Alumni response to Brooks in NYTimes

A guest post from Core alumna Erin McDonagh, CAS ’10):

New York Times columnist David Brooks recently discussed the results, 250 years later, of the split between the French Enlightenment and the English one. The French “emphasized individualism and reason,” while the British thinkers focused on social sentiments. As our modern selves learn to rely on provable logic when we make decisions, he explains, the divide between our rational and our emotional selves has become so wide in our society as to nearly be a wall. In trying to reform our school system, in approaches to international crises, and in just about every situation, we are taught to rely on numbers and facts, when (as Brooks posits) we are truly social animals. Most of our brain matter is devoted to the subconscious, and when we fail to take social or other non-quantifiable needs into account in, say, Iraq, we make disastrous mistakes like failing to account for “the psychological aftershock of Saddam’s terror” – which may have changed the decisions of our policymakers.

This is an issue central to the Core education. Every student in the program can delightedly recall how Jonathan Swift recognized this problem at the outset, and mocked the inability of Enlightenment society to balance reason and emotion in his memorable satire Gulliver’s Travels. Lao-Tzu tells us, “The great scholar hearing the Tao tries to practice it…The lesser scholar hearing the Tao has a good laugh. Without that laughter, it wouldn’t be Tao.” No Way of life can be complete with only memorization and application; it must have some laugher, some human involvement. Robert Pirsig, in his  memoir Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, brings the issue all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, claiming that the initial split between science and the humanities and the subsequent isolation of science in the realm of logic is the biggest failing of modern learning. Pirsig makes some very bold claims about education and even about the nature of human thought,  just as Brooks does.

Brooks does not claim that we should all migrate from one side to the other, and begin to rely on our instincts and emotions for decisions instead of our rational minds; the point is that any keeping to extreme “sides” at all fails to take into account the full range of human capability. Relationships and “soft side skills” in human capital, the ability to feel sympathy to ingratiate oneself with others, and metis, “the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations”, are just as important as IQ scores. This is the skill side the Core works to develop, seeing patterns and taking into account all factors in a situation, including historical and psychological influences. Brooks’ article may be an excellent argument for similar programs as American education evolves.

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