Saturday, February 11, 2017
I finally got around to reading The Road to Character by David Brooks. Brooks often receives the same criticisms as law professors doing interdisciplinary scholarship – i.e., that our work reflects a glibness and lack of depth, skating from one field of knowledge to another without mastery. I see Brooks (and many law professors) as providing a needed service in making a broad set of relevant insights more broadly accessible than they would ever be if left solely in the hands of the scholars who have spent their whole careers studying a single field. What may be lost in depth is gained in currency. The same is true of his latest work.
I enjoyed The Road to Character for many reasons, but for MoJ purposes, it made me think about the role that Catholic law schools can play in character development. Brooks points out early in the book that today, “teachers tend to look for their students’ intellectual strengths, so they can cultivate them,” but a century ago, they “tended to look for their students’ moral weaknesses, so they could correct them.”
He recounts asking the head of a prestigious prep school how the school teaches students about character. She responded “by telling me how many hours of community service the students do. That is to say, when I asked her about something internal, she answered by talking about something external.” Brooks observes that “[m]any people today have deep moral and altruistic yearnings but, lacking a moral vocabulary, they tend to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions.”
What would Catholic law schools say if Brooks asked us how we teach about character? I admit that our public service requirement would be a strong candidate for inclusion in my answer (at least before reading this book). Law schools also – I hope – work to inculcate the norms and dispositions that are integral to membership in the legal profession. And some schools (including St. Thomas) are doing more to facilitate self-awareness (through required exercises like Strengths Finder and courses that allot time for structured self-reflection), which is a necessary component of character development.
But should we do more to tap our theological resources? As Brooks explains, for example:
[S]in is a necessary part of our mental furniture [because] without it, the whole method of character building dissolves. From time immemorial, people have achieved glory by achieving great external things, but they have built character by struggling against their internal sins. People become solid, stable, and worthy of self-respect because they have defeated or at least struggled with their own demons. If you take away the concept of sin, then you take away the thing the good person struggles against.
Of all the historical figures Brooks mined for insights on character development, the most powerful (not surprisingly) was Augustine. According to Brooks, Augustine observed that “people can understand themselves only by looking at forces that transcend themselves. Human life points beyond itself.” For Augustine, at least, there was no substitute for the divine, and “if you think you can organize your own salvation you are magnifying the very sin that keeps you from it.” I don't know if Augustine's insights are as translatable outside a Christian experience as the structure of Brooks' survey approach implies (take a bit of Dwight Eisenhower here, a bit of George Eliot here, and some Augustine for good measure). Transformative religious experience is a tricky road-to-character program ingredient for law schools open to students from any or no faith tradition.
But we cannot ignore Augustine's lessons for education. Since “you become what you love,” Augustine believed that education should entail the reordering of our loves. Brooks explains that “[w]e don’t become better because we acquire new information. We become better because we acquire better loves.” As such, “[w]hen you go to a school, it should offer you new things to love.” What are we teaching our students to love?
In the book’s conclusion, Brooks laments the rise of the meritocracy mindset, in which the self is seen as “a vessel of human capital,” rather than the seat of the soul; the self is thus about talent, not character.” The meritocracy has shaped our definition of character, as the term now “is used less to describe traits like selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice, and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely,” and more often “used to describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity, qualities that make worldly success more likely.”
With the pressure to attract the best and brightest, and to maximize those students’ chances of gainful post-graduation employment, it is not easy for law schools to be counter-cultural when it comes to character formation. But Catholic law schools may be positioned to broaden the conversation in ways that create space for our students to grapple with the classic understanding of character. The road to character, as Brooks puts it, “begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures.” Character, in the end, is “a set of dispositions, desires, and habits that are slowly engraved during the struggle against your own weakness.” Our faith tradition provides a framework through which to conceive of such a struggle, and we (hopefully) have a community that can support the struggle. We all need, in Brooks’ memorable phrasing, “redemptive assistance from outside,” for we “wage our struggles in conjunction with others waging theirs, and the boundaries between us are indistinct.”
Can we help our students see beyond the external striving that makes up so much of the law school experience and identify the internal struggle that is constitutive of character? If so, what form could that help take?