New York Times Columnist David Brooks on the Campus Tsunami, and maybe coming radio and TV tsunami as well?
HH: Right now, though, I am joined by New York Times columnist, David Brooks. Welcome back, David, a pleasure to speak with you.
DB: I’m sitting at my desk reading Clayton Christensen’s book right now. It is extraordinary.
HH: Yeah, I finished it in two days. I’m really looking forward to this. Now this is interesting, David, because it plays, I wanted to get you on after I read The Campus Tsunami about three weeks ago, your article, one of your columns in the New York Times, because in context of what we just said, everybody would be loved to be taught by Clayton Christensen, everybody. And the technology is now going to arrive, that that’s what’s going to happen.
DB: Yeah, and he is doing online courses for the University of Phoenix, I think, so yeah, you would…and you want to have somebody you could talk to face to face to help you, coach you through the homework and the assignments, but to have access to him, even over online, could be worth it.
HH: Tell people what your bottom line was in The Campus Tsunami. I’ll let you articulate, and then I’ll ask my questions for you.
DB: Yeah, well, you know, online education has been going on for a long time, at the University of Phoenix and various other places. People in the military have been doing it for a long time. But what’s shifted over the last couple of months, I think, is at the elite schools, the Harvard, Yale, Stanford types. They’ve really begun to take it seriously. And the phrase, the campus tsunami, comes from Stanford president, John Hennessy, who says so many parts of America have reformed and really changed over the last 30 years. Universities? Not so much. But the online education is about to do to universities what it’s done to the media, a total transformation. And it’s coming late, but it’s coming, and so they’re beginning to put a lot of courses online. They’re beginning to really give access to their education to millions of people around the world.
HH: This is so deeply threatening to an established order. It’s like the music business, as you mentioned, like the newspaper business. I think it threatens to overwhelm many, many thousands of institutions. And I wonder if you concur with that?
DB: Yeah, I really do. And a lot of it is, you know, one of the things that’s necessary is they do studies, and there have been two big studies done, what do students learn in college? And the studies test people when they get there, in the first year and the second year, and for a lot of students, they learn practically nothing. It’s very hard to tell that people are learning anything. And so there’s really bad quality control in college teaching. And so if we can get some superstars giving people access to great lectures that will interest people in things like, ranging from accounting to history to science to computer science, then that’s a foundation. And I don’t think it’s going to replace face to face. You know, face to face is so important. Your college engagement, you’re going to need professors to coach you through things. But it’s another tool that I think will on balance be a very good thing.
HH: Now when I was an undergraduate, my first course featured James Q. Wilson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gary Orren and Bill Schneider. And you know, I never ever said hello to them. There were 400 people in the Gov 30 classroom. But I had a T.A., so I would go to these amazing lectures, and then I would, you know, you’d go to a caucus with 20 students with a teaching assistant. A lot of people begrudge that, David Brooks, but I think that’s actually what your column is suggesting is going to be the model.
DB: Yeah, it’s blending. You may not be sitting with 400 people in a room. You may be online at home or in your pajamas, but you’re still going to need that face to face, that discussion, because when you’re in a discussion, you’re thinking through things, you’re more alert, you’re energized in a really good discussion, and you’re reliving some of the thoughts, and really processing it in your own mind. We’ve become so much more sophisticated by what goes on in our own brain, and we’re not, we don’t have like little computer discs in there where you download information onto it. We need to have several different processes to actually learn something. You’ve got to download some facts, you’ve got to replay and regurgitate the facts, then you’ve got to frolic around in the facts and blend them together with other facts, and you’ve really got to, you know, write a journal, put on a play. And then fourth, you’ve got to bring everything to a point by writing a paper, reorganize it so it has some coherence. Those are all different phases. They can’t all be done online, but some of them can.
HH: Now when I read How Will You Measure Your Life, I was struck by one segment about language dancing, which is very much an echo of The Social Animal, your book on social science research that we talked about last year, it’s so extraordinary, the 48 million words that parents transfer in the first 30 months, versus the 12 million words, all that sort of thing. But it does seem to say that a lot of the university education, for reasons you just alluded to, it’s coming very late in the formation of your acquisition of information habit. So it’s, to a certain extent, it’s not going to change the way you are.
DB: Yeah, it is coming late, and it’s not always what’s important. You know, getting those words is important. You’ve got to have words in your family, you’ve got to have dexterity with language. That’s all very important. But also what matters is character, and you know, I think universities, I’ve done research where I go around to a bunch of professors and say do you try and instill character in your students, and they say well, we think they should have character, but we really don’t know what to say. And that matters so much for learning, because a lot of what matters is motivation, how motivated are you to actually learn.
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HH: And David, here’s what I was doing earlier today. I was sitting down with some radio folks, and I don’t know if you ever listen to talk radio. Do you ever listen to talk radio?
DB: I do. I do indeed, yes.
HH: Okay, well I’m on in New York on AM970, The Answer, and I was talking with them about old talk radio versus current talk radio versus future talk radio. And I believe that the model that is going to work, the old talk radio was interactivity – callers, callers, callers. The middle model was guests, guests, guests. There’s a third model, and I think it’s exactly what you’re saying in Campus Tsunami, which is you must provide experts in conversation, but you must them interact with your audience, or at least people who are proxies for your audience, to get them to listen, and in essence, to learn. What do you think about that?
DB: You know, I think that’s right. It’s a process. You’re going through the process together with a community. I guess my emphasis would be on community building. Every great host creates a community where everybody is learning together. and you know, if you’re learning, you know, you want to cite the encyclopedia sometimes, but sometimes you just want to sit around at the coffee shop and talk it through. And as I say, learning is not a simple process. You’ve got to, sometimes, you just want to write it down, whatever comes into your mind on a given subject, sort of just play with it. Sometimes, it has to be very disciplined and focuses, and sometimes, you push, push, push, waiting for an insight to come, and it never comes until you happen to be in the shower. And one of the things I find is that the insights tend to come communally, when you’ve got different ideas bouncing off one another, and that would be part of the discussion phase.
HH: Now in 1989, this is going to be heresy for some New York Times listeners or subscribers, but it’s true. In 1989, Rush Limbaugh invented a commons. He destroyed the old radio model, and he asserted himself as a teacher of the entire country. And he’s so magnificently successful. The only person who is remotely close to him is Oprah, who did the same thing. She asserted the ability to hold forth and conduct conversations with communities. And I think everything since then has been an attempt to create again the idea that there are great teachers, that you refer to in your column, where millions of students access the world’s best teachers. And I know a lot of the elite media won’t like to refer to Rush as a great teacher, and they won’t have thought of Oprah as a great teacher, but they are.
DB: Yeah, and I would say you know, it’s spreading out. I’ve noticed, especially in talk radio recently, it’s spreading out, and you do it, and Dennis Prager does it, and Medved does it, and a bunch of people do it. It’s not just politics anymore. It’s how to live, it’s how to think. And that’s part, I think that’s part of community building. It’s not just how we’re going to vote, what do we think of tax reform. It’s how are we going to live. I heard a discussion on the radio last night about Genesis, about some Biblical issues.
HH: Dennis invented this. I mean, he’s been doing this for 25 years, Dennis Prager. Now my question is, do you see any of this on television? This is everywhere on radio. My network, Salem Radio Network, does a lot of it. But do you see any of this on television outside of Charlie Rose, who’s also been doing it for 20 years?
DB: Yeah, no, and this is a great mystery to me. I write columns, write two columns a week. Sometimes, I write about politics, and I get a certain level of response. Then sometimes I’ll write something about this, the Campus Tsunami, or I’ll write about a moral issue. And the response is X times 10. And so then I go to TV executives, and say I can turn on the TV any day, any time, day or night, and there are five or six shows talking about politics. There are no shows talking about culture and morality, sociology, the stuff people really care about. Why is that? Why are you not providing those shows? And I’m not sure what the answer is. I think every time they try, they do it badly, and it’s kind of sanctimonious and pretentious. So there was, a few decades ago, you had guys like Dick Cavett, who were doing, you know, they would get William F. Buckley on the same show with John Lennon, and that was pretty much electric television. But the only people doing cultural discussion are on the radio right now.
HH: You see, that is exactly where I was going. Dick Cavett set the standard that I don’t think has ever been approached again for being above it all funny and engaging. But now are we deluding ourselves, David Brooks, that there’s a mass audience? I know some programmers will say you guys are crazy. You’re talking about the 1% of people who enjoy this. Most people want to hear, and I’ll just paraphrase it, red meat. Rush doesn’t do that, by the way. Rush actually hits an enormously high intellectual level, as did Oprah repeatedly with their guests and with their subjects. Rush doesn’t do a lot of guests. But I think TV executives are afraid to try this.
DB: Yeah, I think they just don’t, they’re part of the same formula. And you know, look at it common sensibly. What do more people care about? A tax bill or learning? Tax bill or how to treat your family? Tax bill or are you a good person? I guarantee you they care more about all the latter of those things, but they don’t quite have a format in their minds of how to do it. And you know, some of the people, as I say, who have done it, it becomes very pretentious and very sodden, very fast. So finally, somebody like Cavett, who can do it with some liveliness and some wit and unpretentiousness, that’s the key, and they haven’t done that, yet.
HH: So now I want to conclude by asking you, I just subscribed to the New York Times. I finally broke down. I have been resisting doing it. I did not want to give your company any money, but I finally had to, because they’ve got John Burns, and they won’t let me read John Burns, and they won’t let me read you, and there are few other people that I need to read. John Burns comes on, you know, about a quarter, once a quarter, once every two months. And I think he’s the best guest I have. And so why doesn’t the New York Times convene their talent and videocast it?
DB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure John Burns would do that. He’s not like, he only comes on to say things when he has something to say. So it’s not like he’s out there…
HH: But you’ve got like a hundred super writers. Some of them are way leftists. I mean, they’re just way left. But why wouldn’t they…they do these Times Talks where you interview outside experts by people who really don’t know how to interview. That’s my critique, is that they bring in non professionals. But they never just get the gang together.
DB: Yeah, that’s true. I do an online conversation with a colleague, Gail Collins, but they’re slow to drag us into doing some of that, maybe because we resist, because you know, when online starts, we have our regular jobs, and now they’re asking us to double our workload.
HH: That is, I think, there’s a structural issue there, but they don’t want to pay for it. They want it for free. But it just seems to me, last question, do you think it would work, fun people talking about big issues at length online?
DB: It might fill the gap that we’ve been talking about. I guess my, I always feel that reading is more time efficient for me. If something gets boring in a column or an article, I can skim down. With a video, you can’t skim. So I always find reading as just a more time efficient way to do it.
HH: I couldn’t agree with you more. That’s why people, I never watch a YouTube video. I want to read. David Brooks of the New York Times, great column, The Campus Tsunami. I appreciate your taking some time with us, look forward to talking to you again soon.
End of interview.