02/10/2012 10:12 am ET Updated Apr 11, 2012

Confucius on David Brooks

I enjoy reading David Brooks, the op-ed columnist at the New York Times. I don't always agree with him, however I find his arguments cogent if not at times compelling, articulating views I like to take seriously and ponder.

Brooks' How to Fight the Man is a fascinating piece about the poverty of ideological rebellion without intellectual foundation. His example, one well known to HuffPost Religion readers, is Jefferson Bethke's YouTube video "Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus," a video that has now received more than 2 million hits and counting.

Brooks' point comes back to a larger issue. As he suggests, we live in a time that sees much protest against many of our institutions, be they political or religious institutions. Yet such protest is rarely grounded in significant let alone adequate intellectual foundation.

Taking the argument to the next level, the issue is a straightforward one. If one is going to protest, one needs an intellectual superstructure, a world-view if you will, within which to build an argument, to build a protest, and to provide an alternative to that which is protested. Otherwise it is just protest and as such is vacuous, and essentially incapable of soliciting change in any meaningful manner.

As Brooks suggests, few people are good at creating their own world-views and education generally has failed in its role of presenting alternative world-views in any serious fashion.

What is one to do?

And what does Confucius have to say about it?

Well, it turns out that there is a passage, a very short passage at that, in the Analects of Confucius that addresses exactly the issue raised by Brooks -- protests without intellectual foundation.

The Master said, "Learning without thought is labor lost; thought without learning is perilous." (Analects II:15)

Lets look at the passage in more detail. Confucius is making the distinction between mental processes, learning, hsüeh, and thought, ssu. Learning is the acquisition of knowledge, thought is the deliberation about what has been learned, the processes of reasoning, deliberating and reflecting.

The first statement of the passage -- "Learning without thought is labor lost" -- means the acquiring of knowledge with no mental process other than storage is simply a waste of time. But most importantly, knowledge unto itself is only data until it has been transformed through the utilization of mental processes. Might as well be nothing but a computer hard drive with lots of storage!

As human beings, however, there is more to leaning then just storage of data. For Confucius such learning, to be meaningful, must be put to use. To put learning to use is to utilize thought and with thought to apply learning to the implementation of goodness for both self and society.

As such we have a strong intellectual foundation to build upon, even to build a better world.

And yet our own educational system seems to have missed the connection of learning and thought. How is the contemporary educational system so readily described in the politics of educational philosophy? Teach to the test! Don't worry about anything else, least of all, real learning! Just teach to the test!

To teach to the test means nothing more than the acquisition of knowledge for nothing other than a meaningless exercise in the regurgitation of knowledge back.

Knowledge in, knowledge out -- no thought. Is that the definition of learning? Confucius thinks not.

The second statement of the passage -- "thought without learning is perilous."

Here we come to the chief argument offered by Brooks. To offer up a thought is nothing more than just that -- a thought -- if it is not first grounded in real learning. To offer protest without an argument grounded in thorough knowledge is in fact to offer no protest at all, for it is as if passing clouds, ideas floating with no tie to the earth itself.

All the reasoning, reflecting and deliberating in the world will not bring those thoughts to bear fruit unless they are firmly planted in the soil of knowledge and nurtured and cultivated with the waters of information.

To Confucius the lack of knowledge in the realm of thought was not only insufficient to accomplish the transformation of self and society toward humaneness and goodness, but it was dangerous. Thought unrestrained and without knowledge can build castles in the sky, but it can't work for the betterment of humankind. Unbridled from knowledge thought is mere fantasy and as such is perilous.

Brooks' argument for the establishment of intellectual foundations to our efforts toward protestation echoes Confucius cautionary call for knowledge and thought to go hand in hand. Together much can be accomplished, together the betterment of humanity can be a realistic goal.

I offer these comments as a Confucian addendum -- thus Confucius on Brooks!