Brooks took a job as a reporter on the south and west side of Chicago and came face to face with the dangerous and deplorable conditions of housing projects (which have since been torn down). It occurred to Brooks that these developments were built by a certain breed of social scientist / government bureaucrat who had a sort of revolutionary fervor accompanied by good intentions. They paid little to no attention to the existing patterns of life within the communities they sought to help. Crucially, as Brooks put it, “They lacked epistemological modesty.”

It didn’t take long for Brooks to remember that this was a central lesson in that Edmund Burke book he loved to hate as an undergraduate. Having been mugged by reality (to quote Irving Kristol’s famous phrase on how liberals become conservatives), and acquiring the epistemological modesty that often accompanies this confrontation, Brooks was starting to rethink his intellectual commitments. He returned to the Burke book, this time voluntarily.

Thank God his undergraduate education did not only feed him material that he, in late adolescence, liked and thought he wanted, but rather forced him to read texts and reckon with ideas that he disliked and found challenging.

It seems to me that this is what students pay for when they come to college, and it is what the liberal arts tradition requires of us – the presentation of big ideas from across the spectrum that have stood the test of time and can contribute to rigorous debate.

I’m concerned about the “everything is politics” culture within higher ed because if college becomes a place where students mostly memorize and regurgitate ideological slogans, from either left or right, it is doing the opposite of providing an education.

The measure of a college education is not whether students like what they hear at the end of a particular lecture, it’s whether they return to the ideas, texts and insights they were presented over the course of their lives and find fresh meaning that can be applied in creative ways to diverse and challenging situations.

Here’s how Brooks puts it: “I felt more formed by my college education twenty-five years out than I did on the day I graduated … (the University of Chicago) offered us the true wine, and made it harder later in life to be satisfied with the cheap stuff.”

He says elsewhere: “I think back to my college years and am so grateful for a university … that gave me the open stacks where I could find The New Masses, and had the gall to force me to read a book that at the time I truly hated. A school can transform a life.” 

It’s interesting to ask the David Brooks question of the courses we teach and the colleges we lead today. Do they allow students to follow their intellectual / ideological passions while also requiring them to engage with material they might hate at twenty but perhaps will serve them well at forty?

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Eboo Patel

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