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After being so hard on the op-ed digest version of a portion of David Brooks’ new book, The Road to Character, I felt obligated to read the whole thing and give a fuller hearing to his argument.

Updating a theory from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s Lonely Man of Faith, Brooks argues at the outset that each of us holds two opposing sides that reflect the different creation accounts in Genesis, “Adam I” and “Adam II.”

Adam I is, according to Brooks, “the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, resume Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories.”

Adam II is the inverse, the “internal” Adam. “Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong – not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in service of others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth.”

Brooks believes we need both Adams, but over time, we’ve allowed Adam I to dominate. He says about himself, “I’ve discovered that without a rigorous focus on the Adam II side of our nature, it is easy to slip into a self-satisfied moral mediocrity.[1]

Brooks argues that we have shifted from a “culture of humility” to a culture he labels “The Big Me,” which is marked by narcissism, a desire to become famous, and a generation of middle school girls that would rather have dinner with Jennifer Lopez than Jesus Christ[2].

Brooks would like us to remember that we are built from, in Kant’s formulation “crooked timber,” our flaws inevitable, but also instructive, something against which to improve ourselves, the very things, that if acknowledged, allow us to develop our souls.

I agree with all of this. I recognize the world Brooks describes. It distresses me in the same way it distresses Brooks.


The bulk of The Road to Character is a series of what Brooks calls “moral biographies” of figures like Francis Perkins, who was galvanized by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire to spend the rest of her life as a labor activist, eventually going on to work as Secretary of Labor, advancing FDR’s New Deal.

General George Marshall, Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot), St. Augustine, and Samuel Johnson are among the others covered. These moral exemplars provide object lessons that Brooks articulates in his concluding chapter.

It’s hard to impossible not to share Brooks’ admiration for these figures. Even conservatives who think the New Deal was the worst thing save Obamacare must admire Perkins’ grit and selfless dedication to advancing the lives of others much less fortunate.

Except, as I made my way through each of Brooks’ appreciations, I couldn’t help but think: this is great and all, but do I really have to become a literal saint?

Not exactly, as Brooks shares in his final chapter, in which he seeks to liberate us from this trap.

The solution is to adopt something he calls, “The Humility Code,” a “moral ecology” of the “crooked timber” school. We should seek to live our lives according to questions such as:

Toward what should I orient my life? Who am I and what is my nature? How do I mold my nature to make it gradually better day by day? What virtues are most important to cultivate and what weaknesses should I fear the most? How can I raise my children with a true sense of who they are and a practical set of ideas about how to travel the long road to character?

Who could disagree? Not me.

And yet, while Brooks’ road to character seems like a great idea in theory, it feels not only incomplete, but something close to a fantasy, like high speed rail ever becoming a thing in the U.S. The way Brooks describes it, embracing a more moral space should be not only relatively straightforward, but also viral, since a life lived according to the Adam II virtues is inherently more compelling and fulfilling to the individual.

Yet, the world doesn’t seem to work this way. I believe Brooks to be blind, either willfully or otherwise to the real barriers between individuals and his road to character.

One reason, I believe, is because Brooks maintains what I would argue is a faith bordering on naïveté  in what he calls, “moral force.” In Brooks’ view, as long as we can orient ourselves around some kind of higher calling, the wages of sin become less alluring.

This faith was on display in a column, “The Moral Power of Curiosity,” from last April, in which he reacts to Michael Lewis’ Flash Boys, the story of how a small band of crusaders figured out that the stock market was “rigged” by high frequency traders.

Brooks reads Flash Boys as a morality tale, the core question being: “Why did some people do the right thing while most of their peers did not?”

Brooks believes it’s because Brad Katsuyama and his team of whistleblowers were motivated primarily by a desire to “figure things out,” to know why they appeared to be a step behind other traders, an intrinsic (Adam II) desire, that is superior to the Adam I extrinsic goal of making money. Brooks’ takeaway:

One lesson of this tale is that capitalism doesn’t really work when it relies on the profit motive alone. If everybody is just chasing material self-interest, the invisible hand won’t lead to well-functioning markets. It will just lead to arrangements in which market insiders take advantage of everybody else. Capitalism requires the full range of motivation, including the intrinsic drive for knowledge and fairness.

Second, you can’t tame the desire for money with sermons. You can only counteract greed with some superior love, like the love of knowledge.

Third, if market-rigging is defeated, it won’t be by government regulators. It will be through a market innovation in which a good exchange replaces bad exchanges, designed by those who fundamentally understood the old system.

This passage is a kind of Rosetta Stone of Brooks’ personal philosophy. We first have an admission that indeed, capitalism is not without flaw, though in classic Brooks dialectic, the problem is not structural, but individual, moral.

And of course he finishes with a reflexive nod to the blanket ineffectiveness of government regulation[3].

But it is second point that I find especially strange, given that in a year’s time he will publish a book-length sermon in The Road to Character, albeit one aimed only at the upper-middle, rather than the upper classes. But mostly, I’m wondering how a grown, intelligent human being thinks that we can combat greed with curiosity.

Where, in the history of humankind, has this been the case?

Brooks believes that when we entered the “Big Me” culture, we lost the moral plot. “The realist tradition that emphasized limitation and moral struggle was inadvertently marginalized and left by the side of the road, first by the romantic flowering of positive psychology, then by the self-branding ethos of social media, finally by the competitive pressures of the meritocracy.”

While Brooks makes a plausible (or at least arguable) case for what happened, he seems unwilling to grapple with the why, beyond his usual shtick of declining social institutions, breakdown of the family structure etc, etc…

He doesn’t seem to ask why the social institutions have crumbled, why the breakdown of the family is so pervasive. When he writes about inequality, his solution – as befits his conservative leanings – is rooted in the “development of human capital,” school of thought. In Brooks’ mind, we need to focus on “the real concrete issues: bad schools, no jobs for young men, broken families, neighborhoods without mediating institutions.”

The manner in which we’re supposed to attack these concrete issues was made clear in a Brooks’ column from last week, in which he mused on “The Nature of Poverty” through the lens of the unrest in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the police.

He declares, “Yes, jobs are necessary but if you live in a neighborhood, as Gray did, where half the high school students don’t bother to show up for school on a given day, then the problems go deeper.”

Since what Brooks thinks of as gobs of money[4] that we’ve been throwing at poverty don’t seem to be having any effect, Brooks declares what we need is “a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.”

In a way, Brooks’ consistency is admirable, and his faith in the powers of education and social cohesion is kind of charming, but his blindness is infuriating.

Has he considered that half of the students in Gray’s neighborhood don’t show up to school because there is overwhelming evidence that when it comes to the necessities of day-to-day survival, school is pointless? Why bother to engage in a fiction when there are no jobs and few opportunities on the other side of the experience?

Because it’s good for your soul? This may fill the heart, but it doesn’t fill the belly, or put a roof over one’s head.


Jobs are actually central to traveling Brooks’ road to character.

Though, Brooks urges us not to think of them as jobs, but instead, “vocations.” If we can find our vocation, which is not a career, but “a calling,” we will find fulfillment, and the road to character will open for us.

As someone who has found his vocations – writing, and teaching writing – Brooks’ advice resonates. I’ve had other jobs that I was good at, good enough to be well-paid and successful, but while they brought me occasional satisfaction in the knowledge of a job well done, they brought little fulfillment.

So I am lucky. Teaching is one of the professions we often think of as a vocation, and I have just finished my 15th year of doing it. I am planning on being back for a 16th if my home institution will have me.

Except that as I consider Brooks’ advice about the importance of vocation, I examine my own path and think about the sacrifices, and the good fortune that made this possible.

My teaching salary has never topped 40k per year[5]. For six years at Clemson, I was paid 25k per year teaching a 4/4, primarily courses that would be covered by a tenure track faculty member making, at minimum, 3x that much. Those six years took something like $250,000 out of my pocket.

Pursuing this vocation, despite the economic cost, was only possible because of my ability to earn outside money writing[6] and being partnered with someone with a well-paying job[7].

It’s not that we shouldn’t be prepared to sacrifice something to pursue our vocations. In many ways, some measure of sacrifice makes the work more fulfilling.[8] Neither should we expect all vocations to pay similarly. Steve Jobs’ vocation and my vocation simply have different economic values.

But how far does David Brooks expect us to go to pursue our vocations?

Consider the thousands of adjuncts who are following Brooks’ road and sacrificed their own well-being, their financial security, opportunities for their children, in order to pursue their vocations.

The language Brooks so strongly prefers, that of the free market – supply and demand – is routinely used to justify this exploitation. When Arizona State moved to further burden their composition instructors with an additional section of students each semester, their administration called teaching loads in line with recommended maximums, “a luxury.”

Rather than support the vocation of teaching college undergraduates, we have made it a kind of priesthood, which is neither equitable, nor beneficial to students and teachers alike. Why should we make it so difficult for people to pursue their vocations, particularly if we claim that things like education and opportunity are so important?

What is Brooks’ preferred approach to solving this problem? There is nothing in The Road to Character that is instructive on this front.

And don’t get me started on the systematic devaluing and destruction of K-12 teachers who have been abused by so-called “free market” solutions for better than 25 years. Brooks thinks unions are a barrier in the way of progress, and Common Core is hunky dory, a necessary step to being “internationally competitive.”

Meanwhile, hedge funders, who are apparently engaged in their vocations, trade $100 million dollar apartments like collectibles, which they are because these people have no intention of ever moving into the space.

As I argued last time, the problem isn’t that we’re in the grips of “romantic self-glorification,” as Brooks thinks, but are instead situated in a culture of scarcity and competition where the field is inexorably tilted towards the “have mosts.[9]” That runaway meritocracy Brooks detects isn’t predicated on self-aggrandizement, but survival. It is desperation and anxiety that drives these acts, not excess self-esteem.

And in places like Freddie Gray’s Baltimore, this culture of scarcity has significantly worse effects, as Brooks’ NYTimes colleague, Paul Krugman notes when he calls it and communities like it zones of “neglect.”

Why should people be expected to travel a road to character when we don’t even provide access to roads.

I’m not even going to bother to argue any political or governmental remedies. Reasonable minds can differ on those fronts[10]. I wouldn’t claim that government policy by itself is going to solve these problems or that my preferred solutions wouldn’t favor some groups over another. Like Brooks, I think it requires a shift in culture.

We just disagree on which sin is primary. Brooks wants to start with pride.

I think we should start with greed. The greed of corporate school reform, the greed of the school-prison pipeline, the greed of so-called “disruptors,” the greed of our campaign financing system, the greed of that guy with the $100 million apartment he will never move into paying a lower effective tax rate than me.

Would David Brooks call this greed? I do.

If we are going to tackle the “real problem,” as Brooks might say, maybe we should start with a discussion of the sin whose name Brooks dares not speak, the sin he often seems willing to absolve, but mostly ignores.


[1] Note: Snide comment resisted here.

[2] Paris Hilton came in third.

[3] In the particular case of high frequency trading, lots of people agree with Brooks as long as the exchanges themselves are run by corporations that compete for customers and market share. High frequency traders are their best customers, and eliminating their advantage means they’ll shop elsewhere. On the other hand, some also point out that we could eliminate the inequities in one fell swoop by having a single, government-managed exchange.

[4] As is typical, Brooks inflates the amount of government assistance directed towards the poor. Numerous commentators noted his statistical slight-of-hand.

[5] In my jobs post-college before grad school, and then after grad school before returning to teaching, I never made less than 45k, and in the case of my last year as a marketing research consultant (2000-01), I made considerably more than that.

[6] An avenue not open to teachers engaged in more traditional scholarship.

[7] We also chose not to have children. While we are absolutely financially comfortable, if we had to foot the cost of education for a couple of kids, we’d either go into debt or I’d leave my vocation for better-paying work.

[8] Trying to write a novel with no expectation of financial reward – as I’m doing this summer - feels very liberating, far more pleasurable than when I’ve done books under contract.

[9] The reality of income and wealth inequality isn’t really debatable anymore. The best anyone can do is defend it on principle, that them’s the breaks, and you shouldn’t have had the misfortune of being born into the wrong zip code.

[10] I should note, however, that Gallup shows majority support for “redistribution” of wealth from the “rich” to the not rich.




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