David Brooks of the New York Times is at it again. Whether or not you like his politics, he has insight into education that makes it worth commenting. In a Feb. 2 opinion piece entitled “How to Fight the Man,” he picks up story of a video clip that went viral. The maker of the clip responded emotionally about religious hypocrisy (easy to do), but when confronted with criticism could not answer. His education was incomplete. He did not know how to test either his own feeling and thinking, or those who responded him.
Brooks turns the event into some brief advice on what to seek in education. He notes that they way to find our way educationally and to give integrity to criticism of any social event or movement, is to link ourselves to an intellectual movement that helps us, those who would be educated, explain and understand that social movement or event in some kind of comprehensive way. We should, in other words, seek in our education an intellectual tradition that provides a somewhat comprehensive vantage point from with to view, appreciate and confront the world, and, I would add, perhaps ourselves: “without a tradition, everything is impermanence and flux.”
He wants to combat what he calls a “single bad idea,” that we should think for ourselves. Instead we need to find a tradition that will help us think in broader and deeper ways than we might by ourselves be capable, have the time, energy, sensitivity or luck to develop. He says, “the old leftists had dialectical materialism and the Marxist view of history. Libertarians have Hayek and von Misses. Various spiritual movements have drawn from Transcendentalism, Stoicism, Gnosticism, Thomism, Augustine, Tolstoy, or the Catholic social teaching that inspired Dorothy Day.”
Brooks, it seems to me, has it just about right. We professors seek not just to teach “critical thinking,” the academic title for thinking for oneself. In order to think critically we each need a well invested fund of ideas, examples, past responses, and options which we can draw on to help us understand what we experience and respond to it with insight and integrity.
But contrary to Brooks, we ought not to just find a tradition and a label to adopt. We need to have seen and tested the results of these ideas and movements, to have understood them through serious discussion with others whose intellectual and moral sensibilities encourage both appreciation and a healthy skepticism. It helps to do so both with peers as we develop, and with those who have gone through before and are available to guide as well as open to greater learning themselves.
This, it seems to me, illustrates both the purpose of education and the way it works. Anyone who would seek this kind of education needs to find a place, a college or university, where he or she will experience a mix of both trust in those with whom they will engage this task, and differences of opinion and experience that will challenge and encourage them to explore ideas and experience they otherwise might not have confronted. Add to this an understanding of various arts and sciences, and ways of analyzing and understanding our natural, social and personal environments and you have the chance of a rich educational experience.
Sometimes we at Fresno Pacific are criticized for being too like minded. Everyone is a Christian (though of varied denominations and traditions). Sometimes we are criticized for having too much intellectual and theological diversity, for not sticking to the correct opinions (we have those who are more conservative and those more progressive on campus, and we approach large questions in differing ways). And we are criticized from both left and right. When we receive both of these criticisms, I assume we are getting it just about right. We have enough of a common tradition that students have a place to start that they can trust. When they are challenged by their peers or professors, they are learning to test what they find before them, what they have received. In the process they will find the ways of thinking and understanding that make sense to them, and those ways will become their own.