The Value of Forgotten Ideas

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.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Jeffrey Brenzel: What I'm going to do now is to try to give you five takeaways that is five valuable things that are specific to you that you can pull out of these books and takeaway with you to the other things that you’re studying and also to your own life.

Number one, the value of forgotten ideas; some old ideas are not actually outdated.  The entire period that we call the European Renaissance actually consisted of people rediscovering a bunch of ideas from the ancient world and giving them a new application.  So point number one is some of these old ideas are actually valuable.

Number two, the value of making connections between ideas. There is less new under the sun than what you might think and seeing the connections that tie one thinker to another in a tradition also gives you a measure of how far we’ve come on some problems and what problems seem to have heavily resisted the attempts of human beings to give them answers.

The one that we’ve been considering from time to time through the course of this talk is one of those.  What is the best sort of life for a human being?  This is a question that you’ll be asking yourself as you try to figure out things like where am I going to get a job, where am I going to live, who am I going to marry, how am I going to raise my children.  These are questions that are permanent aspects of the human condition.  You’re also going to discover that this is not the kind of question in which science has suddenly delivered a fantastic new answer.  People have been asking and answering this question for a long time and looking at some old thinkers can help you see the connections between the ways people originally asked these questions and the way we do, but also give you a perspective on what has been solved, which in some of these cases is very little and what remains for you to consider and actually determine by the way that you live your own life.

The third thing is that great books of the past are going to engage you with a number of great minds who don’t share any of your assumptions just as we were talking about with Plato.  It’s a different culture, a different morality, a different religion, a different politics.  Call this the value of strangeness, which is not only an additional perspective on what you believe, but I'm going to claim it’s also a primary source of human creativity.

So the fourth value here is very straightforward.  It’s simply building up your intellectual muscle power.  You are not going to get to be a better wrestler, right, by whipping all the little kids in your neighborhood and sending them home crying.  If you’re going to be a better wrestler you’re going to have to get your own nose bloody by going up against people who are bigger and stronger and better than you are.

And then finally, five, there is the value of forming better judgment, making more discerning choices.  Once you’ve encountered and wrestled with the greatest minds of all time you’re going to be in a much better position yourself to tell the trash from the gold and to pick out what is worthwhile for your time from what you can safely discard with the other 99.99% of the reading material and you’re going to be able to do this without being able or having to consult past experts.  You don’t have them to consult for contemporary books.  You’re going to be able to do it without deciding what other books has this book influenced or will it influence. You’re going to be in a better position to make that judgment on your own.



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