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David Brooks and Humility

I see that David Brooks has posted the syllabus for his Yale course on humility, and, though of course it has received the inevitable sneering, it looks like a pretty well-designed syllabus to me.

People have been especially quick to mock Brooks for assigning his own writing, but I don’t see a problem with that, especially since it’s a very small part of the reading load. I rarely assign stuff I’ve written, but when I do it’s because I see no point in making my students listen to me say something that’s already in written form. Why not just let them read the more polished version and then in class I can talk about other things? The criticism of Brooks on this score seems to me silly.

Now, you can argue that Brooks isn’t academically qualified to teach such a course, but universities have a long history of inviting prominent public figures to teach courses even when they lack formal academic credentials, so if you’re going to denounce Brooks’s course on those grounds, you’ll need to shoot down a great many other clay pigeons first. My view of the matter is that Brooks will be asking his students to think about a really important topic that they’re not otherwise likely to be asked to think about. He’s also evidently trying to do this by putting before them examples of humility in action, which seems especially useful. All that seems like a good thing to me.

I might want to add to his reading list, though. My friends Jay Wood and Bob Roberts have written a fine book on intellectual virtue, which includes a treatment of humility. You can get a capsule summary of their thinking about intellectual humility, especially in relation to scientific research, in this essay by Jay.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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