New York Times columnist David Brooks is slated to be the 2011 Rice University Commencement Speaker. My own take on David Brooks is mixed. As Kyle Derr once argued, he is the only person on the New York Times opinion page who gives proper respect to the humanities. And as the saying goes: “This nation was founded by Humanists, and it will be saved by Humanists.” Then again, I think that saying may be more historically accurate if you replace the word “Humanists” with “lawyers.”
On the other hand, Brooks’ respect for the humanities often treads into the Clouds, looking upon the nation from his east-coast abode, thinking that because he once spent a week in the Red State that he knows all about how the world works, with his punditry being nothing more than bad standup: “You ever notice how Red States are like this, but Blue States are like this? And what’s the deal with public schools?”
And for a Member of the Tribe, he is far to quick to defend and support the Christian interests that threaten the Jewish community.
Indeed, it should be no surprise that I have already mocked him here, not just because he is often an awful columnist, but because he is Rice’s commencement speaker for this year. So it seems a bit odd that, as a commencement speaker, he ended his column yesterday with a jab at college commencement speakers.
“He loves Facebook, YouTube, Wikipedia and his iPhone apps. But many of these things are produced outside the conventional monetized economy. Most of the products are produced by people working for free. They cost nothing to consume.
They don’t even create many jobs. As Cowen notes in his book, the automobile industry produced millions of jobs, but Facebook employs about 2,000, Twitter 300 and eBay about 17,000. It takes only 14,000 employees to make and sell iPods, but that device also eliminates jobs for those people who make and distribute CDs, potentially leading to net job losses.
In other words, as Cowen makes clear, many of this era’s technological breakthroughs produce enormous happiness gains, but surprisingly little additional economic activity.
Jared’s other priorities also produce high quality-of-life gains without huge material and productivity improvements. He practically defines himself by what university he went to. Universities now have nicer dorms, gyms and dining facilities. These improvements have not led to huge increases in educational output.”
By this new standard, people focus more on their happiness and contentment with life, rather than goals of economic growth, competition and victory. In his closing jab, Brooks remarked:
“During these years, commencement speakers have urged students to seek meaning and not money. Many people, it turns out, were listening.”
So what, exactly, are commencement speakers supposed to say?
“Work hard and make money”
“Work like a drone and then die”
“Beat the fuck out of those Chinese”
Brooks has given commencement speeches in the past. As far as I can tell, his message seems to have two parts. First, mocking what he sees as the foibles of liberal America. For example, in his 2007 commencement speech at Wake Forest University, Brooks wasted no time before entering one of his traditional stand-up routines about Volvos.
“They come up to the elementary schools driving Audis, Saabs and Volvos, because in certain corners it’s socially acceptable to have a luxury car so long as it comes from a country hostile to U.S. foreign policy.”
Lol David! Well, Audis are German, Volvos are Swedish, and Saab Automobile was owned by American company General Motors from 1989 until 2010. I’m not sure how Germany and Sweden are hostile to U.S. foreign policy, but maybe that was one of those anti-Europe jokes that were so popular in dictating U.S. foreign policy in the Bush years. And Saab doesn’t even belong on the list!
But yes, Brooks gave students a real knee-slapper before going on to a real message that they certainly would appreciate and use in their graduate lives: wacky names of organic foods!
“Whole Foods is one of these progressive grocery stores where all the cashiers look like they’re on loan from Amnesty International.
Actually, my favorite section is the snack food section. They couldn’t just have pretzels or potato chips—that would be vulgar. So they have these seaweed-based snacks like we get in my house, Veggie Booty With Kale. It’s for kids who come home from school and shout, “Mom, I want a snack that will help prevent colon-rectal cancer!”
Then as their children get older, the enlightened parents buy them Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, the Ice Cream with its own environmental policy. I once suggested that Ben and Jerry’s should make a pacifist toothpaste. Doesn’t kill germs. Just asks them to leave.”
More classic David Brooks stand-up! Next stop, the Live from the Apollo!
For part two, Brooks talked about how GPAs don’t matter.
“From here on out the skills you need to succeed will change. The average collegiate GPA for a self-made millionaire is 2.7. You know all those morons who sat in the back of the classrooms goofing off? In a few years you’re going to have a new name for them: Boss.”
He made the exact same joke in his commencement speech at Occidental as well:
“The average self-made millionaire in this country had a collegiate GPA of 2.75. These entrepreneurs may not be scholars, but they have the ability to perceive emerging patterns, to understand what they are good at and to work phenomenally hard to hone their capacities.
You don’t find the best lawyers or politicians or teachers with an IQ test. You find the future superstars in these fields by asking the following question: Who is friends with who in this room?”
Indeed, at Occidental, Brooks followed his patented commencement pattern, starting with ever so funny jokes about liberalism.
“You should know that I grew up as a staunch liberal. I grew up near Greenwich Village in Manhattan, and in 1965 my parents who were somewhat left took me to a Be-In in Central Park, where hippies would go just to be. As part of their being, they set a garbage can on fire and threw their wallets into it to demonstrate their liberation from money and material things. I was five and I saw a five-dollar bill on fire in the garbage can, so I ran up to it, grabbed the money, and ran away. That was sort of my first step over to the right.
I participated in the revolution of the 1960s by writing nasty things about Julie Nixon, the president’s daughter, on the chalkboard in fourth grade, and I was paddled for that. In high school I volunteered for many Democratic candidates, I had a big Hubert Humphrey poster on my wall with the caption. “Some talk change, others cause it,” because even then I knew I wanted to become the kind of person who only talks change.”
Oh man, great stuff there. The ’60s. Wacky! At least it was better than his attempts at relating to contemporary culture, with jokes about how: “I watched an entire season of “Jersey Shore,” and I have to say The Situation changed my life.”
With on point observations like that, he could write for Leno.
But the most telling is at the end of the his Occidental commencement speech, where he get to the, you know, point. He basically espoused the base idea of the historical Conservative movement, which really isn’t a bad thing. Basically, the world is far too complex to be able to understand, so we must change slowly, relying on traditions that work, and realize that rationality cannot fix everything. In a supreme oversimplification, he boils it down to the French Revolution vs. Scottish Enlightenment. However, the baby in the cake is his penultimate statement:
“I do hope you use your odyssey years to educate your emotions through travel, art, love and the occasional misbegotten hookup, and I hope that you do it by chasing deep pleasure, by finding something that deeply pleases you and chasing it wherever it leads.”
Really? Chase deep pleasure? Educate your emotions? I dunno, David Brooks 2010, I don’t think that David Brooks 2011 would agree with that.
I know that people learn and change their view about the world (ex: My first Thresher column vs. A Thresher column as an alumnus, notably part 6) but a one year turnaround is pretty big. And admittedly, Brooks’ speech at Occidental was probably largely in reaction to the school’s reputation of having an incredibly liberal student body. So maybe Brooks should tailor his speech to Rice.
First, no stupid liberal jokes or comments on the bohemian bourgeoisie. Rice is in Houston, Texas, a barely blue haze in a red state. Rice’s activism is usually expressed through Engineers Without Borders. Students are just as likely to go to Fiesta as Whole Foods. Cliche jokes about a liberal campus are ignorant at best and insulting at worst. Brooks’ columns may not be known for deep research, but at least chat with some students first.
Second, shut up about the 2.7 GPA stat. Because really? Really? After 21 years of struggling and striving to get the top grades, top SAT score, top extracurriculars, the last thing you want to hear is about how you shouldn’t have worked hard for good grades. Because you know what, you do need those good grades. A 2.7 in high school won’t get you into Rice. A 2.7 at Rice won’t get you into a good law school, or help with a good job. I don’t know where all these millionaire lawyers with 2.7 gpa are coming from. Maybe Brooks could actually cite that study.
So let Brooks answer this: How many of the 2.7 gpa bosses went to an Ivy League or have family connections. He said self-made millionaires, but I’d like to see the evidence to back it. Because for some folks, it is easy to get through life without the stats to prove prowess. But for the rest of the world, you need something besides a family name and wealthy contacts to pump for seed money. You need a resume. You need grades. You need to be impressive. And a 2.7 simply isn’t impressive.
Finally, just what is it that students should do? In 2010 Brooks said that students should “educate [their] emotions” and “chas[e] deep pleasure, by finding something that deeply pleases [them] and chasing it wherever it leads.” Then in 2011 he mocked the idea of commencement speakers telling students to “seek meaning and not money.”
So which is it: pleasure or pecuniary?
David Brooks should spend his time at Rice discussing that. He should address the real struggle of being taught, and required, to get good grades and do well on standardized tests to get somewhere in life, only to be told upon the seeming pinnacle of grade point achievement that all of it was pretty worthless if you’re an awkward nerd who can’t talk to people. And at Rice, that is an awfully large portion of the population.