The Road to Character

by David Brooks (reviewed by Richard Reeves)

I failed, right from the outset. David Brooks asks us to act with greater humility and restraint, to move away from the ‘Big Me’ model of the self towards a nobler outlook. But the first thing I did with his book was check the index for my own name.

After all, I know Brooks a little, we’ve sat around seminar tables together, and I’ve worked on character formation. He has even written about my work in his New York Times column. Imagine my humiliation, then, on discovering that I don’t get a single mention.

Perhaps I ought to be grateful. After all, humiliation is the painful path towards humility, and most of us could do with a little more of it. Indeed, Brooks believes that American society – indeed, perhaps Western culture more generally – needs a wholesale shift of mindset, away from individualistic, meritocratic materialism towards a quieter, smaller, less selfish way of life. I should not judge myself against the index.

In his role as a columnist, Brooks is superb at creating clear distinctions which serve as effective tools for digging into a particular subject. Here, he divides character traits into ‘Résumé’ virtues and ‘Eulogy’ virtues. The former category consists of the ‘skills you bring to the job market’. The latter are ‘deeper… the ones that get talked about at your funeral… whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kinds of relationships you formed.’

If you don’t like those labels, don’t worry: he has others. Borrowing from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Lonely Man of Faith, he also discusses two versions of the creation story in Genesis, which ‘represent the two opposing sides of our nature’, Adam I and Adam II. Basically Adam I is all about the résumé; Adam II will get a great eulogy. Adam I may be quick, clever, popular and successful: but unlike Adam II will never ‘cultivate strong character’, and ‘inner constancy, the integrity that can withstand popular disapproval or a serious blow’.

One of the most attractive features of the book, and of Brooks’ writing in general, is his willingness to be self-critical. As a newspaper columnist and TV pundit, Brooks occupies a particularly narcissistic corner of the labour market. He is surrounded by Adam Is. Indeed, he confesses to being a bit of an Adam I himself, and shares his own desire to be better. Not many authors will say of their book: ‘I wrote it, to be honest, to save my own soul’.

Brooks adopts a twin-track approach to this task. The central sections of the book are pen-portraits of individuals who have developed a strong character of the eulogy kind. These range from labour rights campaigner Frances Perkins, to Ida Eisenhower, mother of the general-turned-President, to gay civil rights activist Bayard Rustin, through to Augustine of Hippo, George Eliot and Samuel Johnson.

In each case, Brooks offers a glimpse into the development of a deeper character, whether from exposure to a personal tragedy such as the loss of a child, or a public one, like the 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Brooks brings novelistic interest to each short story, and then reflects on the implications of each for the development of character. How to be ‘self summoned’ to a greater cause like Perkins? Or to triumph over everyday sin, like Mrs Eisenhower? Maintain dignity in the face of horrible discrimination, like Bayard Rustin? Know ourselves as Augustine did?

The stories are joined by a common thread of self-abnegation – the triumph of will, discipline, love or a commitment to the greater good, over the satisfaction of immediate desires. Brooks does not gloss his heroines and heroes. He shows how they become better people, despite themselves. The book is worth reading just to learn a little more about each.

These mini-biographies are sandwiched between chapters that are in Brooks’ more typical style, consisting of arguments about the state and shape of contemporary society illustrated by findings from social science and surveys. Apparently Gallup has a ‘median narcissism score’ that has risen 30 per cent in the last 20 years. In another survey, middle school girls were asked which person they would most like to have dinner with (really, who funds these studies?). The top three dinner companions, in ascending order, were Paris Hilton, Jesus Christ, and Jennifer Lopez. Brooks sees this as a sign of moral decline. Frankly, it is incredible to me that Jesus pipped Hilton to the number two spot. More seriously, these surveys are doubtful evidence.

In his strongest analytical section, Brooks charts how the idea of meritocracy has narrowed into a combination of academic achievement and earnings. As he correctly points out, ‘any hypercompetitive system built upon merit is going to encourage people to think a lot about themselves and the cultivation of their own skills’. Even parenting gets distorted, with mothers and fathers offering ‘merit-tangled love’, partly conditional on the child’s performance. Being an ‘honor roll’ student or joining the ‘honor society’ is now a matter of maths, not morals: ‘In today’s schools, the word “honor” means earning top grades.’ Brooks is right: we do need to broaden our definition of merit, provide alternative sources of status and a greater plurality of paths towards them. Merit is not only a market good.

Brooks shows quite clearly the cultural costs of greater individualism. There is no doubt that the increased emphasis on the self has eroded some important values, and may have hindered the development of certain virtues. But these costs are not as great as Brooks suggests. Young Americans are more likely to volunteer than the previous generation, for instance (though of course, this may be for résumé purposes.) Society has generally become more tolerant of different lifestyles. Meanwhile, some of the excessive permissiveness of the boomer generation, for example on childrearing and divorce, has diminished.

But moral individualism has brought huge benefits, too. The slow shift of authoritative judgment from institutions to individuals has allowed for huge advances in equality in terms of race, gender and sexuality. John Stuart Mill wrote that ‘the only freedom which deserves the name is that of pursuing our own good in our own way’. Mill was not advocating a mindless hedonism, but a world in which each of us determines the nature of a good life, rather than being handed a recipe by a politician or priest. Brooks is right to say that we have paid a price for our expanded liberty. I think he is wrong to say it has been too high.

 

Richard Reeves is a Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution and a former Director of Demos. He is on Twitter @RichardVReeves.

 

 

read on →

Rethinking Unemployment and the Work Ethic: Beyond the Quasi-Titmuss Paradigm

by Andrew Dunn (reviewed by Ally Paget)

Andrew Dunn is an academic on a mission: to explode the titular ‘Quasi-Titmuss’ paradigm (named for the enduringly influential social theorist Richard Titmuss), which he sees as dominating the field of UK social policy academia.

While other countries benefit from a more politically mixed economy of social policy academics (and Dunn expands on the theses of two right-wing US academics, Charles Murray and Larry Mead, in particular), in the UK it is left-wing voices that have a monopoly. The consequence is a hard-worn refusal to sanction explanations of unemployment that rely to any extent on individual choice and autonomy, with mainstream academics always favouring structural explanations that make reference to the availability of jobs, and the unequal distribution of wealth and opportunity.

Dunn doesn’t deny the importance of structural explanations. In fact, some of his original research points to new evidence of inequalities – for example, the fact that higher educated, more employable, generally middle-class JSA claimants are allowed to ‘get away with’ greater choosiness in their job search than less advantaged jobseekers. Rather, his concern is to highlight – and to address – some hitherto under-explored questions with a bearing on UK welfare-to-work policy.

His main concern is with choice and ‘choosiness’. Put simply, if it is ever the case that people choose to remain on unemployment benefits rather than taking a job (at least one that is not particularly unpleasant or unsuitable), then claimant autonomy clearly has something to do with unemployment. Another important concern for Dunn is how this factor differs across social and demographic groups.

Earlier chapters of the book expose the inadequacy of some of the more common measures of claimants’ ‘commitment’ to employment. One is the so-called ‘lottery question’, which asks individuals whether they would work (or continue to work) if they did not have a financial need to do so – if, for instance, they won the lottery.

Not only does this question expect respondents to imagine a very unlikely situation, it also gives no clue as to the sort of job they should have in mind. Without such guidance, respondents will likely answer in terms of their personal labour market experience. A more highly educated, more employable respondent may envisage a stimulating, sociable office job to do ‘on the side’ of enjoying their winnings. But someone with experience of low paid jobs may find little reason, with a six-figure bank balance, to continue in shift work with little satisfaction or chance of progression. Thus, Dunn contends, the lottery question is hardly an equitable measure of a person’s ‘work ethic’.

Dunn then describes three original studies that he has conducted, which aim to use more accurate measures to gauge people’s choosiness. These include: in-depth interviews with employed and unemployed people, interviews with ‘activation workers’ employed in welfare-to-work schemes who have extensive experience of supporting claimants in job searches, and analysis of two longitudinal datasets containing responses to a question that asks people to choose between ‘almost any job’ and being unemployed.

The findings confirm previous research in showing that the large majority of jobseekers want, and are actively seeking, employment. They add further nuances, though; jobseekers are choosy (they do not always opt for ‘almost any job’ in preference to being unemployed), and the choosiest are the most educated. In a regrettably rather small ‘policy implications’ section at the end, Dunn explains that these findings broadly support the approach taken by the last government and the current one to tackling unemployment; where choosiness is in play, it is rational to apply some job search conditions to those in receipt of unemployment benefits.

Overall, more than the findings, it is Dunn’s purpose in this book that is admirable. Challenging what might charitably be called ‘received wisdom’ (or, less charitably, ‘dogma’) about the nature and causes of any social phenomenon is always useful – not to mention the ‘morally right’ thing to do, in terms of scientific endeavour. Likewise, there is real value in investigating social diversity and difference – even when that yields challenging results.

On occasion, one has the impression that the book’s sheer breadth undermines its impact. Some real gems emerge from Dunn’s original research with JSA claimants, which subsequently get rather lost because they do not fit in easily with the main argument. One such is the reported fear among more vulnerable job seekers that unemployment will lead to problems with drug and alcohol addiction – a fear which acted, for some, as a concrete motivation to seek and remain in work. It is to be hoped that these important nuggets will be explored elsewhere.

In spite of welcome attempts at signposting and more than one comprehensive interim summary, the book lacks some coherence. One of the most readable early sections – on the unemployment research of US academic behemoths Murray and Mead – is let down by a failure to follow through, in the conclusion, with how their research applies to a UK context.

We are told that Mead advocates a less permissive system, with a better combination of ‘carrot and stick’ (what he terms ‘help and hassle’) for job seekers, but Dunn’s conclusion offers no hint of what that might look like. Dunn does attempt to solicit policy recommendations from the activation workers whom he interviews and he notes with some disappointment their failure to come up trumps: ‘many other respondents seemed rather “lost for words” when invited to make policy recommendations’. In fairness, neither does he.

The book is set out in such a way that academics and policy-minded readers can locate what they need and take from it what they will – and I hope they do, because it is a salutary contribution to both.

 

Ally Paget is Head of the Public Services and Welfare programme at Demos. She is on Twitter @AllyPaget.

 

 

read on →