A friend sent me the link to an interview published in the campus newspaper of the University of Chicago. It was a model interview between an unnamed reporter, presumably a student, and a Chicago graduate who writes for the New York Times, and occasionally talks on late-night gigs here in Australia. David Brooks is his name, and you can read the interview here. I’ve never met him, but he sounds sensible to me.
The more I read the interview, the more I enjoyed his observations and perspectives. I must be a whole generation and more older than him, but I have been a newspaper columnist too. Here he is on the purpose of such writing: There’s a good phrase: that writing provides a context in which other people can think. You’re really not trying to tell them what to think—you’re trying to give them a context in which they can have a discussion with themselves about a subject.
Yes! I thought. That’s what I try to do. And when you try to do that, you have to be as honest and self-aware as you be. You are trying not to persuade, but to help the reader approach an issue with the data and the arguments. To restate Brooks, you are not telling the reader what to think, but how most usefully to think.
The reporter asked him his views on the current urge to have every issue data-driven: Data can do a lot for you, but it can’t do everything. The key is to understand what it can’t do. There are certain things data will never be able to do: if you’re choosing a marriage partner with data, I would really recommend against that. If you’re reading a novel with data…The data is so impressive that the people who trust it want it to do everything, and I’m a little dubious about how it can do everything.
The reporter then went on to wonder whether the humanities were the key to dealing with that problem: Yes. My problem with the way the humanities were taught is that they were taught as if they were social documents to do social protest and social reform, rather than inner documents for inner improvement.
Hear! Hear! Brooks talks at another point about the importance of literature in helping us form good judgments: It widens your repertoire of understanding human nature. You understand how people interact; you get certain phrases to stick in your head. I’m reading Middlemarch right now, and Eliot’s ability to define and judge character is pretty astronomical. We might say somebody’s honest, somebody’s brave; George Eliot has categories that are super fine distinctions on how to describe someone’s character. That only comes from a lot of reading, combined with actual observation.
Even more ticks! I too think that Middlemarch is a great book, and George Eliot’s depiction of her small troupe of characters is unequalled. Brooks likes Anthony Trollope on politics, and so do I. He is interesting on how he (Brooks) works (which is not at all the way I work), on books and how he uses and remembers things in them, on the ‘online education revolution’ and the importance of seminars and of arguing face-to-face with others.
He says at the beginning that he was forced to study Edmund Burke and his Reflections on the French Revolution, and disliked the experience, the book and the author. A few years later he found that a lot of what Burke had written had stuck: my visceral hatred was because he touched something I didn’t like or know about myself. That too is honest and self-aware. When I hear people thundering on about anything when it is plain that they don’t and can’t know everything there is to be said about the matter, I wonder what it is that has generated the thunder. It will be, I feel pretty sure, because the issues touches something in the person that he or she didn’t know or like about her/himself.
From what he says, Brooks is pictured by others as a ‘conservative’. I haven’t to my knowledge read anything he has written, but I’ll now do so. His position seems to me — at least from what I gleaned for the interview — one of intellectual honesty rather than anything to do with either conservatism or radicalism. I hope that mine is the same and, for what it’s worth, I find it hard to say where I sit politically. My current view on that is that I am somewhat to the left of centre, but it depends on what those words mean to others and what the subject is. I tend to be conservative on the economic side and more relaxed on the social side. I found it hard to picture where Brooks was, but no doubt I’ll form a judgment after I’ve read a few of his columns.
Brooks says nothing whatever in the interview about he thinks about global warming or ‘climate change’, but maybe he has done that somewhere. My guess is that, like me, he is agnostic about what should pass as the right reading of ‘the science’, but totally sceptical that any of the measures that have been produced to save the world will be of any value whatever. I could be quite wrong.