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 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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