Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Brooks Again

OK, it's official. I am obsessed with David Brooks. His column in today's Times rubbed me so raw that I find I must say something about it.

Picking up in the middle of this column about this year's college graduates, I am first amazed by his deriding of the commencement speech themes to follow your passion, chart your own course, etc. He says these words mislead "on nearly every front." Why?

Because they don't help at all in the solemn work of "finding serious things to tie yourself down to" such as "a spouse, a community, a calling." But isn't this often part of the problem? So many of us exhort young graduates to pursue stability and security without reference to passion or calling. We urge them to pursue majors in business or pre-law even though they are so often, at best, indifferent to the courses required for these majors. An interest in teaching or working for a non-profit is condemned as impractical. A desire to study history or literature is characterized as too idealistic. And while commencement speakers may occasionally encourage us to follow our bliss, the overwhelming message from society is to prepare for a career that ensures a good income right away, even though we may hate the work associated with that career.

Mr. Brooks repeatedly refers to the notion of "calling," and to the idea that we are "called to a problem" first, through whose pursuit the sense of self is then shaped. But the evidence for this claim is non-existent as far as I can tell. A few very lucky and often privileged youth are called to a profession or career that they love, but virtually none of us is called to problems, because our educational system, as Mr. Brooks knows perfectly well, is not structured around problems, but around disciplines and professions that more often than not actually mask the problems that will eventually confront us.

Of course, Brooks' larger point is that we ultimately make a meaningful life by contributing to a task that is much larger than we are and that forces us to lose ourselves in the pursuit of this task. I more or less agree. What I disagree with most vociferously is that our passion, our dream, our bliss doesn't matter. In fact, it is ONLY through the finding of such a passion, a process that often takes a long time, that we develop the strength and the resiliency to dedicate the self to some greater cause. Indeed, let me go further. The problems we face have much more to do with the foreclosing of the search for one's passion, one's calling, than the other way around. The commencement speakers have it right; it's the rest of us that have it wrong. And the reason those commencement speeches that implore us to follow our bliss are so universally ridiculed has everything to do with the fact that just about every other societal influence is arrayed against such advice. It is at our peril that we continue to ignore it.

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