Mike Kueber's Blog

May 2, 2014

Brooks and Friedman cross swords

Filed under: Culture,Education,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 8:55 pm
Tags: ,

Columnist David Brooks of the NY Times, a so-called thoughtful conservative, is my favorite columnist, along with Charles Krauthammer of the Washington Post.  Brooks authored a column this week titled Love Story that exemplifies why I am a fan of his.

Love Story describes a one-night, wartime encounter in 1945 between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova.  During an all-night conversation-cum-encounter, they went from discussing their personal histories to sharing their philosophical leanings to finally revealing their innermost feelings – i.e., “baring their souls….  That night, Berlin’s life came as close as it ever did to the still perfection of art.”

The Berlin/Akhmatova encounter reminds me much of the one I described in a blogpost concerning Michael Novak and Gabriel Marcel:

  • The first night that Novak met Marcel, the philosopher generously spent much of the evening talking to Novak and even read to him extensively from a favorite play, The Funeral Pyre. At the end of the evening, Marcel said to Novak – ‘Tonight, I think we had an encounter. I think so. Don’t you?’”

The blogpost also quoted Novak on Marcel’s philosophy regarding such encounters:

  • Marcel brought new light to daily experiences, such as recognizing the ‘presence’ of other persons and ‘encounter’ with another person – in other words, not just a passing, inattentive moment with another human being, but something more. He drew attention to the difference between sitting between two people on the subway for an hour – treating them without recognition or interest or attention – and the act of having a memorable exchange of personal qualities.”

In his column, David Brooks suggests that this sort of encounter is less likely in current times:

  • Today we live in a utilitarian moment. We’re surrounded by data and fast-flowing information. ‘Our reason has become an instrumental reason,’ as Leon Wieseltier once put it, to be used to solve practical problems.”
  • “The night Berlin and Akhmatova spent together stands as the beau ideal of a different sort of communication. It’s communication between people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.”
  • “Berlin and Akhmatova were from a culture that assumed that, if you want to live a decent life, you have to possess a certain intellectual scope. You have to grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.”
  • “Berlin and Akhmatova could experience that sort of life-altering conversation because they had done the reading. They were spiritually ambitious. They had the common language of literature, written by geniuses who understand us better than we understand ourselves.”

Coincidentally, another New York Times columnist, Thomas Friedman, recently seemed to write in favor of the “utilitarian moment” and against “people who think that the knowledge most worth attending to is not found in data but in the great works of culture, in humanity’s inherited storehouse of moral, emotional and existential wisdom.”  Friedman’s column, titled “How to Get a Job at Google” and relying heavily on an interview with a Google HR person, suggests that “the No. 1 thing we look for general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

So, what is the best indicator of cognitive ability?  A follow-up Friedman column, titled “How to Get a Job at Google, Part 2,” again based on an interview with the Google HR guy, revealed the following:

  • Of course, we want an informed citizenry, where everyone has a baseline of knowledge from which to build skills. That is a social good. But, he added, don’t just go to college because you think it is the right thing to do and that any bachelor’s degree will suffice.” (I love it when someone starts a sentence with a noble statement before getting to the “but.”)
  • Once there, said Bock, make sure that you’re getting out of it not only a broadening of your knowledge but skills that will be valued in today’s workplace. Your college degree is not a proxy anymore for having the skills or traits to do any job.” (I.e., college as a training school.)
  • What are those skills or traits? One is grit, he said. Shuffling through résumés of some of Google’s 100 hires that week, Bock explained: ‘I was on campus speaking to a student who was a computer science and math double major, who was thinking of shifting to an economics major because the computer science courses were too difficult. I told that student they are much better off being a B student in computer science than an A+ student in English because it signals a rigor in your thinking and a more challenging course load. That student will be one of our interns this summer  (Friedman and Google obviously have a low opinion of English, the humanities, and the social sciences, where an A+ does not necessarily reflect any cognitive ability, but a B in computer science does.)

I believe that the primary function of college is not to prepare its students for a Google interview, but rather, as Brooks suggests, to prepare them to “grapple with the big ideas and the big books that teach you how to experience life in all its richness and make subtle moral and emotional judgments.”

I think Brooks has got this one right.

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1 Comment »

  1. […] recently blogged about NY Times columnists David Brooks and Thomas Friedman locking horns, or was it crossing […]

    Pingback by David Brooks and a philosophy of life | Mike Kueber's Blog — May 9, 2014 @ 1:48 am | Reply


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