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The Road to Character

Book Review of: The Road to Character

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Review of The Road to Character, by David Brooks (Hardcover, 2015)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)


I reviewed an advance copy. It was an uncorrected proof, but even at that stage it had fewer copy errors than most finished books do. So mechanically, the team did a good job on this book.

I don't follow any of the venues in which Mr. Brooks appears or is published, so this was my first exposure to him and to his thoughts. Noticeable in this book is most of the text doesn't reflect his thoughts. Most of it is story-telling, and I had a hard time seeing where each story was going in relation to the theme of the book. I had difficulty trying to get what point or points he was trying to make, because he seemed to digress as he told each story.

Perhaps I did get what I presume to be his core point. If I understand him correctly, Brooks asserts there are two sides to us. There's Adam I (self-centered and self-aggrandizing) and there's Adam 2 (others-centered and self-effacing). Each story presumably illustrates one of these or both.

In my own discussion style, I will often start off with a good example but then go on too long about that example, expanding it into its own story and diverting the entire discussion from the original point. A very good friend of mine, in exasperation, pointed this out to me (not for the first time) while I was reading this book. While such a story may be interesting in its own right, it can (and often does) derail the conversation by causing it to lose focus. The effect in a verbal conversation can be rather annoying t those whose communication style isn't story-based.

Brooks did not convince me that the road character is the same as the road to the Adam II modality. When you hear the phrase, "He's a man of character" or "I admire her for her high degree of character," what comes to mind? Can self-centered people possess character? When Martin Luther King said he dreamed of the day we would judge men not by the color of their skin, but by their character, what did he mean?

If you scour the definitions presented in various dictionaries, you find it has to do with moral excellence and consistency of holding to moral values. So things such as your honesty in dealing with other people, your willingness to endure personal sacrifice rather than sacrifice your moral ideals, and being a "solid citizen" come to mind. Do they not?

Brooks seems to be talking about something else. I'm not sure what it is, though. In some cases, I began to think he was proselytizing in a religious sense; he seemed to put a great deal of emphasis on religion. But morals don't derive from religion (though most religions do prescribe a moral code). The most immoral acts have been done in the name of religion, and continue to be done in the name of religion today. Many agnostics and atheists have outstanding character and very high morals. Many, admittedly, do not. Religiosity and moral fiber (or character) are two separate issues. Brooks doesn't see them as such.

A point he makes both implicitly and explicitly is that prior to the end of World War II, Americans were, both individually and collectively, exemplars of culture characterized by others-centered and self-effacing (Adam II). But after the end of hostilities, Americans (according to Brooks) sank into a spoiled brat, self-centered, self-aggrandizing, me-me-me culture both individually and collectively. Members of the Greatest Generation were humble and effective, subsequent generations missed the mark by miles.

But I don't find this point properly supported in his book. Nor do I find it supported in other literature or in my own observations. Any time you extrapolate from specific examples to the general, you're on dangerous ground. Each of his stories was a specific example. The extrapolations are non-sequitors. He didn't present meta data to support his claims, nor did he present a solid theory to support them (he did present a theory, but it's a weak one).

He seems to be saying that Americans had character before the end of WWII and haven't had it since. He did highlight a difference in personal confidence that is probably true. After all, we won the war. Our economic competitors bombed each others' factories and infrastructure, while ours remained intact. This put FDR's Depression (brought on by excessive debt, something exacerbated ever since) on temporary hold, giving us an economic boom while they rebuilt. By the late 1950s, this reprieve ended; American employers were laying off workers in 1958. But what does this have to do with character?

Humility is a virtue. But it's not a moral issue. Many people of high moral standards are not very humble about it. Some people have character in spades, and take great pride in that. Have you not encountered a judgmental person who strictly follows society's moral rules? They are everywhere, so of course you have. And what about self-important people who get things done in the name of moral virtue? Leaders are rarely humble people. Dynamic leaders never are. They are good, and they know it. That's one reason we follow them. Western civilization texts don't celebrate Alexander the Humble, they celebrate Alexander the Great.

An acid test of Brooks' theory might be this. If Americans began lacking character after World War II because they sank into the Adam I condition, how did so many people have the moral fortitude to face attack dogs and fire hoses in Selma, Alabama? How did they have the steadfastness of character to hold so firmly to the nonresistance credo that they didn't fight back even when attacked with clubs? Think, and you can easily come up with many other examples of character since 1945.

OK, so you probably "get it" that I think Brooks spent too much space storytelling and not enough making his point or expressing his own thoughts on character. As I read this, the meandering gave me the impression there were multiple authors and too many cooks in the kitchen. So I wasn't surprised at his comments in the acknowledgements. That's exactly what happened.

So is the book even worth reading?

Yes, it is. The book does make food for thought. However, it's really a collection of separate ideas (and stories) rather than a treatise on character. The stories, which mostly struck me as irrelevant, are interesting in their own right. The various ideas unrelated to character are also interesting, and are worth exploring separately. Just don't expect it to show you the road to character, because it doesn't.


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