Benjamin Hoste | Staff Photographer
David Brooks, New York Times op-ed columnist, speaks on moral examples for today’s young people during his Tuesday morning lecture in the Amphitheater.
When David Brooks asked his students at Yale University about the last time they had read a book that changed their lives, they stared at him in complete silence.
“You’ve got to understand that we don’t really read that way,” Brooks’ students told him. “We read to get through the class, but the deep, penetrative reading, we just don’t have time for.”
Brooks, a prominent columnist for The New York Times, gave Tuesday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture in the Amphitheater, titled “Moral Geniuses: Public Figures to Admire and Imitate.” It was the second lecture in Week Four’s theme of “Markets, Morals and Social Contracts.”
Though Brooks said he was disappointed with his students’ answer, he understood their dilemma.
“I sympathize with them,” he said. “They live in an incredibly competitive meritocracy, where the pressure on them to succeed and their insecurity about that pressure is fierce.”
Brooks said that society’s emphasis on external development, rather than on internal or moral development, is worrisome for future generations.
“They are not that developed in moral categories,” he said of today’s youth. “They’re good people, but I worry that if they lead this external life, and no one gives them the categories of an internal life, then something will dissolve along the way.”
Brooks sought to illustrate this idea using a book called The Lonely Man of Faith, by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik. In the book, the author describes his interpretation of the two sides of Adam. In one account, Adam is given dominion over the world. This side of Adam, which Brooks calls “Adam One,” is ambitious, majestic, creative and successful. The other side of Adam, “Adam Two,” is introvertive and humble, and he wants to be enveloped by love, meaning, security and healing.
Brooks compared his students at Yale to Adam One.
“It’s hard to connect the world they’re in — the meritocracy, which is about climbing, and student organizations, and about service — to a world that is not about climbing, which is about staying still and looking inside,” Brooks said.
Brooks attempted to show the Amphitheater audience how they can lead prosperous, fulfilling lives by offering examples of those he called “moral geniuses.” Brooks suggested these are individuals who managed to lead satisfying lives by helping others while simultaneously developing their inner-consciousness.
His first example of a moral genius was Augustine of Hippo, who “had one of the richest internal lives you could possibly imagine.” As a young man, he ran away and joined a group of clever students. He led an ambitious, rambunctious life, chasing women and fame. After reminiscing on an incident when, as a teenager, he stole from a farmer’s orchard, Augustine became self-aware.
“He realized that deep inside, he enjoyed doing bad,” Brooks said.
Augustine felt he needed a change in his life. His mother, Monica of Hippo, urged him to convert to Christianity. After reading a passage in the Bible, his conversion was complete.
“His epiphany was that you can’t be the solution to your own internal turmoil,” Brooks said. “You have to look outside yourself.”
The second person mentioned was Frances Perkins, the first woman ever appointed to a presidential cabinet. Perkins’ “Yankee upbringing” led her to Mount Holyoke College, where she majored in chemistry, and she later served with Jane Addams at Hull House in Chicago. After witnessing the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Perkins became an advocate for workers, pressing for tougher legislation at the state and federal levels. This led to her appointment as Secretary of Labor, a post she held from 1933 to 1945.
Perkins had a successful public life, but her private life was shaky. Both her husband and her daughter had symptoms of manic depression.
“She exemplifies a life which is an instrument for a purpose — deeply committed, self-effacing, doing whatever you need to do to realize that cause,” Brooks said. “She’s an example of someone who’s worldly but deeply moral.”
The last example Brooks gave was Dorothy Day, a self-critical woman who converted to Catholicism and became an activist and journalist later in life.
“Day was always looking inward at her own weakness,” Brooks said.
Day led a very passionate and internal life, Brooks said. She co-founded rural communes, soup kitchens and settlements. She also founded the Catholic Worker movement and its newspaper. At the end of her life, she considered writing a memoir but decided against the idea, thinking it would be too self-glorifying.
“At this moment, you can see the Adam One bowing down to Adam Two,” Brooks said. “Not writing the book, not creating something else … that’s her final piece.”
Brooks said both sides of human nature are in constant conflict.
“We live in a world that emphasizes Adam One and doesn’t give us much emphasis on Adam Two,” Brooks said.
Q: The person is the message. You had a very formative time when you were at the City News Bureau in Chicago, and I wonder if you would tell us about it while the ushers bring me the questions from the audience.
A: I’m always afraid that we’ll finish up what I’ve just been talking about, and I understand this — we’re going to spend the next 20 minutes talking about Sarah Palin, and that’s fine. But thank you for that. I’ll tell quickly what I learned. Some of it is hard, and some of it is beautiful. I went into journalism because I thought I would write stories during the day — it was Chicago — and we would go out and get drunk at night at the bars. That was what I was hoping for — didn’t really work out. I have the right personality to be a journalist; I’m sort of aloof, trying to be less so. I tell college students if you’re in a football stadium and everyone else is doing the wave and you don’t do the wave, you have this sort of aloof personality that’s right for journalism. So my first day — and this is the nastiness of journalism — a kid committed suicide, and I had to get a quote from all the neighbors. Mid-level city official died in a car crash, I had to get a quote out of the widow. Since then, I’ve taken the phrase “journalist ethics” with some irony. But that was part of getting the story, and finally overcoming your barrier and seeing the real world. And I did cover rapes, I covered murders, I covered the worst Chicago could offer, and it was eye-opening and really transforming. And just to end on one note of gentleness, I had, a couple years earlier, written a parody. I was a student in Chicago, I was a humor columnist for the school paper. A guy named William F. Buckley came to campus and I wrote a parody of him for being a name-dropping blowhard. I said that William F. Buckley wrote the first three volumes of his memoirs on the day of his birth. There was all of human history up to his gestation and the seeds of utopia, the nine months in the womb and then the glorious dawn on the day of his birth. At age 4 he wrote a book on World War II called Buckley versus German. In the afternoons he spends long bouts of name-dropping, going into rooms to make everybody else feel inferior. I said that in college he wrote some books called God and Me at Yale, God and Me at Home, God and Me Go to the Movies. He formed two magazines called The National Buckley and the Buckley Review, which he merged to form the Buckley Buckley. So Buckley came to campus and he gave a speech and he said in the middle of the speech, “David Brooks, if you’re in the audience, I want to give you a job.” That was actually the big break of my life. I wasn’t in the audience, sadly. After I learned enough from the City News Bureau about the real world, I called him up and said “Is the offer still open?” And I literally went from crime and murder on the West Side of Chicago to his Park Avenue apartment at dinner with finger bowls on the table in 24 hours, and you saw the difference. But he turned out to be a great mentor. Those were the two things I remember from that phase.
Q: Who are today’s moral geniuses?
A: OK, we’re done here [laughs]. Let me just mention one. Listen, I keep a list of people, a list of five people in my head at all times, mostly Washingtonians, not always — I can get sick writing about politics. But I’ll say, “At least these five are here.” And they’re people like Anthony Weiner, Eliot Spitzer — no, I’m just kidding. Some of them, probably all of them have graced this stage. One of them is Jim Lehrer, who is always on that list. With Lehrer — and these men and women all have this in common — it’s never about them, it’s about a job and the responsibility they’re doing. And Lehrer, the show was never about him, it was about telling the story of the news. … It’s the small things you do. His education for me, and I think for Mark [Shields], is that he would raise an eyebrow, or there would be a look of delight when we did something well, and a slight scowl when we did something badly. If you follow those little signals, that was like graduate school. There is another man who was a great civil servant across many Republican administrations, a guy named George Schultz, who I think was a man of great integrity. And I’ll mention somebody else in a different sphere. Although I don’t really know him, I admire him from afar. I talked a lot today about understanding your own weakness, and there is a writer who I have only met once, but I read his stuff, his name is Atul Gawande. He writes for The New Yorker and he’s a surgeon. With all respect to any surgeons in the audience, [they’re] not always the most humble human beings on Earth. I’ll tell you just one quick story he told in a speech I heard at Williams College. He wrote about a woman who had gone blind in one eye at age 85, and they realized at his hospital that she had a blockage in an artery, so they operated. And they cured it. And three days later, they’re set to send her out, and they say, “How do you feel?” and she says, “Actually, I’m a little nauseous.” And a normal doctor would say “Well, that has nothing to do with me. I did an operation up here [and] healed the eye, go home.” But because of Gawande’s mentality, [he] said, “You know, the human body is more complicated than we can know. So maybe something weird happened that made her nauseous.” Instead of sending her out, they check her out. They feel inside, and her stomach has twisted itself up and sucked up under her lung cavity. They realized they don’t know how this possibly could have happened, but they take it seriously. Then after a series of procedures, they fix it. But Gawande’s point is that the good hospitals do not make fewer mistakes than the bad hospitals; They pick up their mistakes faster, and they rescue them faster. And this talk was called “Failure to Rescue.” And that’s sort of keeping with the theme that I tried to have today.
Q: This questioner asserts that perhaps our country’s moral dilemma right now is to deal with the enormous numbers of people living in extreme poverty. Do you see a moral path to and answer to this dilemma?
A: Well I do think that is a central challenge of our time, the widening inequality. I would say it’s widening both in economic sense, [and] in social sense. In 1964, middle-class, educated-class families and people with less education had basically the same family structure, but now the gap is a chasm. So educated-class people have divorce rates a third lower, obesity rates are a third lower, smoking rates half lower, they give more, they vote more. The most disturbing thing is social trust. If you ask people, “Do you trust the people around you?” — this is Robert Putnam’s work at Harvard — the people in the educated class are very trusting; people less educated, for a good reason, less trusting. … Putnam’s work shows the average college-educated couple invests $5,000 more per year per kid, just in extracurricular activities, than the high school-educated. So that’s the oboe practice, the travel teams, the SAT prep, and that just widens things even more. So fixing that is a core problem, and the only things I will say is that there is no one magic lever, but I would be for … family partnerships to help disorganized families, very aggressive preschool, charter schools, national service programs to bring the two classes together. There has just got to be a zillion, a whole menu of things that you have to do all at once. You can’t afford to do the stuff for the young families if so much of our federal money is going to affluent seniors. For those who applaud, I thank you, for those who didn’t, you’re probably older than me, and I can outrun you.
Q: What do you tell a young person who is grappling with moral dilemmas daily while in the midst of a high-power, demanding career?
A: I don’t know. It depends on what the moral dilemma is. I guess the one thing I’d say to them is that remember the choice you’re making is not only for today. This I actually do believe in, even though there isn’t any neuroscience for me to believe it — but people used to have a sense, there is like this core little piece inside you, which they would call a self or a soul and every little decision moves that piece. A decision can make it slightly better or slightly worse. And the decision you make today may give you a shortcut here, but you’ll be polluting that little piece a little. The costs are going to be invisible, but they’re probably long standing, because it will be easier to do it next time. That’s the pious, moralistic thing to say. The only really intelligent thing you can say is you just have to understand that you’re going to grade yourself on a curve, you’re going to think you’re better than you are and you just have to correct for that bias in yourself and try to be hard on yourself in general. By the way, if anyone has read Reinhold Niebuhr, if you can’t tell, I’m a huge fan of Reinhold Niebuhr. This is his basic core message. He wasn’t always fun at dinner parties, by the way.
Q: What gives you hope?
A: Look at this, what’s so bad about this place? … I’ll tell you just a couple of things that are just tremendously hopeful. The first really is I’ve complained a lot about the younger generation, and I do think that there’s a lack of moral inarticulateness, but that’s more our fault for not giving them the categories. If you look at all the social indicators that used to be going south for many decades, they’re all pointing the right direction now. Crime rates are down 70 percent, domestic violence is down 50 percent, teenage pregnancy is down by a third, abortion rates, thus, are down by a third, all sorts of social indicators are moving in the right direction. Divorce rates are coming down. So this is an incredibly wholesome and responsible generation. They’re going to have the biggest mid-life crisis in human history in about 10 years. Until that point, we’re in a period of social repair. And then the country, we’re really good at integrating people. We worry about it, we complain about it, but go anywhere else in the world, we’re really good at bringing people from around the world and blending them into companies and to organizations and to structures. I spend a lot of time at college commencements. Do you know what’s the hardest job in America? The people who have to read off those names. They’re from everywhere. You sit there and you’re guessing at the names. I always sit there and there will be hundreds of people, I always just look at the women’s shoes. Sparkly women’s shoes. I’ve got nothing else to look at. OK, now I’m free-associating. But these are things socially we are just tremendously, I think, in good shape. Politically, we have a problem. Usually society is more important than politics. Just one final thing: Tom Wolfe was once asked, “What’s the most important thing that’s ever happened in your lifetime?” And he said, “Oh, that’s easy, coed dorms.” I think what he meant was that politicians make decisions, some good, some bad, but social movements, things that burble up from the bottom, that’s how we change how we live. And if you look at the stuff that’s burbling up from the bottom of society, there is a lot of repair going on.
Q: One person wants to know your thoughts about the role of disaster, events like the Triangle [Shirtwaist Factory] fire or the San Francisco earthquake galvanizing the personal mission. The second person wants to know, what’s the future of unions?
A: First, disaster. My thoughts, and I’ve never thought about this question. I’m trying to bring some actual expertise. Let’s phrase it this way. There is the experience of disaster, which is what they call a “light bulb memory.” It’s important to remember how memory works, it’s then how we interpret the disaster. Some of you have probably heard this experiment. There was a guy who was teaching memory several years ago in a classroom, and in the middle of a lecture, news came in that the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. He said, OK, stop class, everybody right now write an essay of where you were when you learned the Challenger exploded. They handed in the essays. He sent them out a phone call or an email, somehow contacted them five years later, and he asked them, “Where were you when the Challenger exploded?” Forty percent got it wrong. Then he presented them with their essays and they did not believe them because they had such vivid images, and this is a phenomenon that has been replicated … So it’s how we interpret disasters, and [Frances] Perkins interpreted the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in a certain way. It should be said that it was interpreted powerfully at a meeting a couple days later where they had a gathering of the great and the good in New York to feel guilty about this fire. A young woman, I think named Needleman, I forgot her name, she said, “I want to be friendly to you nice people, you’re progressives, you’re affluent, your heart is in the right place, but it wouldn’t be fair. You only show up when this thing happens, you drift away, people like us are dying and you’re really not doing anything.” It was an incredibly tough talk. That was one of the ways that that was reinterpreted — what Francis Perkins took away from that is to work with the progressives, but the people who are really going to help me are Tammany Hall, the machine politicians. Those are the ones that really provided her with the votes that she needed for the labor legislation. As for the unions, this is not a subject I have any expertise on, but I happened to have a young union leader from Britain in my office yesterday in Washington [D.C.]. I’ll just tell you what she told me, which is that she’s trying to revive unions among the younger generations. She said — and this is Britain, where class-consciousness is greater than it is here — she said they have no class-consciousness. They have no collective consciousness. It’s a much more individualistic, libertarian … She wants to create unions, but she knows she can’t do that on the old working class-consciousness model. I’d say there’s probably a need for it so there’s a balance between management and labor, but how you do that remains a cultural problem.
Q: How correct was Allan Bloom?
A: Well, Allan Bloom was wrong about rock music, but he was right about cultural relativism. There is a hesitancy to make moral judgments about other people, and that is born out of politeness, and that is born out of the belief that if it feels right for me, then that’s fine; if it feels right for you, that’s fine for you. The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls that emotivism. It’s just whatever feels fine is good. I do think he was sort of right, that does underpin a lot of us, not just young people, a lot of how we react. Everyone’s fine. The problem with that, it’s very polite and makes for a nicer society, is that it makes it harder to have moral discussion. It makes it harder to set rules for yourself. So I’d say to that degree he was right. I was not a student of his in Chicago, but when he wrote an article that became The Closing of the American Mind, I wrote an article in my school paper furiously objecting to it for getting young people wrong. He was a delightful man who enjoyed his success more than anybody I’ve ever met. He said, “When I read your article, Brooks, I knew my book was going to be big.” And then when he became a number one bestseller, he made a couple million dollars, moved to Paris, started buying these $800 shirts, really loved success. After a life teaching Aristotle, I couldn’t blame him.
Q: Who are the other two current moral geniuses? Are there any students whom you felt have received your message? What [do] we need to do, what’s going to change us to become better balanced between Adam One and Two?
A: First, there are students who come in ready to receive. If you remember your own years in school, it’s rarely what exactly they teach, it’s more you remember the teacher, not the subject, and you hope that you just leave a little residue for later in life. I was assigned a book called the Reflections on the Revolution in France that I hated in college. Then about seven years later, I came to realize that was one of the most important books in my life. So it’s more like planting seeds than thinking you’re going to be creating a cult, which you should not be doing as a teacher. Then to create the balance — I’m dodging the first question because my mind is going blank — to create the balance, there are two ways to become a good person. Or I guess there’s three. One is religion, and there are many beautiful chapels, I was running around today, synagogues and hopefully mosques. That reminds you of certain strengths outside the self, and that puts you in touch with things that are beyond your lifespan. But if you’re worried about the worldliness and worldly virtue — really nobody’s done it better than Aristotle — there are only two ways. One is habits, do small things that do good, and they’ll slowly accumulate into self-control. Whether small acts of politeness, setting the table right, making your damn bed every morning, remember I mentioned this before, but — I do this horribly —when you meet somebody, take some time to remember what their name is. I do this terribly, please do not introduce yourself to me [after the lecture]. But it’s even showing that you’re taking the time to focus, and so that’s one thing. So the second thing, Aristotle said, is exemplars. It’s just being around other people and then just copying them. One of my favorite experiments was done by Alan Meltzoff, a brain scientist who leaned over a 43-minute-old baby and he wagged his tongue at the baby. And she’s 43 minutes, she doesn’t know what a tongue, person or a face, she doesn’t know what herself is, but she wags her tongue back. We are wired to mimic. So the reason Plutarch wrote Great Lives, the reason the Bible is filled with stories of human beings, is because we mimic, so that’s why I tried to cram in three stories of Augustus, Dorothy Day and Frances Perkins, you just spend times around those lives, and eventually you’ll start copying them, at least to some degree.
—Transcribed by Kelly Tunney