Brooks v. Brooks (Self-control v. Rambunctious)

July 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

David Brooks is the New York Times’s conservative columnist, the guy who extols social skills and the ability of people to work within institutions, the guy who disdains efforts to change institutions and insists that change is personal – a matter of character.  David Brooks is the guy who sees  “The Book of Mormon” and unlike the Times’s theater critic (“blasphemous, scurrilous and more foul-mouthed than David Mamet on a blue streak”) finds a parable of character and self-control:
Rigorous codes of conduct allow people to build their character. Changes in behavior change the mind, so small acts of ritual reinforce networks in the brain. A Mormon denying herself coffee may seem like a silly thing, but regular acts of discipline can lay the foundation for extraordinary acts of self-control when it counts the most.
 “The Book of Mormon” was then (April of last year).  “Henry V” is now. Self-control might have been nice, but now let’s give it up for rambunctiousness.
Henry V is one of Shakespeare's most appealing characters. He was rambunctious when young and courageous when older.
How did Hal become so appealing and courageous?  Not through self-control taught by church or school, says Brooks.  Those confining institutions are the bad guys.  They don’t know how “to educate a fiercely rambunctious” kid.
But the big story here is cultural and moral. If schools want to re-engage Henry, they can't pretend they can turn him into a reflective Hamlet just by feeding him his meds and hoping he'll sit quietly at story time.
That stuff about people changing themselves – self-control to work within institutions – that was so 2011 Brooks.
Schools have to engage people as they are. . .   not just teachers who celebrate cooperation, but other teachers who celebrate competition; not just teachers who honor environmental virtues, but teachers who honor military virtues; not just curriculums that teach how to share, but curriculums that teach how to win and how to lose; not just programs that work like friendship circles, but programs that work like boot camp.
I’m not sure which part of Brooks’s column is more fatuous. That paean to boot camp (see Charles Pierce’s commentary here ) is pretty good.  But Brooks also implies that the gender imbalance in disciplinary problems in schools (mostly boys) is recent:
Boys are much more likely to have discipline problems. An article as far back as 2004 in the magazine Educational Leadership found that boys accounted for nearly three-quarters of the D's and F's.
That “far back” date conveniently puts it in the contemporary era.  Was this imbalance any different in 1894?  In some ways, schools haven’t really changed all that much.  The first lesson kids have to learn is still the same:  sit still.

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