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Brooks on 'Organization Kid,' the moral future


Last April, David Brooks created a minor uproar among Ivy Leaguers with his Atlantic Monthly article "The Organization Kid" [AM, 4/01] which drew a critical portrait of today's elite college students. The "organization kid" Brooks described is a morally apathetic creature, driven only by a desire to succeed and to join the future elite.

Yalies got a chance to face off with Brooks this week—he visited campus as a Poynter Fellow. The fellowship, established in 1971 by newspaper mogul Nelson Poynter, Class of 1927, offers students and faculty a chance to better understand the role of the media in society. Brooks is a senior editor of The Weekly Standard. He is also a contributing editor to Newsweek and a commentator on National Public Radio and The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.

The Herald got a chance to speak with Brooks on Wed., Oct. 24, before he delivered a speech at Yale Law School.

Brooks criticizes college students, whom he sees as success-driven and morally apathetic.

Yale Herald: In "The Organization Kid," you drew conclusions based on interviews with students recommended by faculty members. Doesn't that introduce "sampling bias" into your investigation?

David Brooks: There could have been a bit of sampling bias. I went to Princeton with no expectations of what I would discover. The main thrust of my argument was developed not so much from interviews with students, but from the universal views of the faculty. Usually when a reporter investigates a story, he finds a full spectrum of different perspectives from the community. What surprised me at Princeton was that almost every professor I spoke to had the same view. They all described the students as hard-working and excellent but too deferential to authority. This striking consistency in the opinions of the faculty was really the basis of my article. I'm a journalist, not a real sociologist. As journalists, we face deadlines and many other restraints. As hard as we try, at times it's simply impossible for us to cover the whole spectrum.

YH: You argued that moral instruction and character-building at elite universities is inadequate. What virtues should be taught to students?

DB: If I knew that, I would be better than the professors I wrote about. Honestly, I'm an organization kid myself. When I was investigating the histories of schools such as Yale and Princeton, I noticed that at one time, people really discussed evil in this world. Presidents of Princeton spoke of the devil in commencement addresses. It's hardly imaginable that anyone would discuss evil in such tangible terms today. I noticed that the sophisticated elite has a very different attitude towards evil as compared to those less educated and the unprivileged.

For example, a lot of people from the heartland of the country—many of whom never went to college—seem to speak of evil much more comfortably than the academics. The moral wrestling between good and evil used to be a part of the Ivy League life. But it has disappeared from discussions now. This results in a level of complacency in students.

A professor once commented that to speak of character and virtue today is like describing gravity. We have the word "gravity," yet the concept is not tangible-you simply can't see and touch gravity. In the same sense, we have the vocabulary for virtues, but we have not seen the traits of courage and honor demonstrated on the battlefields as older generations have. And this is part of the reason why moral education is difficult today.

YH: In your view, how has the current crisis affected this generation?

DB: Well, I'm rather curious of that myself. I'd love to get a sense of that through visiting Yale and speaking to students. I've been to various campuses in the Midwest since Sept. 11. What I've seen in the student response there makes me optimistic. Only six percent of all Americans under the age of 65 have served in the military. So my generation is much more accustomed to real war than yours. I do believe, in time, the younger generation will prove themselves ready for the challenge.

YH: You suggested that young people are brought up in a more pampered environment. But decades ago, students at elite universities were pampered in a different way. Did privilege influence moral development differently fifty years ago?

DB: I do believe that older generations of the establishment were pampered in a different way. Prep schools were brutal and horrible places. Academics were not that important, and there was a crushing social system. One was either in the circle and initiated to the right club or one was kicked out and an outcast. This brutal social system was accepted because there was a conscious effort to toughen up the pampered rich kids for the real world. This was a way of strengthening and testing a person. To the older generation's credit, they did demonstrate a type of toughness when they went off to fight the world wars. They were more pampered in some regards, but much more tough-minded than we are today. We're tougher in our work ethic and in our abilities to pass all sorts of standardized tests. Nowadays the emphasis isn't on the social life, but on academics and merit. Read more at

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