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The Value of Forgotten Ideas

In his Floating University lecture, Dr. Jeffrey Brenzel shows how our intellectual history is the story of rediscovering old ideas, and how these ideas will help you address permanent aspects of the human condition.

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What’s the Big Idea?

In a previous post, Jeffrey Brenzel, Philosopher and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions at Yale University argued that reading the classics will not only enhance your education, but help you live better. In the first part of his Floating University lecture Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: The Essential Value of a Classic Education, Brenzel presented five “rough and ready criteria” for identifying a classic of literature or philosophy or politics.

In this section, Dr. Brenzel identifies five key takeaways from reading the classics. As Brenzel demonstrates, our intellectual history is very much the story of how old ideas are rediscovered, and the way that succeeding generations find new applications for these ideas. Much of the value of studying these ideas, Brenzel argues, comes from making connections across disciplines and ultimately building up your intellectual muscle power. In other words, if you want to be a better wrestler, Brenzel argues, you need to “get your own nose bloody by going up against people who are bigger and stronger and better than you are.”

Watch here:

What’s the Significance?

The five takeaways from reading the classics, as Brenzel lists them, are as follows:

1. The Value of Forgotten Ideas
Some old ideas are not actually outdated, but are, in fact, waiting to be rediscovered and given new applications.

2. The Value of Connecting Ideas
“What is the best sort of life for a human being?” Brenzel says you will ask yourself this question again and again as you decide on your career, where you want to live, who you will marry and how you will raise your own children. Making connections between ideas will give 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.” These are questions that Brenzel says address “the permanent aspects of the human condition.”

3. The Value of Strangeness
Brenzel argues that learning different perspectives from your own is “a primary source of human creativity.”

4. The Value of Building Intellectual Muscle
“If you’re going to be a better wrestler, Brenzel argues, “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.

5. The Value of Better Judgment
Forming better judgments will help you making more discerning choices in life. “Once you’ve encountered and wrestled with the greatest minds of all time,” Brenzel argues, “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” and what you can safely discard.

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