David Brooks editorializes about the  penchant of young people to engage in spasmodic protests without coherent or meaningful alternatives; or, for that matter, knowing exactly what they’re protesting against.

One of the most difficult things to teach young people is intellectual humility, one which is neither diffidence nor self-assurance. Too often they believe they are the first persons to come up with a particular insight, or the first generation to find social institutions failing. They possess simultaneously high levels of narcissistic confidence in the rightness of their beliefs while also being convicted there is no way to reconcile contrary beliefs without resorting to a non-judgmental (oh horrid buzzword) tolerance. I’ll often remind my students that, while they have been seriously let down by their social institutions, there is nothing unique about their situation. Take a look at Glaucon and Adeimantus, for example. The adage applies: One ought to be confident in the truth and skeptical about oneself, and not the other way around.

Brooks’ article, however, is a reminder that our educational institutions, which ought to know better, are failing even worse, precisely because they make no effort to equip students with the right sorts of grounding for their ideas and impulses. Instead, students are encouraged to believe they have a right to faulty opinions and reasoning, that no one ought to challenge them, and that they’ll agree not to challenge anyone else. It makes for a very uninteresting and unfruitful education, one that has become largely the norm.

The schools best positioned are those that operate self-consciously and unapologetically from within a tradition, which they seek to deepen and broaden through creative engagement with young people.

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Jeffrey Polet
Jeffrey Polet grew up in an immigrant household in the immigrant town of Holland MI. After twenty years of academic wandering he returned to Holland and now teaches political science at Hope College, where he also grudgingly serves as chair of the department, having unsuccessfully evaded all requests. In the interim, he continues to nurture quirky beliefs: Division III basketball is both athletically and morally superior to Division I; the Hope/Calvin rivalry is the greatest in sports; the lecture is still the best form of classroom instruction; never buy a car with less than 100,000 miles on it; putts will still lip out in heaven; bears are the incarnation of evil; Athens actually has something to do with Jerusalem; and Tombstone is a cinematic classic. His academic work has mirrored his peripatetic career. Originally trained at the Catholic University of America in German philosophy and hermeneutical theory, he has since gravitated to American Political Thought. He still occasionally writes about European thinkers such as Michel Foucault or the great Max Weber, but mostly is interested in the relationship between theological reflection and political formation in the American context. In the process of working on a book on John Marshall for The Johns Hopkins University Press, he became more sensitive to the ways in which centralized decision-making undid local communities and autonomy. He has also written on figures such as William James and the unjustly neglected Swedish novelist Paer Lagerkvist. A knee injury and arthritis eliminated daily basketball playing, and he now spends his excess energy annoying his saintly wife and their three children, two of whom are off to college. Expressions of sympathy for the one who remains can be posted in the comments section. He doesn’t care too much for movies, but thinks opera is indeed the Gesamtkuntswerk, that the music of Gustav Mahler is as close as human beings get to expressing the ineffable, that God listens to Mozart in his spare time, and that Bach is history’s greatest genius.


  1. I can only speak of (some) of the students I have observed and talked to involved in the “Occupy” movement here in (now infamous) Davis, CA. Here is what they have been told (taught) throughout their lives:

    1. The best way to assure a “successful” career and, by extension, life is to go to and graduate from a respected university or college.
    2. The state of California is committed to making this possible by keeping tuition affordable. In other words–the state promises to maintain a low-cost public education system for the benefit of citizens.

    In the past 24 months the CA university system has raised fees (tuition) several times with increases nearing 20% over what they were at the beginning. Further increases are virtually certain. While tuition goes up and programs are cut students see brand new buildings going up on campus and top-level administrative salaries continuing to climb.

    And so the students, following the logic of what they were taught–using what I would consider to be clear reasoning–protested against these changes. They protested what they see as the privatization of public education and the increasing lack of affordable opportunities. They have been taught one further thing:

    3. Protesting non-violently is an acceptable means of showing dissent. If you play by the rules (respect “free speech” zones and don’t break anything) we will allow your protests to go on.

    I find their reasoning impeccable in these issues (following the logic of what they have been taught about the way things “are”). I think they were, however, terribly naive in one respect: they actually believed that if they played by the rules they would get what was promised and be kept safe. The pepper spraying has disabused them of this idea. Now some of them are left confused and even traumatized and the University is obfuscating even while it claims to desire “healing”. Personally, I think these students are well equipped in clear reasoning though they are learning hard lessons about how promises are kept (or not) across a broad array of issues.

    And getting specifically to one of Brooks’ points: I think the students have some very good ideas about the kind of institutions they want and I don’t find them to be starry eyed. They want accountability. They want transparency. They don’t want leaders hiding behind legalese. They are not about simply “tearing down.” Just because they are drawing on more recent “traditions” (King, Gandhi, Korten) does not mean they are lacking foundations.

  2. One of the wonderful things about various members of “conservative” offshoots (whether Von Mises, Hayek, Burke, Kirk, Oakeshott, Dawson, or Voegelin) is that there is a common strain of intellectual humility running through them.

    By this, I do not mean that they are too humble and refuse to diagnose problems in the political life. Rather, they all caution, in one way or another, that there is a political solution to be found for every problem, if one simply considers it enough – in short, they caution against progressivism.

    The movement of too many modern politicians – Republican or Democrat – is to think that if they get the reins and implement the “right” legislation, more problems will be solved. However, (in one idiom), top-down correction of problems is almost always limited by lack of information; in another idiom, it is impossible to take an either / or approach to problems; in another, the law must be legislated for the general good, and not with an eye towards the minor situation.

    And so, the protesters hope to tear down cronyism, but as noted by Brooks, they are not sure what they will put in its place. One could hope for a limited government, of limited power and jurisdiction, but that was tried before and apparently not working out.

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