Jeffrey Brenzel: The Essential Value of a Classic Education | Big Think

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Jeffrey Brenzel: The Essential Value of a Classic Education
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From “What’s the best kind of life for a human?” to “How should governments be arranged?”, the great classics tackle some of the most enduring questions that have resisted the attempts of science and the ages to solve. Brenzel will try to convince you that having intimate conversations with these great works will not only build your intellectual muscle but will also help you to grapple with the big questions in your own life and improve your judgment.
Jeffrey Brenzel:

Jeffrey Brenzel is Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University and a Lecturer in Yale’s Philosophy Department. He has worked as a nonprofit executive, a private sector entrepreneur, a scholar and a university administrator. In this capacity as the Dean of Undergraduate Admissions, Brenzel is responsible for worldwide outreach to talented students, the selection process itself, and the development of university admissions policy and practices. Brenzel earned his Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame, while at the same time founding and developing InterLearn, Inc. an investor-backed venture that used new media and technology to produce career education and liberal arts programs for adult learners.

What is the best sort of life for a human being? Socrates claimed in 400BC that a man lives a happier life if he’s just, even if he is thrown starving into prison for the rest of his life than if he is unjust and he is celebrated and honored all of his days and is never caught for his crimes. Could that possibly be correct? If not, why not and what difference should the question make to us now?

What moves the human heart? Shakespeare’s characters throw us into the depths of lust, envy, greed, pride, ambition. What do those characters have to say about the way that we act or that we behave or that we believe? And if so, what difference would it make to read about them in Shakespeare and why Shakespeare whose Elizabethan English is very difficult for us who speak modern English to understand? Thomas Hobbes wrote in 1651 a book called Leviathan, one of the two or three most influential works in the history of thinking about government and politics in western society. He was writing from the midst of a raging civil war and he argued that unless we gave all the power, unless we surrendered all ultimate control to a legitimate king that we would all rob and kill each other. Was he right about that? Is that the way things actually work and is the question relevant to us today when we no longer believe in kings?

Hello. My name is Jeff Brenzel and I’m the dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University. I’m also the master of something called Timothy Dwight College, which essentially means that I live with 400 of the very undergraduates that I picked myself and yes, it is unusual for an admissions dean to live 24/7 with the outcomes of his own decisions. I also lecture from time to time in the philosophy department at Yale and my work in philosophy centers around ethics and also the history of the ideas that we’ve had about something we like to call human nature. Speaking of human nature, one of my personal heroes, Aristotle, claimed that by nature everyone seeks to know, everyone desires to know. For the purposes of this talk I’m going to assume that you are already an intellectually curious person and that you’re not only chasing after knowledge as hard as you can. You’re also trying to build up the skill sets and acquire the kind of capacities and abilities that you’re going to need to become a better learner overall.

Also I’m going to assume that you’re not only trying to increase your stock of knowledge, but that you’re seeking to grow in wisdom as well and wisdom is something distinct from knowledge and I’m going to come back to that a little later.

If these things are in fact true about you then here is my advice in a nutshell. Make a choice in college to read some old books, even a substantial number of old books. My argument will be that reading the right old books in the right way is better than reading only new books, much less using only new ways of learning that have nothing to do with books at all. So yes, I’m a throwback. I have a somewhat unpopular view of what you should do with your college education. What I’m going to try to persuade you is that my advice…

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vl katasonov says:

You need to create a group of people with the same understanding of things around; there are also many ways what to do next because of the differences.

if and only if says:

to bad they use education for indoctrination….fine line

Ramesh Das says:

An expert is a guy who speaks his/her view on a topic. The Bhagabad Geeta answers most of the questions that humans want answers.

MELTING In Missoula says:

Awsm corral of corollaries.
You make me think, And while Our bodies are unique to us, and temporary, so much of what we will experience is redundant, and most likely Eternal, so writing and reading are a really good way to get around.

Fernando Barron says:

Answering specific burning question I've had for years in a comprehensive format. Good man

The Pyrrhonist says:

checking in from 2021 – are we still allowed to read these 'old' books? i've checked with the NY Times, Yale and other 'authoritative' sources and they've said i can no longer read these books. what gives?

Y.K. says:

Christ? He never came out went.

pa da says:

Thank you for this wonderful video. Very helpful.

The subtitles don't match the text. I caught it at 13:40 when I wanted to write in my journal what was said about Socrates, and the subtitles were talking about Moby Dick.

frank x says:

Rich kids who are also smart can bask in the humanities, but the rest of us are forced to regulate our minds and spirits to the Machine.

Randall says:

I think Chinese history is more valuable than western history

Alise L says:

Excellent lecture Mr. Brenzel.

Kohn Futner says:

I'm sure a just person who starved in jail and was spoken of falsely is not happier than the unjust rich corrupt politician who is praised his whole life and never caught for their evil deeds. It's a bullcheese idea to even consider.
In my economics book it made the statement (I'm paraphrasing), to be rich doesn't make one happy but poverty makes one miserable.

tspark1071 says:

Yes. It should be instructive so that it can change our life.

Lynn Duvall says:

The inclusion of only two women, and modern WASP women at that, is typical of “a classic education.” And there in lies its limited and limiting usefulness. Instead of reading Plato et al, I’m going to look for women to include. Surely Simone de Beauvoir, for one, is worth reading. And Ayn Rand, no matter what academics may think of her politics. And Sappho and …

Dan Smith says:


Mangled Angler says:

I enjoy the book of Ecclesiastes

JAY CHROM3 says:

52:00 Favorite part of the video, the way he throws in that “I know” made me crack up. Amazing speaker, amazing video. I’m so hyped to check out these works and truly appreciate and learn from them for the first time.

Ramon Fernandez says:

The story about him and his son made me cry

Surrealist Idealist says:

One of my life goals is to study all of this in detail. I may never be able to afford to enroll in a college or university for a degree in Classics, but I'm at least going to get all the use I can out of my libraries and book stores! ❤

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