You have to hand it to the University of Chicago: It knows how to stay on brand. Once it’s picked a story, the University sticks to it, never hesitating to remind us of its stance long after we’ve all gotten the point. With the choice of New York Times columnist and University trustee David Brooks (A.B. ’83) as the inaugural Class Day speaker for the Class of 2017, UChicago has reached peak UChicago and, in doing so, let us all down. It’s hard to imagine a less surprising choice of speaker than Brooks, or a speaker whose words will be less useful advice for living in the world into which we are about to graduate.
Like most of his peers in the Times opinion section, Brooks was artificially grown by the Sulzberger family in a top-secret gestation lab; unlike his peers, however, he does not have a name that befits his function as a columnist. Maureen Dowd dispenses dowdy, out-of-fashion truisms, and Charles M. Blow blows indignantly about the evils of our time, but Brooks never brooks any dissent against the established norms of the bygone “big society” he has joined Mitt Romney and David Cameron in pining for. He is the arch-condescender, the anti-millennial, the most inveterate old-guard critic of the passion and commitment for which my generation has become so maligned. He lumps progressivism and populism in with the worst of demagoguery and fascism, viewing them all as equally dangerous to our hallowed (and obviously infallible) “civic institutions.” He cannot help seeing every new political development, from the Women’s March to safe spaces, from protests against income inequality to Colin Kaepernick, as representative of these ideals’ decay. He is the ultimate dispenser of “back-in-my-day”s, and we, the generation to whom he is supposed to give life-changing advice on June 9, are all just loitering on his lawn.
One could spend forever listing the antiquated and embarrassing opinions Brooks has trotted out over the years. He thinks promiscuity is a sign of Armageddon. He chides us that smoking marijuana is infantile. He believes Frantz Fanon, whose work is assigned to most undergraduates at the University of Chicago, is just a black version of our Stéphane Banon. But even more disturbing than these occasional moments of idiocy is Brooks’s general failure to say anything substantial, ever, about the world around him. When Trump has not given him some low-hanging fruit for the week, Brooks will turn to society, isolate some trend in it, and use whichever truism he finds most expedient that day to bemoan the loss of some phantom of “integrity” and “connectedness” that conspicuously always flourished during times when people who did not look like him were second-class citizens. “We have no clear framework or set of rituals to guide us in our quest for goodness,” he will say credulously, as if this inviolable nugget of truth explains all our present political confusion. “Everybody is perpetually insecure in a moral system based on inclusion and exclusion,” he writes. “When we’re addicted to online life, every moment is fun and diverting, but the whole thing is profoundly unsatisfying.” For a braver pundit on either side of the political spectrum, Class Day might mean an occasion to grapple with this nation’s long and brutal history of class conflict. Brooks, however, would be more likely use it as an occasion to discuss “classiness,” the (for him) essential virtue that separates vulgarians like President Trump from dignified heroes such as, um, Marco Rubio. Brooks’s reliance on such tosh indicates a career-long refusal of the “critical thinking” of which, as a UChicago alum, he is supposed to be the most devoted apostle.
In this respect, Brooks shares more with President Zimmer than a high paycheck and a penchant for extramarital difficulties: the ideology in his columns bears a striking resemblance to that espoused by this school’s administration. UChicago claims to model itself on the tradition of the great German research universities, but in fact it more closely resembles the original Italian università degli studi, the “corporation for studying.” Like most contemporary corporations, and like Brooks himself, the University takes actions that are at best obliquely related to the betterment of the world. The University administration and Brooks are both content to respond to bigotry and inequity with little more than “concern,” and to defend their milquetoast political cowardice by citing abstract and ultimately hollow ideals (for the administration, “open discourse”; for Brooks, “integrity” and “the ability to see both sides”). Just as UChicago’s administration sees its mission as fundamentally unrelated to the fight for a more just society, walking Brooks’s “Road to Character” involves the cultivation of “eulogy virtues” rather than meaningful engagement against violence, suffering, and the abuse of power. While such platitudes might make the more gullible members of our graduating class feel a little more secure about their moral rectitude as they sally forth into the world, they will ultimately do little to prepare us to act materially and effectively in our urgent times.
In the breathless interview Brooks conducted with President Zimmer during the University’s most recent fundraising campaign, the two men agreed that now is “a time for ambition.” But surely it is a time for more than that. Surely critical thinking does not mean sitting around and waiting for someone in power to make a rhetorical gaffe, then mocking them for it while they defund what remains of the social safety net; surely it means subjecting our leaders, our institutions, and our received ideas to the most unsparing scrutiny, and not being afraid to make our conclusions heard if we believe they will help us achieve a more equitable and peaceful world.
I am not advocating that Brooks be disinvited from speaking at the University. Nor am I suggesting that his speech should be met with protest or disruption. His strain of moralism is far too bland to be offensive or harmful, and besides, saying he should be banned would just give him more ammunition to call me and my peers petulant and close-minded. No, he can and should go ahead and shower us with platitudes. I am only saying, with a sigh of resignation, that in these times of deep uncertainty, our graduating class will have to look elsewhere for a model of wisdom and bravery.
Perhaps when we look back on our time here from a long way down the Road to Character, we will give the same ringing endorsement of UChicago that Brooks gave in the Zimmer interview: “The thing I love about the University of Chicago is that it left its mark on me. I came as one sort of person and left another sort of person.” But let us hope that the University of Chicago will make us into something more than the kind of person David Brooks has turned out to be.
Jake Bittle is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.