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A Conversation With David Brooks

Interview By Jeffrey Overstreet ( | Photo by Mike Siegel

David Brooks David Brooks

David Brooks is one of America’s most prominent cultural and political commentators. He writes a biweekly op-ed column for The New York Times and is a regular analyst on PBS NewsHour and National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

The keynote speaker at SPU’s 2012 Downtown Business Breakfast, Brooks is also the author of three books, including his newest book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement (Random House, 2011).

Has America’s place in the world been compromised by our educational crisis? Are there good examples for us to follow elsewhere in the world?

I’m not sure it’s hurt our reputation in the world, but it’s hurt our ability to produce wealth across our country.

As for looking for models — I still think we have the best system and the worst system in one country. We have some of the best schools in the world and some of the worst. So to me, it’s less about looking for models from other countries (although I’m certainly open to that) than it is about really figuring out how to make our worst schools more like our best schools.

There are very few societies in the world where children are raised to be unlike their parents. In most societies, you’re just supposed to follow the pattern. We have a rebellious streak deep in our culture. Our schools reflect that in the way we organize them, and in the way we encourage debate and discussion. Even similar nations like France have nothing like that, and when they try, it doesn’t work out because they have different attitudes toward authority deep in their culture.

I think if you look at the students coming out of our best schools, they’re as good as America’s ever produced — at least in education and creativity. I have some doubts about character, but that’s a separate subject. I think we’re as creative as could be. Look at Silicon Valley. Look at the number of patents that are produced in everything from energy to chemicals to pharmaceuticals.

The real problem is the collapse of the family in large parts of the country, mostly those families with only a high school education. That makes it very hard for schools to compensate for kids who come to them having heard very few words in the house, having no models in their heads for how to develop relationships with teachers or how to exercise self-control.

It seems to me one of the things we have to do is acknowledge that we have a pretty unequal society. We need to have two different sorts of education system; one that’s pretty free and open for the kids who are fortunate enough to have a pretty stable home life, and one that’s much more ordered for kids who don’t and who need that sense of structure.

When I go to the schools that are really thriving with poorer kids, I see that they introduce a real sense of structure to their student bodies, even at an early age. So to me, what we’re bad at is not creativity, it’s understanding how to mold things like self-control and discipline and attention. That’s where our real gap is.

How can teachers teach character?

Teachers can teach character in two ways. The first could happen by instilling the habits of discipline and regularity and politeness, and demanding those things.

The second is by holding up exemplars, teaching about people who possessed character so students could imitate. Students are really good at imitating.

What religious and private schools — especially the religious schools — have is a theory of character. And this is the great need, especially among the more middle class and affluent schools, who are very good at producing kids who can get good SAT scores at that level, but very bad at teaching them how to be a good person. Most of our schools have no vocabulary, nothing to say, about this.

I’ve written in the past about research, by Christian Smith and others, on how morally inarticulate a lot of young people are. It’s kind of shocking. He’s found that any school that can provide a vocabulary of virtue and vice and sin — and that’s what religious schools offer —something that some private schools and public schools can’t do in the same way, but they have to learn how to do it.

"We have some of the schools in the world and some of the worst."

Speaking of self-control and attention spans, clearly the students in today’s classrooms are living in a world of technology far more advanced than what their parents experienced. What impact do you see the internet and technology having on education?

There was the idea a few years ago that if we put laptops in every classroom, that would be great, or if we had high-speed internet in every classroom, that would be great. There’s a fair bit of research on this, and I don’t think it’s proven the promise, necessarily, of technology in the classroom.

Now, I do think technology can be used by teachers to better evaluate what their students are getting wrong, so they can tailor decisions. But I think we’ve vastly oversold technology in the classroom.

As for whether it weakens attention span, I think we all feel it does. I certainly feel in myself it does as I check my Blackberry or my iPhone 95 million times a day. Neuroscientists dispute that. They say there’s no evidence so far of change in cognitive function from the internet or technology. I’m not sure I quite believe them because my experience tells me differently, but I guess we have to regard that as an open question.

How important is face-to-face teacher interaction in these increasingly screen-based learning environments?


"But the elemental fact about education is that people learn from people they love, and that if you’re not focusing on the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student, then you’re missing the main arena."

I think it’s everything. We’ve spent 30 years readjusting the bureaucratic boxes, trying big schools and small schools and charters and vouchers. But the elemental fact about education is that people learn from people they love, and that if you’re not focusing on the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the student, then you’re missing the main arena.

We’ve sort of ignored that. So the communication is partly verbal and partly communicated over a wire or wirelessly. There’s a mountain of research to show that that kind of communication is far inferior to the kind that relies on gesture, smell, emotional sensitivity — the face-to-face stuff.

What role do you think technology should play in education?

I think we’re in a period of incredible education experimentation. We’re in a sort of education renaissance right now, and it’s happening, more or less, from the ground up, not so much top-down.

So if technology plays a role, my hope is that it’ll liberate some of the rote lecturing. We can do that through technology, and it’ll allow teachers to do more coaching, more direct one-to-one interaction.

There are even some thoughts and models where we’ve flipped the school day. Now we have students sitting in lectures in the morning and afternoon, and working alone at home on homework — but it might be better to have them do the lectures online at night, and do the homework during the day with the teachers hovering around, helping them.

How are the current challenges in education related to other pressing national issues such as poverty and health care? Can improvements in education be part of the solution for other issues?

I think it’s part of the answer.

Giving people human capital is like giving them nutrition — you have to do it every day at every life stage. That starts in the womb. We now know how active children are in the womb, learning and forming their brains. It happens in the first three years of life, then it happens in school years, and then it happens in college and adulthood. So you just have to nurture relationships all along the chain. To me, we’ve done a great job of giving people access to education with Pell grants and things like that. But we’ve done a terrible job of giving them the human capital to get through.

[Some] colleges have 7 percent completion rates, and that’s because the students come emotionally and academically unprepared. They never really get engaged by the school. So we’ve done a horrible job of giving people the sort of deep inner tools that they need to succeed once they get to school. We focus, as usual, on the financing, which is important, but by far not the most important thing

In one of your columns, you said, “If you look across the country, you see education financing getting sliced — often in the most thoughtless and destructive ways. The future has no union.” How can we reach today’s leaders to encourage them to focus on education more intently? How do we assure that they will, inside and outside of the schools, make education a priority?

A lot of people think anything that has to do with guns and banks seems very serious. Education seems like a secondary issue, and they patronize it. So everyone tells you it’s important, but that doesn’t mean they necessarily do much about it.

And yet — there are new stories that come across my desk every week.

There’s a system in Chicago that’s learned to turn around schools, to take a bad school and make it a good school. That’s been very hard to do. There are charter schools like the KIPP academies that are great schools.

Recently I visited a school in Brooklyn started by a former Marine and a Hasidic Jew. They’re taking poor kids, and they’re totally reinventing kindergarten, first, and second grade, by putting 40 kids in a class with about 15 teachers who are very highly paid. This is a public school. It’s completely unlike every other kindergarten you’ve ever seen.

Which teachers and schools have been influential for you?

I [attended] a number of great schools where all the teachers were good. One was my elementary school, Grace Church School in New York, where there was a spirit of creativity and exploration. So it was just a vibrant place to walk into every morning. I’ve forgotten most of my junior high and most of my high school, but I remember every teacher I had at that school and most of my classmates. That was a school where there was tremendous energy, intellectual energy, for little kids.

Then the second great experience I had was my first two years of college at University of Chicago where I read the great books. Spending two years engaged with them — that has shaped the way I think, and it shapes my column and writing ever after. I never really appreciated how much it shaped the way I think and write until a few years ago, and now, I really see how I was molded by those two years.

Is the value of a college education changing?

It’s easy to calculate the economic value, and that’s only going up every year. At the same time, there are all of these studies and debates about how much college students are actually learning. There was a study that came out two years ago suggesting that college students learn very little or nothing in college that they retain. That was kind of depressing. Some people have disputed that study, but I think there’s a grain of truth to it.

Somehow, we’ve got to focus again, in a lot of universities, on the teaching aspect and getting great teachers rather than just great researchers.

Are we seeing any kind of a shift in whether students are pursuing or being discouraged from pursuing teaching as a career? If they are interested, should they be preparing differently than they did 20 or 30 years ago?

Well, there’s certainly a lot of interest in teaching, sparked in party by Teach for America and similar programs. They get tens of thousands of applicants every year. Other programs get tens of thousands. I think a lot of people know that they won’t get rich teaching, but they’ll have an engaging job and they’ll know they’ll do good for the world. For all the problems in society, I do think this generation under 30 is a pretty remarkable generation. I do think that there are a lot more people pursuing teaching.

One of the things I would say to teachers is this: What students need at any level is a viewpoint on the world they are not familiar with. So they may not like it. They may not like Karl Marx, or they might not like Plato, or they might not like Edmund Burke or Thomas Aquinas, but they should be aware of different ways of seeing the world. And later in life, maybe one of those different ways will seem actually quite accurate to them and will be very helpful.

Do you feel that, in the current political climate, education is getting lost as a focus?

I do. A couple years ago, the Gates Foundation wanted to spend $20 million to inject education into the presidential campaign, and I begged them not to do it. I don’t want it in a presidential campaign because candidates will say things to appeal to their constituencies that are not actually good for education. So it’s best that they shut up about it, and then we can just get on with the reform in a quieter way.

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