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David Brooks and Skip Battle Avoid Politics To Talk Character Development

July 31, 2015  • Institute Contributor

Above, watch the full conversation between The New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks and Aspen Institute Senior Fellow Skip Battle at the 2015 Aspen Action Forum.

As part of the closing lunch of the 2015 Aspen Action Forum, Aspen Institute Senior Fellow Skip Battle interviewed New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks about his biggest concern: the “overpoliticization and demoralization of public culture.” Brooks lamented the fact that there are now “hundreds of TV shows all talking about politics, but very few talking about moral and cultural values.” Fully realizing that his Sunday-morning political talk show appearances contribute to this problem, Brooks said that he “is going to spend the rest of his career shifting the conversation a little.”

Brooks’s first efforts toward this goal were a recent op-ed, “The Moral Bucket List,” and his latest book, The Road to Character. After writing these pieces, Brooks came to the conclusion that character was not “an iron figure you control inside, that it’s self-control, and that getting character is a process.” Instead, character is the ability to make “really strong and lasting commitments”: in particular commitments to family, to a creed or faith, to a vocation, and to a community. “None of us is strong enough to build character on our own; we all need redemptive assistance from outside. We need other people.”

For Brooks, those other people are his students at Yale, where he lectures. He jokes that being a conservative columnist at The New York Times is a bit like being the “chief rabbi in Mecca. Not a lot of company there.” He largely writes to an audience that he does not interact with. “My job is actually quite a lonely one.” Holding regular office hours with his students—once a week from 9:30pm to 1:00am at a hotel near Yale, over drinks and “pretentious snacks”—was a way to correct that, to be part of a community, “pretty much the highlight of my week,” Brooks said.

Brooks also recalled another series of columns, the Life Reports, wherein people over the age of 70 graded their professional and personal lives. Brooks found that at a certain age, people switched priorities from finding a spouse to finding ways to give back to others. “You just want to give back. I don’t know if it’s fear of death, but you just want to.” And so he gives back to his students. Unbound by the need to do academic research as a visiting professor, “we’re there to be parents, to help advise, and to just be extra coaches along the way.”

This need to mentor came about after he discovered his students were both “super self-confident and great and completely terrified all at once. They are afraid that one step off the ladder of success will destroy them. And they measure themselves by all of these perfections.” He estimates that about 20 percent of his students are the product of “the wolf of conditional love.” These students have grown up under parents that feel both an intense love for their children, as well as intense anxiety for their children’s future. “So when the kids do something that the parents like, and that they think will lead to success, the beam of love is strong upon them. When they do something that deviates from the parents’ definition of success, the beam of love is withdrawn.” Having seen the benefits of a mentor—Jim Lehrer—Brooks hopes he can give his students some similar benefits.

Looking back over his career, Brooks noted that his first book was about consumption, a later book was about emotion, and now his latest was about moral character. His hope is that this trend will continue from shallow subjects to those of more depth. And although he did touch upon political subjects like presidential candidates, this closing lunch demonstrates that Brooks is far more comfortable shifting the conversation to deeper, more vital subjects.