Sunday, May 07, 2006

Everything You Didn't Want To Know About David Brooks

(Sorry, although I'm not sure that I should be - the New York Times links are "behind the firewall".)

Even though I'm no fan of David "Babbling" Brooks, even after I was led to the piece by an email making fun of it, I gave him a pass last week when he wrote an editorial (Lunch Period Poli Sci) declaring that your social clique in high school defines your future. (Pass revoked.)

In that column Brooks only found nuance when describing nerds as the only group which falls into two categories: the bad "liberal" kind who become "scuffed-shoed intellectuals who have as much personal courage as a French chipmunk in retreat", and the good "Brooks" kind who sneer at everybody else in the world - I mean "geeks who have decided their fellow intellectuals should never be allowed to run anything and have learned to speak slowly so the jocks will understand them." Right, David... adult jocks can't wait to listen to slow speaking, condescending, conservative nerds. And the only shift between high school politics and adulthood is a miraculous realization by the jocks that they need the intellectual leadership of people like Brooks. (I'm not making fun of him - he actually says that. How do you make fun of inadvertent self-parody?)

When Brooks says,
The nerds continue to believe that the self-reflective life is the only life worth living (despite all evidence to the contrary) while the cool, good-looking, vapid people look down upon them with easy disdain on those rare occasions they are compelled to acknowledge their existence.
One can picture Brooks in high school, picturing himself as "culturally and intellectually superior but socially aggrieved" and longing for the day when he finally got to sneer along with (and secretly sneer at) the cool kids.

Today in Marshmallows and Public Policy, he tells us about himself as a kindergartener - or at least how he remembers himself - sitting quiety, doing as he was told, and meekly waiting to inherit the earth. Everything he is he was in high school, but apparently it was forecast by his ability to resist temptation.

Brooks references experiments performed by Walter Mischen in the 1970's, testing whether four-year-olds could resist eating a marshmallow for fifteen minutes. If they did not, socio-economic data indicates that they were more likely to develop drug problems and were more likely to grow up to be bullies. If they did not, they were more likely to grow up to score significantly higher on the SAT, go to better colleges, and have better "adult outcomes". Brooks tells us that poor kids, statistically speaking, have less self-control than kids from middle class homes.

While I think it is safe to say that Brooks wouldn't have grabbed the marshmallow, I am not so sure that with somebody like Brooks it would have reflected intrinsic self-control - he seems more like the sort who would have resisted the temptation to avoid the reprobation of adults. Which, perhaps, is why he believes schools should start teaching self-control. That also perhaps explains why Brooks misses what seems to be the essential point of language he quotes:
What works, says Jonathan Haidt, the author of "The Happiness Hypothesis," is creating stable, predictable environments for children, in which good behavior pays off — and practice. Young people who are given a series of tests that demand self-control get better at it over time.
When you take kids for whom school is the most stable and predictable element of their lives, school isn't the problem. Nor is training kids to sit quietly in rows very much of a solution, even if achieved by training them to "distract themselves" by thinking about something other than what the teacher is saying. Brooks suggests that some New York schools adopted programs based upon Mischel's research - why isn't he describing their success?

Brooks also suggests,
Somehow we've entered a world in which we obsess over structural reforms and standardized tests, but skirt around the moral and psychological traits that are at the heart of actual success.
Wait a minute though - I thought we were talking tendencies here. It's one thing to take a study which confirms what is well known, that a person's essential personality forms at an early age, and it is quite another to say that a kid who grabs a marshmallow will not be a successful adult. When Brooks describes "people without self-control skills for whom "Life is a parade of foolish decisions: teen pregnancy, drugs, gambling, truancy and crime, is he not describing the behavior of an awful lot of people in government?

Besides, since when has it been considered conservative to attempt social engineering through the public school system?

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