Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A Couple Of Things About David Brooks' Column Today

He's making a case for liberal arts, which is an argument near and dear to FLG's heart. And Brooks makes largely the same case:
Studying the humanities will give you a familiarity with the language of emotion. In an information economy, many people have the ability to produce a technical innovation: a new MP3 player. Very few people have the ability to create a great brand: the iPod. Branding involves the location and arousal of affection, and you can’t do it unless you are conversant in the language of romance.

FLG doesn't really like the focus on the emotion. Smells of sophistry. Then again, marketing is sophistry so it probably makes sense. Nevertheless, FLG prefers the angle the humanities provide insight into what is meaningful to humans. Part of that is emotion. Part of it ain't. In any case, engineering students don't really get what is meaningful to people.

An aside:
FLG watched Revolution OS over the weekend. It's a good documentary, but what becomes readily apparent is that the political and social thought of engineers and hackers is naive at best and downright dangerous at worst. Sometimes the naivete gives you something useful and helpful, like Linux, sometimes bad philosophy also gives you something like al-Qaeda, which is seems to draw many engineers and technical people.

Returning to the Brooks' column, he also writes:
Studying the humanities improves your ability to read and write. No matter what you do in life, you will have a huge advantage if you can read a paragraph and discern its meaning (a rarer talent than you might suppose). You will have enormous power if you are the person in the office who can write a clear and concise memo.

FLG is constantly focusing on his writing and he always finds it seriously lacking. For example, this excerpt from one of Miss Self-Important's papers probably flows better, even with a Hannah Arendt non sequitur, than anything FLG has ever written. Ah, but then he reads some of his coworkers writing and wants to weep at the horror.

On this blog, FLG'll use sentence fragments, begin sentences with conjunctions, and sundry other stylistic and grammatical no-nos. But he most certainly does not when crafting a memo for wide distribution or sending an email to his boss' boss. He wonders, however, if his coworkers are even aware of these things. In fact, he's tempted to buy a dozen copies of The Elements of Style and just hand the fucking things out with a note that reads:
Your prose reads like it was written by an imbecile. Read this book; learn its lessons.


It all reminds FLG of something he's heard people in special forces units say:
"We're not that good. Everybody else is so awful."


Withywindle said...

Passions, character, prudence, wisdom, rhetoric, narrative, history, understanding ... these are what the humanities aim for.

David said...

Re the role of the liberal arts in business, see Michael Hammer's thoughts, which I excerpt here.

Re the iPod...surely Brooks is aware that Steve Jobs did not have a conventional college education? (though he did audit a course on calligraphy that proved to be all-important)

Also, did you get the email I sent you a couple of weeks ago?

Flavia said...

One of the writers at Language Log has been on a crusade against Elements of Style for a while now.

This is the rare David Brooks column that doesn't make me want to punch him in the face (nothing to do with his politics--just the fact that he's smug and ignorant: as one of my friends describes him, "a dumb man pretending to be a smart man pretending to be a dumb man"). Still, he's wrong that students are forsaking the humanities to become engineers or scientists--fields that do, actually, involve a fair amount of creativity, intuition, and all the rest. They're majoring in accounting. Or marketing. Or health sciences.

But he's right that students (and their parents) want "practical" degrees. Sadly, this can even include English and history, when those subjects are seen merely as a means to a comfortable sinecure as a public school teacher. (Since my state mercifully doesn't allow students to major in "education," English and history are huge & growing majors--the opposite of what's true at many more elite schools.)

Hopefully, though, such students wind up learning much more than they bargained for.

FLG said...


In fairness, Brooks did begin his column with this:
"When the going gets tough, the tough take accounting."

The science and engineering thing is more my pet peeve.

On the issue of Elements of Style, I have my own objections, but it's short and to the point. Also, I think it gives a basis for thinking about writing that can be discarded at some point. When you have a good command of language and understand the passive voice, then you can use the passive voice.

Many of the objections are akin to "Elements of Style contains stupid or obvious statements and rules" that I want to ignore. Well, yes. They're stupid and obvious once you know what you are doing. But somebody who cannot write for shit and hasn't thought much about prose gains a lot from the book.

When I object to on the practicality aspect is twofold. The first, and most people who object focus on this, is the narrow commercialization and return on investment mentality. Second, much of it is narrowly focused on what will prepare the student for a first job out of college. So, study business and then get an accounting job. But over the course of a career the skills learned in a liberal arts/humanities curriculum (you know, critical thinking, writing, reading, etc) are more valuable than knowing the intricacies of double entry bookkeeping or whatever. It's the focus on the first job out of college that bugs me and I think it terribly short-sighted.

Flavia said...

Well, Brooks does mention labs. (And actually, on a re-reading, this column does make me want to punch him. Order restored!)

But I think you're too hard on the sciences. Though I'm frustrated by the routine public assumption that the science pull their weight in a way the humanities do not (they're finding a cure for cancer! and all we're doing is reading old books!), the actual scientists I know are almost all extremely well-rounded people; maybe that's because, to get into a good enough school to pursue science as a career, most people have to be decent writers to begin with. Engineers are a more mixed bag, but again: the bar to entry is pretty high. And in my experience, academically smart people are usually intellectual curious people, interested in a range of fields.

But regardless. I think the real solution is to have more colleges and universities with strong, humanities-based core curricula (not just bullshit distribution requirements). Students want to major in accounting, or they think they do, and they'll go to schools with that option. But if they have to take classes that develop real critical thinking skills, and that introduce them to the intellectual tradition, they'll benefit whether they eventually switch majors or not.

Jeff said...

I got a kick out of the fact that Brooks can't back up his insistence that "studying the humanities will give you a wealth of analogies" by actually deploying any such analogy. Instead, he spends the entire second half of his column on an insipid and condescending invention of his own, "The Big Shaggy."

I've been teaching humanities courses for 12 years, and if this is the most persuasive and eloquent defense Brooks can muster, I'd rather he stop "helping."

FLG said...


As a former engineering student, I feel completely justified and make no apologies for my incessant attacks on their blindness towards what is meaningful to humanity generally. For example, technology is a tool, not and end in itself. Engineers forget this frequently.


I also had issue with the Big Shaggy. Also, as I mentioned in a post a while back, allusions and analogies only work insofar as other people recognize them. If less people are humanities majors, then it's less valuable to possess facility with analogies learned from humanity studies.

Withywindle said...

Flavia: Alpheus had something to say a year ago about that attack on Strunk & White.

FLG said...

I forgot about Alpheus noble defense of Elements of Style. Also, I love the comment from Andrew:
"FLG, I knew I could depend on you to defend vulgar and infantile humor."

Miss Self-Important said...

Well, I strongly oppose punching Brooks in the face. However, this point has come up in nearly all of my courses this year--Brooks writes a column referencing something academic, and all the academics (that is, my professors and their student aspirants) immediately fall over themselves denouncing him as a philistine who simply can never master the deep subtleties of their field and does them more harm than good by even raising the topic. Then these same academics turn around and lament that no one is taking account of their work, that academia is increasingly drifting away from not only the mainstream of culture, but even its intellectual edges, that it's just so hard to be relevant, blahblahblah.

Now, short of turning the NYTimes into a print version of SSRN and giving its op-ed space to cognitive neuroscientists and analytic philosophers, what is it that academics want? To be noted, or to be ignored? Can they not reconcile themselves to the idea that being noted requires their work to be interpreted, synthesized, and even partially lost in the popularization? Or is that loss so great that they'd rather be overlooked so they can better sulk about being overlooked?

Also, a sympathetic reading of "The Big Shaggy."

Flavia said...


I can't speak for your professors and colleagues, but my problem with Brooks' academic columns isn't that they're targeting a general audience--and hence are watered down, generalized, etc.; I understand that that comes with the gig.

What frustrates me is that he seems simultaneously to be courting a general audience and to be basing all his assumptions about education (who studies what, and why) on an elite model. No one reading Brooks' NYT column who didn't already believe in the value of the humanities would be convinced to major in them as a result of that column--seriously, their virtue is to give you useful analogies? All of us here may know what he means by that, but how does that sound different than the old claim that you need familiarity with certain cultural touchstones in order to be "clubbable"?

There are multiple strong cases to be made (and FLG has made some of them here) for the value of the humanities. I make such cases all the time to my undergraduates--and, as I noted earlier, at my institution and many like it, English and history are incredibly popular majors. But Brooks isn't making arguments that would resonate with most students or their parents, and he seems unaware that outside of Harvard and Yale a) the humanities are not so clearly in crisis, and/but b) the reasons students have for majoring in those subjects are complicated, and aren't the same ones that resonate with the ruling class of old.

To me, this column shows how unreal the lives (and anxieties) of most college students are to Brooks. That's not his fault, exactly, but it doesn't redound to his credit, either.

FLG said...


My fellow students in Deneen's course, even the Godless communist ones, did like the Bentham V. Hume article.

Miss Self-Important said...

Flavia: "All of us here may know what he means by that, but how does that sound different than the old claim that you need familiarity with certain cultural touchstones in order to be "clubbable"?"
His examples have little to do with being clubbable, and I don't think that being clubbable is any longer a significant collegiate aspiration (unless perhaps you mean dance clubbable, for which no verbal ability is necessary). Moreover, I think if you take the section about "The Big Shaggy" to be a point about the self-knowledge that comes from philosophy and literature and the disastrous consequences of lacking that self-knowledge, the value of the humanities extends beyond analogies.

"outside of Harvard and Yale a) the humanities are not so clearly in crisis"
How does that square with, "Still, he's wrong that students are forsaking the humanities to become engineers or scientists...They're majoring in accounting. Or marketing. Or health sciences. But he's right that students (and their parents) want "practical" degrees"? Harvard and Yale don't have these options.

"To me, this column shows how unreal the lives (and anxieties) of most college students are to Brooks."
Well, some of his kids are in college, so I don't think that can be fully true. He is probably less directly in touch with the concerns of the students at your current school than those at your alma mater, but I think his argument comes out of statistics and polls as well, whatever their worth.

FLG: That one came up and got pounded in above-described fashion in a course I took on the Enlightenment.

FLG said...


That's what you get for attending a school in Cambridge -- pretentious, condescending fuckwads for classmates.

Thankfully, there are none of those at my glorious alma mater.

Withywindle said...

MSI: It's possible Brooks is not the best popularizer on the planet. Although I'm not offhand sure who is a better one on the op-ed pages.

Flavia: Brooks' audience presumably is upper-middlebrow; the Times readership; comfortably above the people, but not serious thinkers either. He doubtless calibrates his words fairly well for them.

The Ancient said...

I don't want to be rude, but I think anyone condescending from some invisible perch about the defects of a NYT columnist ought to first submit an example of the sort of column "a better sort of columnist" might write.

(And this is not just because I remember how much wasted acreage was given over to drivel from the late Richard Rorty.)

Writing a column -- even an editorial that almost no one will ever read -- is really hard.

Withywindle said...

By amazing coincidence ... in a non-history environment, our discussion leader just now handed out David Brooks' op-ed column, and we are about to discuss it after break. Said discussion leader found herself "startled" to find herself agreeing with Brooks. All of this indicates that Brooks really does know how to write for his audience.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.