ast spring Kristen Klein, our Director of Upper School, and Matt Bachner, our Upper School Dean of Students, presented each senior with a copy of David Brooks’s book The Road to Character. Kristen and Matt’s preview of the book at our Senior Appreciation Assembly inspired me to pick it up. In the opening chapters, Brooks provides insight into how we have drifted from a society that seeks and lauds such qualities as humility, gratitude, and deference. Rather, today we gravitate toward self- promotion and even boastfulness. Brooks differentiates between our inclinations to accentuate our “resume character” from the selflessness embodied in what he calls “eulogy character.”
There is much dialogue in the world of education about character development in schools. A New York Times article entitled, “What If the Secret of Success Is Failure?” stirred conversation as it depicted an impressive effort by two very different schools to more purposefully cultivate character traits within their students—one through a visual campaign throughout the buildings as well as a grading system, the other through a less systemic, more organic emphasis.
Some of the character traits emphasized in these schools could be components of Brooks’s resume character, traits that improve our performance and our opportunities for success—not at all bad and certainly worthy of distinction.
Paul Tough, the author of How Children Succeed, compiled a list of some of the more helpful resume character traits: grit, curiosity, zest, and optimism. What great qualities! Any school would be proud to say that it cultivates these qualities within its students. Certainly to embody these traits is to position oneself for life success.
Nonetheless, in the midst of an increasingly cynical, even nasty climate of American politics, the ubiquitous world of social media, and the so-called culture wars that now define our American society, I was struck and inspired by Brooks’s poignant articulation of the qualities that compose these deeper and ever disappearing eulogy character traits.
Having been helped by a Jewish theologian, Brooks defines his differentiation through a perceived division in the Biblical Creation accounts defined by Adam I (resume character) and Adam II (eulogy character).
Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong—not only to do good, but to be good. Adam II wants to love intimately, to sacrifice self in service to others, to live in obedience to some transcendent truth, to have a cohesive inner soul that honors creation and one’s own possibilities.
He goes on to explain that we have lost our cultural capacity to discuss and cultivate such qualities. This led me to begin a conversation here at WT among my colleagues, wondering if I wouldn’t be perceived as an aging artifact. Quite the contrary! The discussion led to a chorus of concerns among our teachers and administrators about today’s social climate and its impact on our young people. So, we purchased The Road to Character for all of our leaders. Although we have had varying responses to the characters that Brooks depicts, apparently as models of Adam II, there seems to be unanimous support for his overall thesis about our society’s waning, if not lost, capacity to cultivate or promote the redeeming benefits of a life lived in service to others.
Never was there a time when we needed more to enthusiastically embrace our founder’s command.
Of course, this leads me to “Think Also of the Comfort and the Rights of Others.” I’ve always been struck by the realism of our founder’s mandate: that Miss Mitchell recognized the realities of taking care of ourselves, but also her call to take care of others. Never was there a time when we needed more to enthusiastically embrace our founder’s command. So, we are in the midst of discussing and pursuing what an even more deliberate perpetuation of this declaration might mean here at WT. Our only firm agreement at this point is that this intention will not be programmatic, but relational. I look forward to keeping you informed about our developments.