David Brooks is an interesting fellow who seems to be struggling with today’s politics, which is understandable given his background. In 1961 he was born in Toronto to a marriage of humanities professors. (That was the year I graduated from Northwestern University.) Then in 1983 he graduated from the U of Chicago with a history degree, the year after I graduated — just across the quad —with a theology degree. His thesis was on Robert Ardrey, who is patronized as a pop scientist by the Brooks wiki-bio but saluted as a major figure on Ardrey’s own bio as a playwright and anthropologist. Brooks himself gets something like the same mixed reception from the anonymous wiki-biographers and, indeed, seems to feel that way about himself.
He’s much preoccupied with what may be the kernel of the anthropocene — that is, what is the nature of human beings? He was uplifted in college, radicalized by working a crime beat, impacted again by William F. Buckley’s fast rich crowd, and currently called “radical conservative,” which seems pretty oxymoronic, probably due to riding the fence. I mean, he tries so very hard to be wise and fair, but the world keeps baffling him. He’s horrified by what happens now, but when he takes the evidence to Republicans, they don’t respond. They don't even shrug. Sometimes he just seems naive.
The reason I wanted to begin with him is that he is preoccupied with what he called an “education abyss” in our society. That is, there are a lot of people who feel patronized by college grads. The job gap seems to be the obvious cause, but it’s more than just being qualified for prosperity. I’m not sure Brooks quite realizes that there is a change, a MAJOR CHANGE, in what truly educated people know that makes them different. He’s still faithful to his original loyalties.
In the past decades there has been a huge jump in raw information made possible by high tech equipment and internet processing of the data that is collected. Our understanding of the deep past — creation of stars as well as creation of our species — our sense of the universe, so much more vast and complex than just “space” — our awareness of all bodies as cells interacting and as producing “thought” — the degree to which we are unconscious and gripped by our pasts — all these ideas are new, authenticated, and challenging. They demand a new way of understanding.
In the past a diligent and fairly smart person could get a Ph.D. — a traditional philosophy doctorate — based on precedents in its natural sequence through human history — and be a respected and authoritative person. It didn’t have much to do with virtue, and only gave events a certain amount of accountability. Rivalling theology, traditional philosophy searches for the essential meaning of life through reasoning, by using human consciousness in Enlightenment mode. But the new cutting-edge philosophy challenges everything and uses the literary concept of metaphor, confirmed as the brain’s natural method, to reach whatever understanding of existence we can achieve. We are not primary or essential.
At present we are interested in emotion, the dislocation of mind by body, — the sharing of consciousness and bonding among people — some of it awareness that always persisted alongside the conventional assumptions of those who use Greek and Roman based Enlightenment as an index to a binary world with clear human hierarchies. Our new knowledge about the deepest nature of everything, the co-existing multiplicity of realities, and the tragedy of our bonding with the transient — all these have changed some people. This change is often attributed to education. It is an abyss, a felt mystery.
The gap between rich and poor, which is not usually understood very well by either side, is less of the gap between those who know a few hundred people, share the world with them, and get along fine on those terms — and those who have accepted the necessity of a new vision both terrifying and reassuring. Terrifying because it requires change and the unknown. Reassuring because it embeds humans in a furor of process that doesn’t demand that individuals be obedient to some theory. Not even the theory that existence is far too intricate and unsettled to ever really master. The whole nutty notion that being “good” will make a person eternal goes away — a great relief.
Brooks, like many of us, is just not yet ready to make the leap. It’s not a leap of faith but a leap of courage. No guarantees. I talked to a woman recently who was convinced that her low-prestige job was the result of not having a college degree. At least she thought that learning computers, a route many take, was boring rote learning. She was convinced that college was some kind of magic formula that would change her life, show her how to get ahead without becoming a machine or a wage slave.
I found it very hard to describe to her what I learned at Divinity School, just across the quad where Brooks addressed history. We were both drawing on an accumulation of writing that was full of wisdom and experience. Maybe on my side we valued humility a little more.
Looking at video of committee hearings, it’s easy to imagine we’re seeing the reptilian dwellers in their swamp. Reading their twitter quips, it’s easy to imagine that accurate lawyer-level grammar is one way to identify a mammal. But these are metaphor and a bit cartoonish, not that those are bad qualities. But there’s more. Assuming that a college education is the entrance to a better job and a nicer lifestyle is not wrong, but it’s only an entrance, an access. There are other ways and there is a danger of becoming preoccupied with sports and fraternities.
The real key to full human-hood can be found in books, vids, conversation, all the humanities and sciences — even math. But Brooks knows — indeed it’s the path to his level of understanding (which is high) that true human knowledge is based on empathy. Even for serpents. Because the real human knowledge is based on the interconnection of everything. If an emaciated baby in Yemen is dying of starvation, so are we. If a fuzzy ginger-man in England is marrying a starlet with dusky genetics, so are we. If Hawaii is splitting open with molten rock, so are we. Incredible!