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Spring 2004 | Volume 26, Number 6 | Features
Engineered for Success

Brooks Discusses His Atlantic Monthly Article About Today’s University Generation

“The young men and women of America’s future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life.”

In his speech to Seattle leaders, Brooks identified with SPU’s vision. “That’s the way I see the world, too; you’ve really got to go down to the roots and engage the culture.”


SO BEGINS A CONTROVERSIAL — SOME SAY illuminating — article written by David Brooks. “I went to Princeton University to see what the young people who are going to be running our country in a few decades are like,” wrote Brooks in “The Organization Kid,” a not-so-comic look at today’s college elite. He described parents who engineer each moment of their children’s lives from birth, young people who pursue success at the expense of fun and relationships, and a generation with no time to consider the “big ideas.”

For his article in The Atlantic Monthly, Brooks interviewed approximately 100 students and 25 faculty members and administrators, spending a total of four months on the project. “This was not one of those off-the-cuff pieces,” Brooks explained to Response. “It was pretty straight journalistic research.”

In an on-campus presentation following Seattle Pacific University’s downtown breakfast, Brooks turned his cultural observations to the “future elite” portrayed in his article. Students, faculty, staff and community members heard him describe the “professionalization” of children during the last two decades. Brooks sees a current university generation that is work-focused, obedient to authority and strangely dissimilar from the college crowd he was part of in the 1980s. “Part of this is due to an unplanned revolution that began about 1985,” he told the audience at Seattle Pacific. “That’s when a greater number of kids were born to parents in their 30s, not their 20s.” What this revolution did, Brooks suggested, was change the way parents treat their off spring. Now their children go from one adult-structured activity to another, honed to near-perfection until they become part of a “vast network I call the Achievatron,” he commented drily.

The result is a high-pressure life for children, said Brooks, in which everything from playing soccer to playing drums becomes work. “This rewards children’s brains a little but rewards their energy the most. Time is their chief scarcity.” The most destructive aspect of all this, Brooks noted, is the strong emphasis placed on grades so that students can attend the “right college” and then be rocketed to the “right job.”

“If you’re worried about your grade point average,” Brooks said, “you’ll need to be deferential to your professors, and you can’t get too passionate about any one subject.” The irony of this orientation toward success, he believes, is that many self-made millionaires actually dropped out of school, bucked authority and focused completely on one passion.

“So I want to give this encouragement to Seattle Pacific students,” he grinned: “Waste time, and get bad grades.” More seriously, he ended with this maxim: “Know what your passion is. Have a goal for the rest of your life. It can change every five years; that’s okay — but have a goal you can reach for.”

In a conversation with Response, Brooks elaborated on, and sometimes modified, his comments in “The Organization Kid.” Here are excerpts from the Atlantic Monthly article, followed by portions of the Response interview.

“These super-accomplished kids aren’t working so hard because they are compelled to. … Nor do these students seem driven by some Puritan work ethic deep in their cultural memory. It’s not the stick that drives them on, it’s the carrot. Opportunity lures them. … ‘I want to be this busy,’ one young woman insisted, after she had described a daily schedule that would count as slave-driving if it were imposed on anyone.”

Q: You’ve given the nation’s top college students some interesting characterizations. They are, among other things, “overprotected” and “Future Workaholics of America.” Do you see your kids growing up like this, too?

A:Yes, very much so. My wife and I live in Bethesda, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C., and we have three kids; the oldest is 13. I find myself driving them around all weekend, each one with a busy schedule: sports, mostly. They enjoy it, and it’s hard to say no to the activities they really want to do. So, I haven’t successfully risen above what I’m complaining about.

Q: What did you do as a college student that seems different from what college students do today?

A: Classes were fine, but I spent lots of time going through old magazines in the college library, which was great preparation for a future journalist. I found out the most useful thing: I discovered what I was interested in. You should leave campus knowing your own passion. Learn the contours of your own mind. To me, that should be the goal of college, not just getting a high-paying job.

Q: What do the changes you observed in today’s students — such as the obsession with success and the general lack of interest in current events and the deep issues of life — mean for their future?

A: I always wonder if this generation is going to have a midlife crisis all at once. Eventually, people will find that climbing the financial ladder to success is not entirely how they want to spend their lives. The downside of the professionalization of children is a prudential rather than poetic approach to life. On the positive side, fathers do spend more time with their kids now than they used to, because, of course, the intrusive father is also the involved father. Relationships between parents and their kids are better than they were.

Q: What are some of the other positives about this new breed of students?

A: I see a lot of good things, especially a high level of community service and volunteer activity. That’s a spontaneous positive development. I see them less excited about grand political activity, more excited about doing community-level work. The way some of them got into community service was when their college admissions applications asked them if they’d done any volunteer work. To fulfill that obligation, the students tried it and ended up liking it. This is also a much more religiously tolerant generation than that of their elders. For the Atlantic article, I interviewed [Princeton Professor of Sociology] Robert Wuthnow, an expert on religion in America. He says that colleges now have thriving Christian missions teams and other faith groups. A generation ago, it was something to be embarrassed about. Now, in almost every school, it’s OK to say you’re in a Bible study.

“I was amazed to learn how little dating goes on. Students go out in groups, and there is certainly a fair bit of partying on campus, but as one told me, ‘People don’t have time or energy to put into real relationships.’ Sometimes they’ll have close friendships and ‘friendships with privileges’ (meaning with sex), but often they don’t get serious until they are a few years out of college and meet again at a reunion — after their careers are on track and they can begin to spare the time.”

Q: How is this kind of group socializing at universities different from dating in the 1980s, when you were a student?

A: I look at a group of young people at restaurants, and one will be on the cell phone for 20 minutes, while the others sit there. It’s a different system of courtesy than we had. We just didn’t talk on the phone when people were sitting in the room having a meal with us.

There’s a lot of ambiguity in relationships between students now, especially between a man and woman not really knowing how seriously committed one is to the other. There’s been a revolution in courtship rituals, so that students aren’t officially “going steady”; now they’re sort of “around each other,” often with a group. One of the pair might think it’s very serious, but the other thinks it’s just for fun. There’s a lot of heartache that comes out of that ambiguity.“Not only at Princeton but also in the rest of the country, young people today are more likely to defer to and admire authority figures. Responding to a 1997 Gallup survey, 96 percent of teenagers said they got along with their parents, and 82 percent described their home life as ‘wonderful’ or ‘good.’ Roughly three out of four said they shared their parents’ general values.”

Q: Do you really see “admiring authority” as a dangerous trend?

A: Last fall, I taught a class in political science. As a teacher, you really want a student who can challenge you, and when you get one, you get fired up. It helps the whole class. When I was in college, we had what we called a whole group of “seminar baboons” in our classes, pounding their chests and speaking up about everything. I might have been in this category, in fact. We might not have been as smart as we thought we were. But if you defer to authority to the detriment of your own opinion, that is a dangerous thing.“The only major American armed conflict they remember is Desert Storm, a high-tech cakewalk. Moreover, they have never known anything but incredible prosperity: low unemployment and low inflation are the normal condition; crime rates are always falling; the stock market rises. If your experience consisted entirely of being privileged, pampered, and recurringly rewarded in the greatest period of wealth creation in human history, you’d be upbeat too. You’d defer to authority. You’d think that the universe is benign and human nature is fundamentally wonderful.”

Q: Have students since 9/11 become more introspective, willing to talk about deeper issues and what really matters in life?

A: I went back to Princeton after 9/11 and did some “re-reporting” and saw that, of course, the students had much more interest and awareness in U.S. politics and global issues. I found one student who characterized the new awareness by saying, “At college, we were taught to deconstruct everything. But now, with everything going on in the world, it seems it’s important to make judgments and come to conclusions.” He didn’t feel he was well prepared at college to do that. It was now important to think in different ways. This was a different moment, where choices had to be made.

“[Universities and parents] don’t offer much help with the fundamental questions. ‘We’ve taken the decision that these are adults and this is not our job,’ Jeffrey Herbst [of Princeton] says. ‘There’s a pretty self-conscious attempt not to instill character.’”

Q: What can universities learn about how to educate today’s students? What would help them become more integrated, more invested in their lives with their souls and not just their minds?

A: The level of teaching is not too bad at colleges. You can get a really good education if you’re enthusiastic about learning. Sometimes, though, universities don’t provide enough leadership on the moral question. They don’t teach students how to have a vocabulary about moral character. So I find many students leave some colleges having learned math and gotten good grades but not having learned what’s important to them. My hope is that schools won’t pump information into the students as much as encourage them to find out who they are and what big thing they want to do in life.


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