Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

The Road to Character

The Road to Character by David BrooksBrooks_road

I initially picked this book up as something of a palate cleanser, after a series of heavy reads. But far from simply offering a fresh taste in crisp writing, I found a rich and flavourful book which has opened up many new avenues for future reading.

Like his columns and other books —which I admire— I had expectedThe Road to Character to be a sociological ramble about the good life. At worst it would be a generic, though lightly woven, argument that the old days were better and we’re all wayward children today. This impression was seemingly confirmed in the first few pages with an anecdote comparing constrained celebrations in 1945 at the end of the war, with the showboating of modern football stars.

Yet rather than pursue this theme, Brooks largely gets out of the way for the next 250 pages, offering a series of moral-biography sketches. Each is fascinating and sympathetic in portraying people who have worked and struggled to develop themselves as moral agents.

Some undertook these journeys so they could contribute to resolving the chaos of the worlds they lived in. Francis Perkins was The woman behind the New Deal as one biography put it. George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower helped lead the allies to victory in world war two. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin were vital leaders in the Civil Rights movement in America. All had to constrain some element of their own personality, expressions and desires to be able to lead. 

Others were compelled to this struggle simply from the turmoil in their own soul. Mary Anne Evans (pen name George Eliot), Augustine, Montaigne and Samuel Johnson all wrestled with the ‘dizziness of freedom’, feeling scattered and sinful, despite often outward appearances of success.

What Brooks largely does not do, is prescribe any one pattern or path for those who walk the path while outlining these stories. There is a somewhat half-hearted attempt to bring out the larger lessons in a concluding chapter, but it feels a weak conclusion to the power and significance of the stories that have previously been told.

Rather, the contribution of this book is the recognition and desire to confront the silence that our society seems to have about how to develop and improve our inward appearance. In one important paragraph, Brooks writes:

“This cultural, technocratic and meritocratic environment hasn’t made us a race of depraved barbarians. But it has made us less morally articulate. Many of us have instincts about right and wrong, about how goodness and character are built but everything is fuzzy… What the Victorians were to sex we are to morality: everything is covered in euphemism.”

Certainly, there is no means or justification to return to the historical way that character used to be formed – by beating it into (or out of) people based on rigid ideas about station, tied to accidents of birth and pre-established racial, sexual and hereditary hierarchies. Brooks recognises this though is too lenient in his acceptance of the costs of the old orders, which condemned untold generations from antiquity to today to suffer. Not that we can even say that this old order has left us if we look around the world or at the regressive views in our own society.

But having abandoned these structures and the torment they imposed, we need to find new ways to discuss the values our society does encourage and find ways to ensure these are of the highest standard. Personally, I have great confidence that we can find new language and norms that re-centre notions of decency, humility, service and sacrifice as the highest of attributes. These values are practiced by many if not most of us. But they are drowned out in our media and public ideals in favour of an obsession with celebrities and scandals.

I do not know how this change is to be achieved, though I’m conscious of the responsibility of my position. As Brooks notes in an important aside, ‘Today teachers tend to look for their students’ intellectual strengths so they can cultivate them. But a century ago, professors tended to look for their students’ moral weaknesses, so they could correct them’. (He also makes the uncomfortable point that when we speak of a student ‘graduating with honours’ we mean only grades).

I don’t want or seek such a role, but if society is to make notions of character a priority, then the education system must directly contribute to assisting and supporting this endeavour. Even if that simply means acknowledging that the questions exist and giving students tools to begin their own search.

This, if nothing else is what David Brooks’ The Road to Character provides. Via his moral biographical sketches, many divergent paths are laid out. I’ve added books about several of the figures described to my reading lists, and I hope many of you add this one too.

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