“The New Humanism”

At our last session, I expressed my view that “General Education” is too generic a term to permit meaningful dialogue especially when it comes to “reforming” education.  Yes, it’s important to have our students be broadly educated, to make connections across disciplines, and for educators to create pedagogical tools that will serve our students well in an increasingly global and technological age.  But to achieve these goals, I actually like using more concrete terms such as “The New Humanism,” which Brooks refers in the article below.  Here Brooks speaks to the importance of developing both our reason and our sentiments (feelings) for a better understanding of the political and social worlds we all inhabit (this piece actually meshes nicely with Five Minds, which we are reading for our next meeting).   With Brooks, I believe that educational reform needs to attend to the ways we think and how we teach thinking.  Alongside this notion, it is crucial to have an environment that not just permits–but WELCOMES–the free expression of ideas, especially differing views–an issue I will take up at another point.

The New Humanism

By David Brooks

New York Times (3/13/11)


Over the course of my career, I’ve covered a number of policy failures. When the Soviet Union fell, we sent in teams of economists, oblivious to the lack of social trust that marred that society. While invading Iraq, the nation’s leaders were unprepared for the cultural complexities of the place and the psychological aftershocks of Saddam’s terror.

We had a financial regime based on the notion that bankers are rational creatures who wouldn’t do anything stupid en masse. For the past 30 years we’ve tried many different ways to restructure our educational system — trying big schools and little schools, charters and vouchers — that, for years, skirted the core issue: the relationship between a teacher and a student.

I’ve come to believe that these failures spring from a single failure: reliance on an overly simplistic view of human nature. We have a prevailing view in our society — not only in the policy world, but in many spheres — that we are divided creatures. Reason, which is trustworthy, is separate from the emotions, which are suspect. Society progresses to the extent that reason can suppress the passions.

This has created a distortion in our culture. We emphasize things that are rational and conscious and are inarticulate about the processes down below. We are really good at talking about material things but bad at talking about emotion.

When we raise our kids, we focus on the traits measured by grades and SAT scores. But when it comes to the most important things like character and how to build relationships, we often have nothing to say. Many of our public policies are proposed by experts who are comfortable only with correlations that can be measured, appropriated and quantified, and ignore everything else.

Yet while we are trapped within this amputated view of human nature, a richer and deeper view is coming back into view. It is being brought to us by researchers across an array of diverse fields: neuroscience, psychology, sociology, behavioral economics and so on.

This growing, dispersed body of research reminds us of a few key insights. First, the unconscious parts of the mind are most of the mind, where many of the most impressive feats of thinking take place. Second, emotion is not opposed to reason; our emotions assign value to things and are the basis of reason. Finally, we are not individuals who form relationships. We are social animals, deeply interpenetrated with one another, who emerge out of relationships.

This body of research suggests the French enlightenment view of human nature, which emphasized individualism and reason, was wrong. The British enlightenment, which emphasized social sentiments, was more accurate about who we are. It suggests we are not divided creatures. We don’t only progress as reason dominates the passions. We also thrive as we educate our emotions.

When you synthesize this research, you get different perspectives on everything from business to family to politics. You pay less attention to how people analyze the world but more to how they perceive and organize it in their minds. You pay a bit less attention to individual traits and more to the quality of relationships between people.

You get a different view of, say, human capital. Over the past few decades, we have tended to define human capital in the narrow way, emphasizing I.Q., degrees, and professional skills. Those are all important, obviously, but this research illuminates a range of deeper talents, which span reason and emotion and make a hash of both categories:

Attunement: the ability to enter other minds and learn what they have to offer.

Equipoise: the ability to serenely monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings.

Metis: the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations.

Sympathy: the ability to fall into a rhythm with those around you and thrive in groups.

Limerence: This isn’t a talent as much as a motivation. The conscious mind hungers for money and success, but the unconscious mind hungers for those moments of transcendence when the skull line falls away and we are lost in love for another, the challenge of a task or the love of God. Some people seem to experience this drive more powerfully than others.

When Sigmund Freud came up with his view of the unconscious, it had a huge effect on society and literature. Now hundreds of thousands of researchers are coming up with a more accurate view of who we are. Their work is scientific, but it directs our attention toward a new humanism. It’s beginning to show how the emotional and the rational are intertwined.

I suspect their work will have a giant effect on the culture. It’ll change how we see ourselves. Who knows, it may even someday transform the way our policy makers see the world.

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1 Response to “The New Humanism”

  1. Jonas Reitz says:

    Mark, thanks for sharing this — it really resonates with my own experiences teaching at CityTech, and I think there is a lot we can do with these ideas to address the issues we’ve been discussing in the livinglab. Nowhere has the inseparability of the emotional and rational been more apparent to me than on the first day of my intro mathematics courses. The room, ostensibly dedicated to the study of principles founded in pure logic and devoid of emotion, is quiet on top but the air is heavy with inner turmoil. The emotional reactions to the subject matter are so big and so deeply ingrained (but so controlled, and so hidden from view) that there is often no room for the math at all. Acknowledging this and finding ways to work with it, maybe even to leverage it, is something I’m very interested in. There is so much passion there, if we can find a way to redirect it from fear/hurt/hatred to curiosity!

    As an example, in the Summer Institute Professor Rojas discusses the notion of emotional intelligence and provides a sample activity analyzing emotions that help/hinder learning which I have used and found helpful in my classes. I’d like to do more, but I don’t quite know what “more” looks like — your ideas are welcome!

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