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Q&A: David Brooks on Princeton culture

After spending a month on campus in 2000, New York Times opinion columnist and conservative commentator David Brooksreturned to campusto deliver a lecture on the recent cultural shift. Reflecting on his original moniker “Organization Kid” in his 2001 article for The Atlantic magazine, Brooks believes this “achievement ethos” has only deepened since he left campus more than a decade ago. After his lecture, Brooks sat down with the ‘Prince’ to expand upon his cultural observations and how they might relate to Princeton.

The Daily Princetonian: Since your article in The Atlantic, many things have happened in past decade. You said in your reevaluation that the meritocracy has only become more pure. What about on campus — do you think your critiques of the students and the culture at Princeton have similarly become more pure?

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David Brooks: I can’t really judge Princeton anymore. For that article I spent maybe a month here and now I’ve spent one day here. But I do spend a lot of time on college campuses and I would say that the difficulty of getting into colleges is even tougher than it was 10 years ago and with the economy the pressure to find a marketable skill to get a job is great. I would say the demand and the competition is more strict than ever.

DP: Referencing something you said in your lecture, you mentioned that distrust of government is a bad shift — a shift towards narcissism. In a way, can’t someone reframe your argument and say that Princeton students trust their professors and authority figures to teach them the right information — and that’s a good thing?

DB: That’s a good way to put it. I guess I would say that you can trust and defer and admire and still challenge. One of the things that I didn’t like about the 60s, say, is that the students had no respect for their professors and they thought it was their job to have no respect. In that, I was more talking about what the professors were telling me and I think that they enjoy teaching when the ideas are challenged rather than just written down. They were more saying well ‘I want [the students] to argue.’ You can argue in a respectful way.

DP: Going back to your article in The Atlantic, you seem to agree in 2001 on the difference in the 'poetic' versus the 'prudential' frame of mind of students at Princeton and that more students were gearing toward the 'prudential' frame of mind. Shirley Tilghman’s commencement speech last year emphasized Princeton’s commitment to the liberal arts versus this more 'prudential' education. How do you view Tilghman’s ideas amid the meritocratic elite that you see today? Do you think it was too optimistic of her to advocate this liberal arts education?

DB: Well I know she, for a while, has been trying to diversify or change the culture so that it really does value these liberal values. She made a joke, I think earlier on in her tenure, about admitting more people with ‘green hair.’ And so at a place like this, you can carve out your unique niche. I am very struck, going to colleges around the country, how distinct the personalities are. Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Stanford draw from very similar groups but they have changed the students who come in very different ways. So I do think you can be successful — even with this big global pressure that I talked about — you can be successful in a place like this to change the culture, to make it distinct and unique. I went to school in Chicago, which remains very unique.

DP: You criticize the “receding roar” of the Republican party, saying that it is missing the shift that is happening right now. However, aren’t you yourself in a way advocating the passionately driven, 'moral articulateness' of the past? Is it a realistic goal for the students in the present to be compared to those of the past, especially in the current socio-political climate?

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DB: That’s an excellent observation because I do think there were languages that they had in the past that we’ve lost. So in some ways I am calling not for going back and reliving the way they lived in the 16th century or the 1950s. But if you go back and read Augustine, Samuel Johnson or even Victorian writers, you’re going back to try to reclaim what they did. I would say they did a lot of hard thinking and they’ve left us an inheritance that we sometimes neglect. I don’t think we can go back and live that way, but you can be like a magpie, picking a little from Plato, a little from Plutarch. If you try to invent it all, you’re never going to be Nietzsche.

DP: You mention that you have children who might be looking into colleges or already in college. I assume, from a parental perspective, you want your children to achieve to the best of their potential. Do you think you and your family have been able to rise above this “achievement ethos” that you criticize?

DB: I am a firm believer that if you go to any of the top 200 colleges you will find equally smart students in all of them. Maybe not as many, maybe less accomplished, but I am a believer in going to the school you feel right at, not the one that is top-ranked. I mean, we still pressure our children to do their homework and get good grades. But I would say, going to as many colleges as I do [has] made me very relaxed about their admissions. The two older ones that are already in college wanted to go to schools, frankly, they could get into easily. They didn’t want to go to reach schools. They found places they really loved and got in. I didn’t ask them to apply to some super reach school because they are happy and they made the right choice.

DP: You criticize America saying that it has gotten behind other countries in math and science, specifically referencing South Korea, which is an argument that Barack Obama made in his State of the Union address. In that sense, aren’t you advocating the 'prudential' mindset rather than the 'poetic' Do you think that you yourself cannot overcome the effects of this 'shift' that you reference?

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DB: I just mentioned South Korea because of the interesting phenomena that the scores are best but the self-appraisals are lowest. People sometime argue ‘you got to be egotistical to do well.’ But I think that’s not true. Most of the CEOs and corporate executives who do really well are not egotistical. They are very aware of their own weaknesses. So that was how I mentioned South Korea. You know, I do want people to do well in math and science. I’m not an expert on this, but I do understand that Asian universities are looking for ways to foment creativity, so there must be a happy medium.

DP: Princeton has the stereotype of having a politically apathetic student body. Do you still think this is solely a reflection of the moral inarticulateness and achievement ethos that you cite on Princeton’s campus and other elite schools, or do you think there is a more specific reason attached to Princeton?

DB: Well, here I am just guessing. First of all, I am not quite sure that is true anymore after Obama. But I would also say that in regards to Princeton’s ‘in the service of all nations’ motto, the desire to serve might be channeled into [non-governmental organizations] rather than politics. I think it is good, to some degree. On the other hand, you have the Wilson School, and that’s pretty political.

DP: What recommendations do you have for the Princeton campus? Do you think it is the professor’s duty to start this trend of 'students challenging authority' or do you think it should be a student driven movement?

DB: Well, it might be a student driven thing. Frankly, there are some schools you go to and there’s a very argumentative culture. They just want to argue and not only in class—they want to go to lunch with you and argue. That’s how you become a prestigious student—you argue. I don’t have any view on whether that happens around here, but I do think it’s up to each individual student.

DP: You mentioned that you will be teaching at Yale. What will you be doing as a professor to change the climate of moral inarticulateness, little challenge of authority, political apathy, etc.?

DB: I’m co-teaching one class called Grand Strategy. What’s interesting about this class is that part of what happens is that students have to make presentations as if they are presenting to the President of the United States. Then the faculty members come and rip them to shreds. The other thing I will be doing is teaching more of a Western civilization class.

DP: We will have a new president at Princeton next year with Shirley Tilghman leaving. What qualities do you think our president should have in order to bring back this moral articulateness and challenging of authority within the Princeton student body?

DB: I would think, carrying on what Tilghman was doing — which was advocating the liberal arts and diversifying the majors. Make sure people leave here, whatever they major in, with some sort of grounding. I’m a big believer in the ‘core.’ There are certain things that should just be part of your vocabulary, so I’m a big believer in going back to that core.

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