Signature Event Speaker David Brooks Reflects on Character
Signature Event Speaker David Brooks Reflects on Character
By Bill Wax, Director of Communications
Columnist and news commentator David Brooks brought a thoughtful treatise to the podium at Bellevue University’s sixth annual Signature Event, October 9 at Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum.
It was an appropriate topic for the annual Signature Event, which showcases “American Vision and Values,” the heart of the University’s Kirkpatrick Signature Series courses, which all bachelor’s degree students must complete. Before giving Brooks the floor, University Board member and former Chair George Little welcomed the more than 400 guests and introduced some of the key event sponsors, other Board members, and three current Bellevue University students in the audience.
Dr. Mary Hawkins, University President, talked briefly about the University and set the tone for Brooks’ remarks with a look ahead and looking back. “Bellevue University is adapting to the learner instead of asking the learner to adapt to the University. We’re very excited about the future of education,” Hawkins said. “We believe strongly that our American heritage won’t last if we don’t pass it on,” Hawkins said before showing a brief video in which each of the three students told their stories, and the impact the University and the Signature Series courses have made on them and their families.
Keynoter Brooks began by listing “four crises” facing the country. While he spoke of many things, including politics, the economy, history, education—he focuses most on character. “We’ve got a higher education problem in which people are graduating with too much loan debt,” he said. “We’ve got an entrepreneurship problem. The rate of new business start-ups is slowing compared to what it was 20 years ago. We’ve got a political problem. And we’ve got a values problem in the culture, especially in the culture of the young people.”
“In many ways, we are a great culture, but we’re a little too much into ourselves. We are a very over-confident country,” Brooks said, citing several polls and surveys indicating Americans today have unrealistically high self-confidence and self-esteem, when compared with previous generations. Other polls have shown that we are more isolated than in the past, with fewer close friends. We’re less truthful and less trusting of others, and less “morally articulate.” One study of college students showed that 70% could not give an example of a “moral dilemma.”
He delineated two kinds of virtues: “There are resume virtues—things we would put on our resumes. And there are eulogy virtues—things that are discussed in your eulogy, who you were. Were you honest? Were you courageous? What was the nature of your relationships?
“The resume virtues are your nine-to-five skills. The eulogy qualities are deeper. And I think that we all would say that the eulogy virtues are more important than the resume virtues—who we are and who we want to be. But we happen to live in a culture that encourages us to spend more time on resume virtues than on eulogy virtues. So I’ve come to think that we need to step back from the pressures of the moment and get very specific about what it takes to have good eulogy virtues and to have good character.”
Brooks cited the memoirs of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who overcome personal anger and rage issues. “He disciplined himself and made himself into a good General and a very good President by fighting against his anger. And this idea that you are fighting against yourself, which was once very prominent in our culture, is now much less prominent. It is based on the idea that we are fallen creatures, but we are also splendidly endowed. We sin, but we have the capacity to recognize our sin and fight against it. And character is what we build when we struggle against our own weakness. And in this struggle, humility is our greatest virtue, the humility to act against our own nature. And pride is the central vice. It blinds you to your own weakness. It makes you think you are better than you are, that you can do it on your own.
Polls indicate that prior generations were more humble than today, possibly because our culture has been so successful in so many ways, he said. “Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. And failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility.
“Finally, no one can achieve self-mastery on his or her own. We all need redemptive assistance from outside. That’s the final thing I think would all say that a person with deep character is capable of, and that is receiving grace,” he said. “Grace is, of course, a religious word, but I’m using it in a secular mindset…It’s having that ability to allow yourself to be admitted into a community of people, so that community can surround you and support you.
“In the end, we’re not just out for money, we’re not just out for even happiness. Even if you’re living in the shallow culture, even if you are watching the Kardashians, we all have a moral imagination, we all have a longing to lead a good life…And the reward in not necessarily money and fame. Sometimes a good person does become rich and famous--but it’s self-respect. Success is competition with other people, but self-respect is competition with yourself.” Concluding his formal remarks, Brooks said, “I used to think that a lot of the problems of society could be cured by laws and reforms, and I still believe that. But when I think about the polarization of the country, some of the failures in Wall Street, some of the failures in values in the country, I’ve come to think that the laws will only get you so far, and much of the problem has to do with values and attitudes. Not the values and attitudes of other people, but of each of us trying to discover the values and virtues that have been left to us as an inheritance.”
Brooks then fielded audience questions on a variety of topics, including political polarization, the likelihood Hillary Clinton and several potential Republican candidates could be elected the next President, and what President Barack Obama is really like.