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Humility

[ 170 ] January 15, 2013 |

If you haven’t seen David Brooks’ syllabus for the class he’s teaching at Yale this semester, entitled “The Humility Course,” well, you are in for a treat. Here’s a few choice sessions:

Week 1: The Reticence Code (January 15)

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.

Week 11: Seemliness (April 9)
Modern societies have become economically and socially more unequal. We will explore status competition and the desire for social distinction—executives who feel unabashed when asking for lavish salaries. We will ask whether it is proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car. We will look at codes of social modesty and ask whether modest people make better business leaders

Week 13: Fate (April 23)
In the 1940s researchers began a longitudinal study tracing the life courses of Harvard Men. These men had every advantage, but a third of them had their lives ravaged by alcoholism and other setbacks. However well one is trained for life, one cannot control life. We’ll look at the Grant study and other studies of how lives develop.

The jokes write themselves.

Comments (170)

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  1. Jeremy says:

    We will pay special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities.

    Wow. I thought you were being snarky or mocking him and inserting things into the course descriptions. Then I clicked through.

    • Erik Loomis says:

      You really can’t parody this stuff.

    • tt says:

      What’s the problem? If you’re asking “How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country?” then giving “special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities” makes sense. Or do you think this is an illegitimate question to ask in a Yale University course?

      • Malaclypse says:

        If you’re asking “How did American leaders in the 1940s and 1950 conceive of their obligations to their country?” then giving “special attention to those who attended elite prep schools and universities” makes sense.

        Truman wept.

      • sibusisodan says:

        Eisenhower has a sad.

        • tt says:

          Since he’s mentioned in the proceeding sentence presumably not.

          Yes, I get that the elite in the 1950s consisted of more than those who went to the top schools, but 1) the notion that these places, then and today are both a source and manifestation of the elite’s self-conception doesn’t seem that far-fetched to me, i.e. its worthy of investigation and 2) that seems to at least be part of Brook’s point; Truman and Eisenhower took a different root to the top, but we’ve had 5 straight presidential elections where both candidates went to elite schools. Inequality has increased in all sorts of ways, and this too is worthy of investigation.

          • sibusisodan says:

            Yes, I get that the elite in the 1950s consisted of more than those who went to the top schools

            You may well get that. It’s not clear if D Brooks does.

            that seems to at least be part of Brook’s point

            In my opinion, it’s absolutely central to it.

            • It’s not clear if D Brooks does.

              …despite the previous sentence, the only one in which he calls out specific individuals by name, which references two men who did not attend prestigious prep schools, it isn’t clear to you if Brooks knows that there were leaders in that era who didn’t attend elite schools.

              If you say so.

              • sibusisodan says:

                Aaargh. I have been disagreed with by somebody who writes sensibly and amusingly on the internets. What to do?

                Well, if Brooks knows that the elites didn’t all attend elite schools in that era (and yes, he does), why is his assumption that those schools are the seams to mine valid? That’s not supported by reasoning. Which is what I was trying to get at.

                • Why, thank you. I’m flattered.

                  I think Brooks is probably focusing on leaders who attended prestigious schools because he’s teaching students who are attending a prestigious school, many of whom went to prestigious prep schools, and he’s trying to reach them.

                • DocAmazing says:

                  “Reach” or “flatter”?

          • Colin Day says:

            Which elite school did Robert Dole (1996) attend?

      • Jeremy says:

        Because American leaders only come from elite schools, right?

        Have you read the syllabus? It’s one ginormous whatever-the-domestic-term-is-for-white-man’s-burden circlejerk.

        • sibusisodan says:

          The other thing that stands out from the outline is how very thin the syllabus is. Anyone care to wager on whether or how soon Brooks will find himself out of his depth when questioned by somebody who thinks learning about a topic is not exhausted by mere assent to the delivered material?

          I hope it might be a humbling experience for him. But it won’t be.

          • Jeremy says:

            I really hope the whole course is recorded. Especially if that happens.

            • sibusisodan says:

              Hell, yes.

              But it could be made even better: guest lecturers, or interviewees, whose modern educational and leadership experiences allow the class to contrast those leaders ‘who attended elite prep schools and universities’ in the post-war period and the modern era, to see what they learned about humility.

              Possible names: John McCain, GWB, Mitt Romney…

          • catclub says:

            Isn’t college where you read original sources, rather than cliffs notes?

            No syllabus book dated before 1990.

            Why not read Augustine himself, rather than a biography? Likewise for the Greeks?

            I feel like a parody of VDH.

            Also pride is the first sin and humility is the first virtue, does Bobo even know that?

            • bob says:

              I really hate to be put in the position of defending Bobo, but “No syllabus book dated before 1990″?? Hint: Reflections on the Revolution in France was originally published prior to 2009; and The Hedgehog and the Fox predates 1993, though not by quite as much.
              That said, yes, he should have used original writings of Augustine – and of Dorothy Day.

            • proverbialleadballoon says:

              Brooks knows that; he’s a liar of the highest magnitude. He’s in the Inner Circle of the party, and everything he pens is meant to keep it that way; keep David Brooks on a cushion in an apartment in the sky, that is. He couldn’t give a fuck about anyone else besides himself, or his buddies. As for why read a biography rather than the source material, I suppose it’s to obfuscate in some way what really happened through a filter, in pursuit of agenda; indoctrinating young republican minds, probably, so they can continue their bullshit antics into the future.

            • grackle says:

              I imagine that the 1990 dates are for current editions, since I read Peter Brown’s excellent biography of Augustine in the early ’80′s. Not only is Augustine of Hippo a great read, it is that rare thing, an actually eloquent academic book.

          • StevenAttewell says:

            Noblesse oblige is the domestic term, I believe.

            Which fits, given Brooks’ self-conception as a new Kipling.

        • tt says:

          If you mean “Noblesse oblige” then yes, there’s definitely that there, but I don’t know that that’s such a terrible thing to be teaching Yale students? I don’t want Western countries making a habit out of invading places to spread civilization (or democracy) but the notion that we’re not the only people on the planet who deserve wealth and freedom, and that we have some sort of obligation to the rest of humanity is still a solid one.

          • Tybalt says:

            I don’t know that that’s such a terrible thing to be teaching Yale students

            I don’t either. I think that this type of course is exceptionally valuable. I also think that bringing in David Freaking Brooks to teach it is completely wrongheaded. Making a joke out of these ideas isn’t really going to help them gain additional traction.

            • actor212 says:

              I’m not sure I agree with this sentiment, in the context of just the snippets of curriculum we’ve seen here.

              The sense I get is Brooks is playing tee ball with his students’ sense of morality and equity: “It’s OK to run a hedge fund and rape workers of their jobs, because you funded a hospital wing for precisely the kind of cancer you contracted in Bolivia.”

              Many B-schools have a capstone course on ethical business management that have more indepth discussion of humility.

          • Chatham says:

            Yes, but human’s having moral obligations to help others is a different sentiment from ubermenschen having obligations as stewards of the untermenschen.

            • tt says:

              I understand the distinction, and I think I’m saying something stronger than humans have moral obligations to help others though this is a subset of that. The wealthy and powerful have special responsibility by virtue of their wealth and power. There really is a conflict between Noblesse oblige and the egalitarian society, and our end goal should be the latter. In the meantime, I think it does actually matter whether the elites see themselves as having strong obligations to give back to their society or as self-made randians.

              • Anna in PDX says:

                I actually agree with this, particularly your last sentence; but given Brooks’ history as a flatterer of the elite, I think this course’s stated aim is doomed to failure. At best, they will graduate a classroomful of people saying “God, I’m so humble. People will just be blown away by how humble I am, even though I am so perfect by virtue of being smart/rich/elite enough to go to Yale.”

          • Jeremy says:

            Well look, you can take it as “responsibility” or “entitlement”. I’d rather he taught responsibility, but I’m not sure that’s the angle he’s going for here.

          • PopeRatzo says:

            Is Brooks teaching noblesse oblige or explaining why his students are noblesse?

      • Lyanna says:

        The problem is it’s an excessively vague, unrigorous question that provides nothing more than an opportunity for David Brooks to jerk off.

        • thelogos says:

          Sounds like one of his typical columns.

          • philadelphialawyer says:

            yeah, that bit about the college stickers on the car comes straight from one of his bs columns. something about how in red states folks have more humility, and so would never dream of bragging about their smarty pants kid attending a fancy pants college. whereas, on the other hand, doncha know, them blue staters are so full of themselves that they can’t wait to brag on their kids (and thus, by extension, themselves) by putting the yale or harvard sticker on the car the minute the acceptance letter is delivered. i guess bobo never heard a red stater brag about his car, his house, his money, his guns, his blah, blah, blah. yeah, the bible belters are just swimming in humility. Really, that is one of the biggerst problems in this country…red state conservative asshole white christian men, upper
            middle class and higher, are simply lacking in self esteem and assertiviness. They are so humble that they would never dream of imposing their bs “values” on everyone else in this country, never mind the world. while blue state liberals are tripping over their own hubris. What a jackass!

      • DrDick says:

        You mean other than the fact that the syllabus for a course on “humility” absolutely reeks of smarmy elite privilege? Nothing at all.

        • tt says:

          Can you please explain? Your post isn’t very informative.

        • L2P says:

          Let’s say you’re not coming from a wealthy family. Your grandfather didn’t come back strong from World War II, and your dad and his sibs struggles in and out of work in a small town in Ohio as factories closed all around you despite anything you did to try to change it. You sucked it up and somehow got into Yale. Would it occur to you that you needed a course with a week studying “fate” and how you might not have complete control over how things turn out?

          Or let’s say you’re a woman. Do you think you need a class in whether “social modesty” might be useful when your whole life has been NOT showing up the boys and looking like a cocky dyke?

          Or (heavens forbid!) you’re a native American. Do you think it’d occur to you would have any desire for a class in your “obligations to your country,” with special attention given to those from elite institutions?

          This class just reeks of “yeah, we’re pretty damn awesome, here’s how not to properly treat your servants so you don’t look like a dick.” Not saying Yale shouldn’t have a class like that (I’d be happy if fewer jackasses came from Yale), but can you imagine this at Iowa State?

          • mch says:

            Agreed. But I still think Brooks may be in for a surprise, unless the only people who take this course are the jerk types. Yale students these days, on the whole, are very smart and often very well read. Brooks may be in for a surprise.

    • Walt says:

      This cannot be real.

    • Snarki, child of Loki says:

      Brooks got some elitist Eli to write it for him. Why? A course by Bobo on humility that doesn’t have a segment devoted to the Applebee’s Salad Bar?

      I call shenanigans.

  2. Malaclypse says:

    Week 11: Seemliness (April 9)

    We will ask whether it is proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car.

    Words fail.

  3. Lecturer says:

    Wait… this isn’t… a joke…?

  4. Jeremy says:

    Not to mention, Brooks doesn’t seem to think that the world east of the Jordan River. A course on humility and nothing from Buddha?

    Is there any chance that someone taking this course might accidentally learn something useful? How are the readings? Not familiar with many of them, aside from The Hedgehog and the Fox.

    • BigHank53 says:

      Is there any chance that someone taking this course might accidentally learn something useful?

      They’ll learn that David Brooks is completely full of shit, and that everything he says is self-serving codswallop. That might be useful, but it shouldn’t take an entire semester to learn.

        • Uncle Ebeneezer says:

          I forgot how great that review is. Love him or hate him, PZ does invective better than just about anyone:

          There is nothing wrong with establishing a couple of clearly defined personalities in the story, of course. The awkwardness lies in how we learn about them; David Brooks is a “tell, don’t show” kind of guy, and instead of revealing these personalities by their actions and speech, we’re simply told by the omniscient narrator about the qualities of their characters. For a book that promises depth and insight into human values, this strategy is an admission of failure and narrative suicide. I don’t care about Erica and Harold, and while Brooks may tout the importance of the emotional surges and connections that bring people together, I sure don’t feel anything about their decisions. I’m just told.

          For example, Erica makes a life-defining career decision: She meets a woman who runs a restaurant chain, who is thin and well-dressed in a conservative business suit, and Erica can imagine being like her someday, as Brooks tells us. And then, “Erica was suddenly consumed by a burning desire to be a business leader.” What, how? Was it the suit? I don’t know. We leapt from a superficial description of the appearance of a visitor to Erica’s school to “Something had lit the furnace of the little engine of ambition, which from this day forth would know no rest,” and on that train of stock phrases, a personality is fixed and launched unchangingly toward the end of the book.

          In fairness, I have seen people make this sort of sudden life-changing epiphany based on the most shallow impulse. Usually it happens just after they finish Atlas Shrugged.

      • actor212 says:

        It’s been a while since you’ve taken an undergrad gut course, I presume. First, Brooks will be lucky to get 60% attendance (I’m marking him up 10% for being well-known.) Next, the few who do attend will be trying to work out how to get into the panties of the cute blonde (male, female, makes little difference) all the while nodding their heads in anticipation of the term paper that makes up 33% of the grade that they will plagiarize from Maimonides for an easy A.

        And that’s assuming a late Spring thaw.

    • DrDick says:

      You seem to be confusing this with a course concerned with actual humility, rather than the proper elite display of disdain for the lower orders without inciting them to haul out the tumbrels and pitchforks.

  5. c u n d gulag says:

    Bobo, teaching a class in “Humility?”

    ‘Smugness’ – yeah.

    Or, any of the following:
    “Egotistical, overweening, pompous, prideful, proud, self-conceited, self-important, self-opinionated, self-satisfied, stuck-up, swellheaded, vain, vainglorious,” etc…

    But Bobo on “Humility” – er, uhm… Not so much…

    Truth is stranger than fiction.
    The Onion must cease publication immediately.

  6. sibusisodan says:

    Oh, lordy. Aside from the monumental irony of a journamalist giving a one-off lecture course at a premier insitution on the actual topic of humility (which irony is, of course, deeply multilayered), we also have the irony of noted academic cultural scholar David Brooks humbly using himself as a source text.

    From the course description alone, the syllabus looks to be thoroughly Brooksian: that is, dealing in unsupported and inaccurate generalisations in tandem with a cherry-picked, one-eyed Great Man view of the topic in question. My teeth are grinding themselves just reading the outline.

    Poor undergrads.

  7. Karen says:

    All of the texts are popular biographies. I like books like that, but wouldn’t readings from Greek dramatists, the Bible, Buddha?

  8. Lee Rudolph says:

    Brooks does, after all, have so much to be humble about.

  9. Todd says:

    Segregated seating chart?

    A harsher curve for “scholarship” students?

    A signed loyalty oath to be included with term papers?

  10. Sargon says:

    Damn, I have an actual, required, useful grad course this very time slot, unfortunately, so I can’t go to this absurdity and report back…

  11. Corey says:

    The books look generally pretty good though

    • Malaclypse says:

      If you assume nothing germane to the topic has been written by non-whites, yes.

      • ajay says:

        Apart from Augustine of Hippo, you mean.

        • Malaclypse says:

          Good point. Nothing outside of the non-western tradition.

          • Vance Maverick says:

            Because of course there is only one non-western tradition. ;-)

            I suspect Brooks will do fine for the kind of student who would sign up for such a thing. I went to that institution, admittedly long ago, and I seem to recall a moderate appetite for the middle- and lowbrow among my peers (and me!).

        • catclub says:

          That is a biography of Augustine of Hippo.
          Ethnic background of the biographer? Guesses anyone?

        • Eric W says:

          St. Augstine was only geographically African in the sense we mean it now. His roots were almost entirely Roman.

          • ajay says:

            Dude. Seriously. St Augustine was African in the sense they meant it at the time. He was born in the Roman province called “Africa”. He was a Berber from what’s now Algeria who had a big beard, flowing robes, and talked about God a lot. He’d get pulled aside for secondary screening at every airport in the continental United States.

            • dm says:

              I think he (eric w.) means culturally speaking, not aesthetically. He’s a product of ancient Roman education, his family were Roman citizens, etc.

              • CD says:

                “Product of” is doing a lot of work in that sentence.

                • dm says:

                  maybe you and ajay are secretly Augustine experts, but from what I remember in courses Augustine spoke latin, taught latin, lived in Carthage and Rome, was deeply influenced by roman thinkers during his formative years, and at some point had a civic roman job as a teacher of roman rhetoric.

                  Maybe you can better explain how he somehow better qualifies as a member of the “African” heritage (however you’re defining that?) than the Western.

                • ajay says:

                  dm: the original point was that there wasn’t anything on the list by “nonwhites” (which is a fairly unpleasant term, but there you go). Just because someone speaks Latin and is deeply influenced by Roman thinkers doesn’t make them a “white”.

                • Barry Freed says:

                  Yes dm, and clearly it was Frederick Douglass’s masterful command of the English language and place of residence which marks him as indubitably white.

              • random white male ex harvard student says:

                Well, you could have fooled me.

            • John says:

              According to Wikipedia, scholars believe that Augustine had Berber, Phoenician, and Latin ancestry. So not really “a Berber.”

    • tt says:

      Though the readings individually are ok, the real problem I see with this syllabus is that Brooks didn’t assign any readings of people he perceives as disagreeing with him (or at least presenting evidence that is contrary or challenging to his point of view).

  12. Mikus says:

    No “All In: The Education of David Petraeus?” What’s going on here?

  13. Lee Rudolph says:

    It has occurred to me that, if Brooks’s syllabus does turn out to be too thin to support an entire semester’s worth of seminars, he can always bring in guest speakers. I propose that he start with Tom Friedman.

  14. YBAryan says:

    The identity politics on campus is really getting out of control. Goddamn White Studies department.

  15. Steve says:

    What the hell does Brooks think humility means? Is it just, like, a particular way of being awesome, or what?

  16. actor212 says:

    We will ask whether it is proper to put a Yale window sticker on the back of your car.

    Um, David? That you have to even codify this discussion tells me you have zero clue about what humility is.

    An alternate topic: Is it humble to accept a position on the Op-Ed page of the most powerful newspaper in the world when you have to make stuff up?

  17. Eli Rabett says:

    This is gonna be the classic MOOK. Popcorn please.

  18. Crusty the ex-Clown says:

    Obviously a new meaning of the word ‘humility’ with which I had been previously unacquainted.

  19. Decrease Mather says:

    Years ago (but post-Speaker), Newt Gingrich taught a college course somewhere. I would love to see what his syllabus was.

    And Brooks’ course is surely better than this:

    http://www.hks.harvard.edu/syllabus/2011/943/MLD-325.pdf

    • Decrease Mather says:

      For those who dare not look, an excerpt:

      Mon, 21: Finding Your Voice I
      Garry Wills, Certain Trumpets, “The Rhetorical Leader: Martin Luther King, Jr., pp. 211-224.
      Jack Valenti, Speak Up With Confidence, pp. 1-173.

      Wed, 23: Finding Your Voice II
      Peggy Noonan, On Speaking Well, Introduction and pp. 3-98.
      David Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, Reagan, “Secrets of the Great Communicator”, pp. 210-247.
      Mon,

      • pseudonymous in nc says:

        Oh my. It’s actually an endorsement of existing faculty: it’s very rare that you get to see a course syllabus so bad that it shows the effort necessary to put together even a mediocre one.

    • gmack says:

      Yes, Gergen’s syllabus makes Brooks’s look fascinating and well-thought out in comparison. Christ, there were eight full classes (that’s a month of class!) that he hadn’t scheduled yet, not to mention that the stuff that was scheduled was astonishingly vapid. The syllabus doesn’t even rise to the level of lazy.

  20. Ted the Slacker says:

    This might be called a course about humility, but fuck me if it isn’t essentially weapon-grade irony.

    The whole goddamned point of this course is that it allows Brooks to come out and say, “You see people, the world would be amazing if I ran the show.”

    If Brooks is in on the joke, if it was his idea to go with “humility” as the hook for this course… fair play to him. But you kind of sense he’s deadly serious about this, and rather more worringly, so is Yale.

  21. mtraven says:

    I like how even the definite article in the title undermines the whole thing. No, Brooks can’t merely teach a course on humility, it has to be The Humility Course. There is a certain artistic unity to this project that you can’t help but admire.

  22. centerfielddj says:

    Good Lord, Brooks is absolutely insufferable. He needs to lose his column and access to the airwaves. It’d teach him some “humility” and improve our public discourse.

  23. P Lawless says:

    Shambolically sublime. Reads like something nicked from Borges….

  24. random white male ex harvard student says:

    Sure, this is funny now. But when I first went to Harvard, I was badly in need of some learning in humility. And everything about this course would have been utterly toxic to me back then, including the fact that I was smart enough to see the joke. You learn humility from humble, great people; from their opposite, at least the guy I was would just learn more poisonous arrogance.

  25. Ed K says:

    Things like this really don’t make me more inclined to take the Ivies and similarly elite institutions seriously. There is a really bad case of institutional ‘head so far up your ass you’ll never see the sun again’ here.

  26. wengler says:

    I can imagine a similar class being taught 175 years ago in the American South to the offspring of the wealthy.

    Don’t beat the male slaves…too badly.

    Don’t rape the female slaves…too much.

    • Malaclypse says:

      Week 2 Readings will be the Book of Philemon.

    • Western Dave says:

      This was pretty much what 10th grade history class looked like yesterday( we were doing honor and violence in the Old South). And if you did those things, and the slaves finally appealed to the neighbors (using protecting the missus as an excuse) and the neighbors horsewhipped you and you still didn’t get the message, didn’t you end up accidentally dead at a slaves hand (if I remember my Genovese correctly?) and everybody chalked it up as just one of those unfortunate things?

      That reminds me, any chance of David Brooks going hunting with Dick Cheney anytime soon?

    • Sly says:

      Don’t beat the male slaves…too badly.

      And only those who exhibit symptoms of drapetomania.

  27. JustRuss says:

    Hindsight and all, but I have to believe that if you told me there was a class featuring sessions on “Seemliness” and “The Reticence Code”, and then asked me to name the instructor, “David Brooks” would be the first name out of my mouth.

    I’m starting to suspect that Brooks is just playing us, his whole career is an Andy Kaufmanesque chirade. He’s watching our heads explode and laughing his ass off. But I won’t rule out the possibility that he really is just an obtuse hack.

  28. Njorl says:

    I assume the only reason for this is so that in the future, he can refer to having “taught the course on humility.” I figure it was either this, or write a book.

  29. arguingwithsignposts says:

    We will then trace this humility tradition in its different forms over the centuries—from Moses to Augustine, to Montaigne, Burke, Niebuhr and so on.

    Were there no non-Western Thought people who knew humility?

  30. MikeJake says:

    Mid-Term paper of 2,500 words. Students will be asked to grapple with the indictment of their generation made by Christian Smith, Alasdair Macintyre and Jean Twenge.

    Anyone know what this refers to?

  31. ordinaryguy says:

    Well, his course is no “Battle for the Body” but it seems interesting to an ordinary guy like me.

  32. Bob h says:

    In the Conservative mind, Yale students are arrogant elitists who need to be taught humility?

    I keep hoping Bobo will get so busy with these diversions that he will cease to be ubiquitous on NPR/PBS.

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