Tuesday, August 30, 2016

People who are enchanted are the real tough cookies

 Enchanted (Walt Disney, 2007), via Decider.

David Brooks is interested in "Making Modern Toughness". I guess he figures the world needs toughness, but the toughness they used to have back in the day lacks the lightness and sophistication of the kind of toughness we would want for the current era. It was thickened with cream and egg yolks and people didn't value the natural character of the ingredients. We're looking for a toughness that makes more use of infused oils and techniques like steaming and sous-vide cooking and a sense of terroir.

When I ask veteran college teachers and administrators to describe how college students have changed over the years, I often get an answer like this: “Today’s students are more accomplished than past generations, but they are also more emotionally fragile.”
That rings true to me.
Pause to note how David Brooks apparently has a standard operating procedure for dealing with veteran college teachers and administrators. "Can you describe for me, please, how college students have changed over the years?" How many has he interrogated, one wonders, and do they constitute a random sample? What percentage of the responses is "often", and how does this frequent answer differ from others?

And the guileless illustration of how confirmation bias works: he's not surveying these veteran college teachers and administrators in order to find out how college students have changed over the years, but to find out whether his preconceived opinions on the subject are right, and he only remembers the answers that agree with him, which he receives "often". Those that fail to "ring true" are discarded, the counterfeit coin of professors and provosts who don't understand things the way Brooks does and may not even be authentic veterans.

Today's column represents an unusual case in which Brooks forgets what he meant to write about before he has even started writing.

That is, it's plainly inspired by that letter from the University of Chicago dean of students John Ellison to this fall's incoming freshmen letting them know that no place on the campus is safe from insulting and demeaning language and if you're not tough enough for the thrilling, dangerous, transgressive experience of hearing Condoleezza Rice giving a commencement address you'd better consider going somewhere else. Although in point of fact it will be too late for most students to switch to Brown or Carleton, they've already booked and paid for their Hyde Park residences. Dean Ellison is against trigger warnings (and, apparently, the faculty's academic freedom to offer trigger warnings if they think that's the right thing to do) but he has just sent a total trigger warning to all 1600 or so students of the class of 2020: some students may be extremely distressed by the experience of being here. Well, I guess it's not a properly constituted trigger warning if the students don't have the option of dodging the bullet.

Brooks alludes to Dean Ellison's letter indirectly:

Today’s students are amazing, but they bathe one another in oceans of affirmation and praise, as if buttressing one another against some insecurity. Whatever one thinks of the campus protests, the desire for trigger warnings and safe spaces does seem to emanate from a place of emotional fragility.
(There's the 150th career use of "amazing/amazingly"—sadly, Brooks broke his three-column "amazing" streak on Friday, but it's good to see he hasn't given up.)

But before he gets around to mentioning his alma mater's name, he's off on his usual hobby horse hunt:

if you hang around the middle aged,
(in the intervals when you're not interviewing the veteran academics)

you hear a common story line to explain the rise of the orchid generation.
Brooks's new expression meant to convey how our young people exist in tens of thousands of exotically beautiful wild subvarieties from mostly tropical climates, though there are many hardy temperate types such as ladies' slippers as well, and as a profusion of greenhouse hybrids bred and cultivated by amateurs and professionals. How did this situation come about?

Once upon a time, the story line goes, kids were raised in a tough environment. They had to do hard manual chores around the house and they got in fights on the playground. Then they went off to do grueling work in the factory or they learned toughness and grit in the military.
That was in the 1950s, before girls, white-collar jobs, and the idle rich were invented. The factories were run by aliens beaming their instructions in from a distant galaxy.

But today, helicopter parents protect their children from setbacks and hardship. They supervise every playground conflict, so kids never learn to handle disputes or deal with pain.
I'll bet you any money if you asked the former Mrs. Brooks she would tell you that David never went to the playground in his life. Little did he suspect that he was the one being protected from setbacks and hardships as he padded around the living room with his index cards distributed, safe from the kids, across the carpet.

There’s a lot of truth to that narrative
I'd say virtually none, aside from the tiny number of New York Times readers who live in luxury on the Upper East Side but whose parents toiled in factories. Brooks's dad was an English professor and probably didn't take him much to the playground either.

but let’s not be too nostalgic for the past. A lot of what we take to be the toughness of the past was really just callousness. There was a greater tendency in years gone by to wall off emotions, to put on a thick skin — for some men to be stone-like and uncommunicative and for some women to be brittle, brassy and untouchable.
I don't know whether those women are meant to be Hillary Clinton or bad OK Cupid dates.

Long story short—I could go on like this all day, because there's a touch of that black mold in practically every sentence—the argument goes something like this:
  • we need "to rethink toughness or at least detach it from hardness" in our aims for our children, I guess, though he just asserted that we parents (people like Brooks and me, for instance) don't make any effort to make our children tough
  • we need to aim at raising children who are more like "people we admire for being resilient" though why he thinks we are currently working to make them more like people we don't admire remains unclear
  • people we admire for being resilient are not "hard" but "ardent"
  • because they have "a fervent commitment to some ideal, some cause or some relationship"
  • which gives them the gongfu property of being "strong like water"
  • meaning that they are "profoundly affected" by a blow
  • but only superficially affected by it because "it's short term while their natural shape is long term"
  • and then they will be like John Lewis and Mother Teresa because like how modern is that
  • and fortunately everybody is already like that
The people around us may not be remorselessly gritty, but they can be that when it comes to protecting their loved ones, when it comes to some dream for their future self.
So all we really need to rethink is how everybody can be the same as they already are and the dreadful current crisis will be averted thank God. All thanks to David Brooks who calmly clarified for us what was going on instead of getting hysterical and incoherent.

  • "modern psychology, which sometimes tries to talk about psychological traits in isolation from moral purposes" because only a really wicked scientist would try to observe phenomena without putting a moral judgment on them
  • "the ethos of the modern university, which in the name of “critical thinking” encourages students to be detached and corrosively skeptical" because isn't uncritical thinking and accepting whatever you're told what the intellectual life is all about? I mean what do these people think college is for for Christ's sake?
  • "We are all fragile when we don’t know what our purpose is, when we haven’t thrown ourselves with abandon into a social role, when we haven’t committed ourselves to certain people"
  • "If you really want people to be tough, make them idealistic for some cause, make them tender for some other person, make them committed to some worldview that puts today’s temporary pain in the context of a larger hope" because nobody in human history has ever really thought of how nice it would be to have idealistic kids and yet it would be so simple to just make them—"Sophie, you promised you'd be getting your vocation on Thursday and yet there's no sign of it yet, you're grounded! Did you even make an appointment?"
  • "We live in an age when it’s considered sophisticated to be disenchanted. But people who are enchanted are the real tough cookies."
And David Brooks is a madeleine dipped in Orange Crush.

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