Tuesday, March 5, 2013

An Open Letter to David Brooks

3/5/2013—Yesterday, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published 2 columns concerning the crisis in American secularism. One column was by Bishop David Zubic. It was entitled an oversupply of ‘nones’. Bishop Zubik lamented the growth of nonbelief and non-affiliation with religious traditions among so many Americans. But I think it is fair to say that Bishop Zubik had no strategy for reaching out other than to be open to reaching out. He treated Catholicism as a settled dogma and invited people back to it. This is of course generous and open on his part but essentially irrelevant.

New York Times columnist David Brooks, on the other hand, specifically contrasted American and Chinese approaches to education. (See column here). The column was entitled Learning Virtues. Brooks argued that Chinese understanding of education combines moral and ethical self-development along with cognitive achievement. American education, on the other hand, tends to ignore not only morality but self-development altogether. American education treats what is to be learned as objective and outside the person.

For Brooks, the cause of this division in the West is the tension between religion and science that we learned from the Greeks. Brooks contrasted the Western division of the good and the true with the holistic approach of Jewish study and Confucianism. I emailed to Brooks the open letter below not to disagree with his observations about American education, but to locate the cause of this phenomenon in capitalism and monotheism itself.
Dear Mr. Brooks:

Although I agree with your column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on March 4, 2013, that American education, in contrast to Chinese education, separates self-development from knowledge—the good from the true—I’m sure that I am not the first to point out that your assumption of what caused this difference is probably incorrect. You laid the cause of this division in education to the skeptical scientific inquiry of Greek culture. But, according to Pierre Hadot, in the book What is Ancient Philosophy?, Greek learning strongly manifested the trait of self-development that you identify with Chinese education.

I am no expert in these matters, but undoubtedly the cause of the difference in educational approach between America and China must have something to do with the two great traditions that separate them: monotheism and capitalism, the two traditions to which you give loyalty.

The role that capitalism plays in dividing the true from the good would seem fairly obvious. Capitalism rewards achievement. It does not care about virtue. There are no sages in a capitalist society.

With regard to monotheism, you claim that Jewish Torah learning in general fuses the moral and the academic. I would not deny that that this is so in certain isolated aspects of that tradition, such as the Musar movement. But in general, Talmud learning was premised on a legal positivist style, not on the fusing of the good and the true. And in the texts that followed the Talmud, such as the Little Talmud and the Shulchan Aruch, the tendency to legal positivism only increased. This tendency may have come about, as it does in Islam today, because monotheism emphasizes obedience to the will of God.

When will you allow, Mr. Brooks, your sharp inquiring eye to develop into serious critique? If there is something wrong with American society, it is likely to be caused by something serious and widespread. It is likely to be caused, in other words, by something most people support. Your moderate criticisms are never going to be of any help.

Bruce Ledewitz

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