Better Books Than Brooks: Toward A “Humility” Curriculum That Doesn’t Suck

When New York Magazine reported that the columnist David Brooks was to teach a course at Yale entitled “Humility,” someone may as well have lit a beacon, like a snark-signal hovering high over Internet City. Blogs blogged, tweets tweeted, and tumblrs tumbled. Matt Taibbi, channeling his characteristic clarified rage, called the course potentially “the most pretentious moment in history.”

Brooks defended the course, telling NYMag:

“All of us have been raised in a culture that encourages us to think well of ourselves and to follow your passion and all that kind of stuff,” he continued. “I don’t see why it is ridiculous to spend a few months reading people who tell us not to be all that self-impressed, to suspect you aren’t as smart, virtuous and aware as you think. Surely this is a potentially useful antidote for me or anybody else.”

On Tuesday, someone posted the syllabus for Brooks’ course to the web. Unfortunately for Brooks, a first glance would seem to support his critics; even more unfortunately, so would every subsequent glance.

Here’s the topic for the first week:

How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country? We will survey episodes from the lives of George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower and various “Wise Men.” We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities.

A course on humility which opens by a) generally invoking a great man theory of history while b) specifically focusing on those who attended elite prep schools and universities frankly does nothing to dismiss Taibbi’s characterization of Brooks as a “notorious diploma-sniffing aristocrat-apologist douchebag.” Indeed, an unsympathetic reading of the syllabus would find it shaped by a stodgy hand, right down to Brooks concluding the course with a study on the life trajectories of “Harvard Men.” Despite Brooks’ admirable intentions, his selections and framings would certainly seem to reflect, at best, the uncritical perspective of an oligarchic old guard, a slanted subjectivity of which he, perhaps ironically, seems entirely unaware.

With that said: Brooks’ intentions do seem admirable. I think that many people could benefit from a curriculum which reminded them that they perhaps were not quite as smart as they thought they were; that perhaps they had benefitted from others a bit more than they’d realized; that perhaps they were not larger than life but instead lifesized. And while I admittedly enjoy having fun at Brooks’ expense, I also don’t confuse critique for a reasoned alternative: it’s far easier to destroy things than to make them, but then you just end up buried by the rubble you’ve pulled down around you. So I asked myself: what would I do if I wanted people to learn these things?

I definitely wouldn’t call such a course “Humility.” It’s an odd word to me, loaded full of monks and friars and Protestant ethic and poseurs. “Modesty,” too, has a 1950s advice-column air. Perhaps “Empathy,” or “Awareness” would do: some word which would invoke an understanding of one’s own limits, and an orientation to understand, account for, and respect the limits of others.

But what about a reading list? There I’m far less surefooted. What books would I assign to a class of smart, insightful students to help them realize how dumb and limited they were? What kinds of readings, prompts, or discussions would help make students see their own blind spots? How do you begin to teach empathy, or sympathy, or respect in a classroom setting? How do you develop a “how-to” course in human decency?

You might think such a course should be unnecessary in college, but I think we really need one. Colleges are very good for teaching some very hard things like physics or chemistry or analytic philosophy, but they’re not always the best for teaching people how to be decent, empathetic, respectful human beings. The incentives, the role models, or both are often entirely wrong. Contra Brooks, this is especially the case at “elite prep schools and universities,” which disproportionately benefit by inculcating everyone inside and outside their walls with a sense of their institutional superiority.

But what would I assign? I really don’t know. Every list I try to come up with turns out to be limited in some of the same ways as Brooks’, e.g. constituted overwhelmingly of white western men. And while I would like to include some fieldwork / actual experience, I don’t know what I would suggest other than vague, unoriginal generalities (“volunteer at a soup kitchen!”) that seem unlikely to make any kind of difference.

Being both confident enough to believe that Brooks has the wrong answers, yet humble enough to know that I don’t have the right ones, I’m asking the Internet for help.

Suppose I’m pitching a class on “Stupidity, Empathy, and Self-Awareness” to MIT. An actual class that I would teach, perhaps next IAP, that would try to impart some of these lessons. What readings would you suggest I assign? What exercises could be useful in helping students develop empathy and self-reflection? I’m quite serious. If you have any good ideas, please include them in the comments below.