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Book Review of "The Road to Character" by David Brooks

Monday, August 10, 2015  
Posted by: Damian Kavanagh
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Reviewed by Dr. Byron Hulsey, Head of School, Woodberry Forest School, Woodberry Forest, VA

One of the foremost pundits of our time, David Brooks of The New York Times has published a crackling critique of postmodern American society, a wayward culture full of befuddled careerists searching aimlessly for happiness by goosing up our achievements at the expense of a deeper life of meaning. In The Road to Character, Brooks draws a line between “Adam I” and “Adam II,” the former who pour their energy into the “resume virtues” of career accomplishment and the latter who stay focused on the “eulogy virtues” that stand the test of time and create a legacy for others to follow for generations to come (p. xvi).

Brooks’ prose is lucid and engaging, and his research is sound and penetrating. In short, it’s a book we should all read, because he’s pegged us so accurately and completely. In the early stages, I found myself chuckling and shaking my head in sadness. He points to Gallup polls that highlight eye-popping changes in our desire for fame and our inclination to narcissism. In 1976, for example, respondents ranked fame 15th out of 16 in a list of their life goals. But by 2007, “51 percent of young people reported that being famous was one of their top personal goals.” In another recent study, middle school girls were queried who they would most like to have dinner with. “Jennifer Lopez came in first, Jesus Christ came in second, and Paris Hilton third” (p. 7). Something is clearly askew.

Brooks is right to probe our never-ending hunger for entertainment, our yearning for a happiness driven by acquisition, and our craving for one more entry on a crowded resume that will tilt the scale in our favor for that precious place in college or that job offer that will make it all happen. For good and ill, we live in a frenetic capitalist meritocracy in which we too often define our worth and the worth of others by what we have and have not accumulated. We know by now that a flatter world is more brutally competitive, and our collective anxiety spills out into our daily dealings with ourselves and each other.

In our world of constant measurement—cars, houses, clothes, gadgetry, salaries, endowments (to name a few)—time stands as the scarcest resource. In many of our cherished sports (baseball, tennis, and golf are salutary exceptions) we measure time in tenths of seconds. Everything, it seems, can be broken into smaller and smaller units and ultimately commodified. That leaves many of us feeling vaguely empty, in large part because we’ll never have enough and we’ll always be seeking more—the next appointment, the next IPO, the dream vacation home, or the next promotion.

The Talking Heads might have described this gilded path as the “Road to Nowhere,” but Brooks steps in to put us back on the beam. He holds that we’re missing a deeper and more enduring commitment to our inner selves. For Brooks, character is not a destination, but an arduous and life-long journey: “Character is not innate or automatic. You have to build it with effort and artistry. You can’t be the good person you want to be unless you wage this campaign. You won’t even achieve enduring external success unless you build a solid moral core” (p. 12). He doesn’t gloss the difficulty of the road ahead, and soberly points to the patience and persistence necessary to reclaim a meaningful “moral ecology” that comes through disappointment, difficulty, and a willingness to suffer for ideals larger than our petty wants and desires. We want clean and neat, but Brooks holds that this work is hard and messy, steering us to the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who observed that “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made” (p. 11).

The heart of the book is a set of penetrating biographical essays exploring the lives of famous men and women, leading us back to what Brooks calls the “moral joys” consistent with a life given over to serving a larger purpose. From Frances Perkins we learn about the “summoned self,” and understand what she sacrificed to address the perils of working Americans after she witnessed the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in 1911. Brooks’ portrait of Dwight Eisenhower develops the author’s belief that life is a struggle between right and wrong, that human nature is “sinful and selfish,” but balanced by the capacity for “transcendence” and “virtue” (p. 53). He shows us how the young Eisenhower mastered his ferocious temper and later stopped, overnight, his four-pack-a-day habit of smoking cigarettes when his doctor had merely suggested he cut down. The Catholic social worker Dorothy Day struggled to embrace a calling to serve God through helping the poor and dispossessed, but ultimately did so with a reckless abandon driven by love. Her life stands at odds with many of ours, given that we tend to seek fleeting moments of happiness and more and more possessions to satisfy our egocentric selves.

George Marshall became the paragon of the loyal soldier and patriotic American, learning to “sublimate” his own ego in service to his country. He was called upon to prune the ranks of the ossified military establishment at the outset of World War II, often ending the careers of men he knew would detract from the cause. More than anything, Marshall silently and secretly coveted command in the field, yet he stood aside and recommended Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander when he realized that President Roosevelt needed him to run the war from Washington. Brooks is admirably inclusive in his portraits, and he often sprinkles in aphorisms from his favorite philosophers to advance his argument about what we have lost and what we might gain by reclaiming our moral selves. He looks at wildly different and flawed personalities, such as the civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin and public intellectuals like Samuel Johnson and Montaigne. He anchors his analysis in a commitment to an enduring love as the most transcendent ideal, tracing the lives of the British novelist George Eliot and the early Christian theologian, Augustine.

While the biographical portraits don’t always cohere and follow the thread he lays out in the introduction (essays seem to be Brooks’ area of command, perhaps not monographs), there is much to glean from the journey upon which the reader embarks. But it’s in the final chapter, entitled The Big Me that Brooks really finds his voice. He is scathing in his indictment of a cultural slide toward moral aridity that began in the years after World War II when the “Greatest Generation” of Americans abandoned the posture of community and sacrifice from the Great Depression and the war to enjoy the fruits of an economy that thrived for the next 30 years.

And while we thankfully moved to correct the deep social injustices of segregation and sexism, we fell prey in those years to the temptation to believe that life is about ourselves, not the world around us. I’m reminded of a graduate adviser who thundered, “Get over yourself,” when we whined about a grade or a strained relationship with a professor. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? We can’t easily get over ourselves, because that’s how we see our place in the world, “the self as an Eden to be actualized” (p. 252). Brooks faults us for not asking the big questions, not living contemplatively and thoughtfully about why it matters and what our lives are really for.

The sloppiness of our lives swarms us in popular culture, in our rancid and rabid politics, in our extraordinary investment in kindergarten-professional athletics, in our church houses, and certainly in our schools. Upper middle class and upper class Americans have succumbed as parents to the trend to make our children the center of our existence, to do all we can to protect their place in this flat and hyper-competitive world. Anxiety abounds, and we feel it – all the while enabling the kind of behavior in our schools that Brooks rightly laments.

The calling for us as leaders is clear: if we genuinely care about character, we have to do more than we’re doing today. If we embrace the high-minded meaning embedded in our mission statements, we need to re-think our approach to practices like pep rallies, awards days, and even what we convey on our transcripts and in teacher comments. And most of all, we desperately need a meaningful conversation with our colleagues in colleges and universities, one geared around a purpose larger than the frenzied and frenetic striving for one more accomplishment and one more line on the resume in the quest for happiness that will likely never come without a commitment to beliefs bigger than we’ll ever be.


Byron Hulsey is the Head of School of Woodberry Forest School in Woodberry Forest, VA. He can be reached at and you can read his blog here.

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