Brookses on colleges

Liam Julian

Columnist David Brooks has a new New York Times blog that, he writes, will ?be about who you are and why you do what you do.? His description is not a promising start. I wonder if Brooks hasn't been drinking too much of the same intoxicating brain-science elixir that turned Malcolm Gladwell into a really rich author of bestselling, nutrient-less pop. Brooks, recall, recently made the claim, apropos the Tiger Mother (another rich author of nutrient-less pop), that brain science shows that, for adolescent girls, interacting in groups of peers is way, way more difficult than mastering the violin. Such are the bizarre conclusions that brain science, when worshipped as determinative, produces. Brooks's first blog post is about higher education. ?I spend a lot of time on college campuses,? he writes, ?and I'm not sure these distinctions [i.e., college rankings] have any meaning. If you put me in a room with 25 students for an hour, I couldn't tell if they were from Harvard or Arizona State. There are smart students all over.? There are smart students all over, sure, but if Brooks can't tell the difference between 25 randomly selected Harvard students and 25 randomly selected Arizona State students he probably shouldn't be writing columns for the Times.*

The latest New York Review of Books has a long piece about colleges by another Brooks, Peter,?a vaunted professor of the humanities, draped with Ivy League laurels, who concludes in his last line that American universities ?deserve better critics than they have got at present.? That is, the trouble isn't with universities but their critics. He reviews four books and finds only one?the one by Martha Nussbaum that makes an ?impassioned (if somewhat preachy) argument in favor of study of the humanities??to have any worth. After a few thousand words, Brooks winds down his article with a confession: ?I am not so much impressed by the faults and failings of the university?they are real enough, but largely the product of frightening trends toward inequality in American society that the universities can combat only to a limited degree. It's more the survival of the university that amazes and concerns me.? He continues: ?It's one of the best things we've got, and at times?as when reading these books?it almost seems to me better than what we deserve.?

* Reading David Brooks, one never knows whether his sentences are to be taken as truth or allegory. Surely he can differentiate kids from the nation's most-elite school and kids from a decent state school. So why the posture? And surely he knows that hanging out at the mall isn't more taxing for a 12-year-old than hours of piano practice. So why say that it is? Because, I think, Brooks likes to tie up his writing with neat bows, to make everything clear as spring water and ensure that his conclusions, which may or may not follow from his premises, are comprehended. Logic and truth can occasionally be abandoned along the way.

?Liam Julian, Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow

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