Thursday, June 2, 2011

It's Not About You, Until It Is

Once again, David Brooks has written a column which has provoked me. In a way, David Brooks is an ideal antagonist for me, because he is the prophet of the conventional wisdom: he sums up popular opinion so well that I cannot resist challenging him, even though I disagree, and I give him credit for writing about topics that are challenging and difficult issues.

This week, Brooks writes about the troubles of recent college graduates. Since I am currently in college, this is a subject that, if it is not near and dear to me, is still at least terrifyingly relevant.

Examining the poor employment prospects for recent college graduates, Brooks laments that today's graduates have been "ill served by their elders". He also notes that the lives of these graduates have until now been "perversely structured", because these young people are part of "the most supervised generation" in history, yet they "will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured".

I find it handy to understand that Brooks is writing about two major problems in this column. The first problem is that college graduates have been sent into a more open and less structured world with little preparation to handle such an environment.

Brooks's second major complaint is that college graduates are terribly mislead by the claims of "baby-boomer theology", which encourage graduates to "chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself". There is too much focus on the individual, Brooks declares: being an adult means making commitments and tying yourself down, not focusing on limitless possibilities.

Brooks states that while society "preaches the self as the center of a life", it is instead true that tasks are at the center of life, and that people are fulfilled by engaging tasks. He finally asserts that the purpose of life is not to find yourself, but to lose yourself.

I disagree with David Brooks not because I think he's necessarily wrong, but because I think his view is short-sighted and limited. I have two major objections.

First, I noted earlier that Brooks raises two major points in his column. Are they contradictory? Brooks said that the world is more open and unstructured than ever before. Does he support this trend? He doesn't say in this essay, but I have read enough David Brooks columns to assume that he does. Brooks is one of those conservatives who loves to talk about how innovation and free trade work together to create a better world. Somehow, Brooks scorns the idea of individuals focusing on new possibilities - when these individual choices are the engines which drive innovation in a free society.

In a world which depends on new ideas, in a world which depends on competition, isn't it a good idea to focus on limitless possibilities created through individual potential? When people pursue their own aims, isn't that what leads to discovery and growth? You can't have effective capitalism without people who follow their own course, at times. When everyone in a society accepts their role without question, that's a feudal hierarchy or an oligarchy or a dictatorship. That's not democracy, and it isn't a free market. A strong economy and a strong democracy both require some degree of individualism.

Second, does Brooks understand why baby boomers might spend so much time talking about individuality instead of just the passive acceptance of authority? Does he remember the struggles for civil rights? It is not a coincidence that the baby boomers who grew up during the 1960's and 1970's would promote greater individualism, after experiencing a period where society has suppressed the rights of minorities. How can a generation learn to blindly accept authority when that authority is oppressive? How can you teach a generation to simply lose your self when an overly restrictive society has already too often disregarded the selves of women, ethnic and racial minorities, and the poor?

There is a balance in life between the order of authority and the freedom of the people, and there is a balance between what is good for an individual and what is good for a community. The "baby boomer theology" may be a reaction to a distortion of that balance. Now, perhaps, the balance is distorted again - but let's understand why it is that way before we judge too harshly. Living in a society where everyone is told to "lose yourself" is just as bad as living in a society where everyone is told to "find yourself". If everyone surrenders to authority, there will be tyranny. If no one surrenders to authority, there will be anarchy. The most effective and enduring society will choose a middle ground.

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