David Brooks, author of fine book, Bobos in Paradise, is one of my favorite columnists. He writes a syndicated New York Times op-ed piece several times a week and very often hits a home run. He did so in his Friday, March 3, piece titled: "To-do List for a Great Educaiton."

He quotes Peter Beinart, of the New Republic, who laments the fact that Harvard graduates many students these days "without the kind of core knowledge that you’d expect from a good high school student." Beinart adds that Harvard, being dumbed down by progressive educational nonsense, provides required courses that are "a hodge-podge of arbitrary, esoteric classes that cohere into nothing at all."  Since the New Republic is anything but a right wing magazine this is a pretty serious criticism of America’s most elite educational institution.

Brooks offers a list of things that every student should read to get a "great education" even if they do go to Harvard. What fascinates me is that Brooks puts at the top of his list "Read Reinhold Niebuhr." That got my attention immediately. Though David Brooks is a political and social conservative he is not a Christian. So, I asked myself, "Why Read Niebuhr?" His answer is intriguing. Brooks writes:

Religion is a crucial driving force of this century, and Niebuhr is the wisest guide. As Alan Wolfe of Boston College notes, if everyone read Niebuhr, "The devout would learn that public piety corrupts private faith and that faith must play a prophetic role in society. The atheists would learn that some people who believe in God are really, really smart. All of them would learn that good and evil really do exist—and that it is never as easy as it seems to know which is which. And none of them, so long as they absorbed what they were reading, could believe that the best way to divide opinion is between liberals on the one hand and conservatives on the other."

Brooks adds other things to his list for students at Harvard to get a good education, such as: "Read Plato’s Gorgias," "Take a Course on Ancient Greece," "Learn a Foreign Language," and "Forget About Your Career for Once in Your Life."

These are all good points but none is better, I believe, than number one. Since many evangelicals either do not, or even will not, read Niebuhr, I think his counsel is worth pondering by thoughtful conservatives in the present moment. A good dose of Niebuhr would, surprisingly to many, correct much of the present cultural silliness that passes for sound reasoning when it comes to the question of how man relates to God in public society. Both liberals and conservatives would profit from Niebuhr’s engagement with these issues, which came during and after World War II. His work may be more important now than it was when he wrote it but few seem to care anymore. I am glad Brooks put him back on our map this week. I hope we will discuss Niebuhr’s work with fresh interest in the coming years. His attempt to do serious public ethics would be a great help to us in this confusing and amoral time.

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  1. Scott Paeth's Semi-Daily Blog March 6, 2006 at 10:30 am

    Reading Reinhold Niebuhr

    John Armstrong writes an endorsement of Reinhold Niebuhr (good!) in the context of an endorsement of David Brooks (bad!). I’ve got a lot of quibbles with what he writes, but the passage I’d like to comment on is this:A good

  2. Tim Webb March 11, 2006 at 11:25 am

    What would you recommend reading by Niebuhr?

  3. Nick Morgan March 16, 2006 at 11:54 pm

    I haven’t read anything by Reinhold Niebuhr, other than the beloved “Serenity Prayer”, but I read “Christ and Culture” by his brother, H. Richard Niebuhr, and it deeply influenced my thinking about how to be a “witness for Christ” in our world today. His writing helped rescue me out of the rigid “one size fits all” approach to a much healthier and more balanced understanding of how Christ calls His followers to engage culture as His witnesses. I think reading either author would help correct some of the Evangelical silliness occuring in both the radical “right” and the “left”.
    Nick Morgan

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