The idea of David Brooks teaching a class on the subject of humility at Yale strikes a lot of people as inherently funny, and making allowances for mean-spiritedness (and I dare say jealousy), the mockers do have a point. Humility, as a virtue, bears the same relation to op-ed columnizing as meekness does to soldiering or hope to the actuarial sciences. David Brooks is not a Cincinnatus or a Celestine V. There are no fingernail marks anywhere marking the site where Bill Keller dragged David Brooks out of seclusion and forced him to start pontificating in public. Pretending to authority you do not possess is right there in an op-ed columnist’s job description, and humility is at best a necessary casualty.
Then again, in deciding on a topic for his seminar, Brooks seems to have asked himself not “On what topic can I be most interesting and impressive” but “What do these particular kids most need to hear?” And that has a ring of humility to it.
His syllabus for the course has now been released, and it is not a promising one. The texts he assigns aren’t bad, they’re just unlikely to produce the effect he intends in the particular minds he will be dealing with. The average Yale student, confronted with these readings, will not become any more convinced that humility is a virtue he lacks—quite the opposite, he will become more convinced that humility is something he already possesses. Brooks plans to devote a week to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, and he summarizes that week’s agenda like this:
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.
That makes it sound as if the unreliability of the human mind was discovered thirty years ago in a lab, when in fact it has been old news for a long time, even the specific kinds of unreliability Kahneman discusses like the brain’s susceptibility to tricks of framing, flattery, and suggestion. By teaching this lesson the way he does, Brooks is encouraging his students to think that the great minds of the past did not realize just how faulty the human mind is because they did not know modern science. That in turn will make them think that, because they do know modern science, they are more sophisticated thinkers than anyone who lived before the invention of MRI scanners and double-blind psych experiments. Surely Brooks could have found a way to teach cognitive humility without also teaching chronological arrogance.
It is hard to go wrong with Edmund Burke, to whom Brooks devotes Week 8, but a dose of the Reflections won’t do much good if your students fail to see anything of themselves in the French revolutionaries. The average Yale student’s mindset is fundamentally technocratic, which in practice means that they graft the language of “reform not revolution” onto the same old liberal agenda. If Brooks tells his students that the lesson of Burke is that we shouldn’t go too far too fast, or that we should go with what works and not with what abstract ideology dictates, I expect they will nod their heads in full endorsement. But their idea of “too far too fast” and “rigidly ideological” does not include any notable plank of the Democratic party platform over the last sixty years. This is a generation that thinks Obamacare was a commonsense technocratic reform. The fact that they reject Bolshevism’s grand pronouncements about forging a new kind of humanity is not much comfort. (It’s true that this generation will occasionally permit themselves a grand political enthusiasm, as they did when Obama was nominated in 2008. But I hardly think Brooks is the person to get them to dial that back.)
You might think that “The Organization Kid” is the most ironic item on the syllabus because Brooks himself wrote the article. In fact, it is the most ironic item on the syllabus because it is a wildly flattering description of precisely the sort of person who goes to Yale these days. The article pretends to be critical of super-meritocrats, but the main criticisms are that they work too hard, accomplish too much, and complain too little. Imagine if someone had written in the late Sixties that the present generation was too independent, too open-minded, too committed to social change. Would the students of Kingman Brewster’s Yale have taken anything but pride in such a piece? Especially if the author was at pains to say how well-intentioned and fundamentally admirable they were? Even Brooks’s long digression on the pre-WWI generation, which is meant to give some idea of what has been lost, is hemmed in with so many but-of-courses about how racist and sexist and classist everyone was back then that no Organization Kid’s self-satisfaction will be seriously diminished. So what if Hobey Baker’s generation had a grander sense of moral purpose? That’s what post-graduate, pre-career stints in Teach for America are for.
Of course, I could be wrong. Brooks might want to disavow the arguments he made in “The Organization Kid” eleven years ago, in which case its appearance on the syllabus is intended as a meta lesson in humility. That at least would be something this postmodern generation could understand.