College’s real FDR: falling in love

Author, New York Times columnist David Brooks shares his take on purpose of education

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David Brooks addresses the Washington and Lee community in Lee Chapel. Photo by Savannah Kimble, ‘18.

What’s the point of college? Most students might say it’s for academics, but columnist and author David Brooks argues that college is for something beyond that. According to him, college is actually a time for falling in love.

Brooks kicked off Parents’ Weekend by speaking to students, faculty and parents on “The Future of Higher Education in America” Oct. 1 in Lee Chapel.

“Professional ethos is always a part of college,” Brooks said. “But part of a liberal arts education is to give people some awareness of stepping outside our professional logic. Colleges provide new things for people to fall in love with: writing, chemistry, another person.”

Brooks’ speech was organized as part of the university’s commemoration of the one-hundred fiftieth anniversary of Robert E. Lee’s taking the oath of office as Washington College’s president.

“Lee was someone who thought seriously about how higher education could be made better for students and for the communities in which they would live and work,” politics professor Bob Strong said. “I proposed Brooks as a prominent public intellectual who might be willing to talk about what changes need to be made in higher education today. In other words, we want to celebrate Lee’s accomplishments by imitating his creative thinking on the subject of higher education.”

Brooks emphasized his idea that in order to be truly effective for students, universities should focus on providing more than vocational training.

“That sense of pure joy that is deeper than happiness – that’s what we’re all trying to get out of life,” Brooks said. “All of us know people who just have that incandescence. One of the purposes of a university is to plant the seeds where you can start to find that inner joy. When life and time are suspended, you get an overwhelming gratitude, a sense of moral joy far more than you will ever get from a job.”

Brooks went on to explain that in the long-term, a vocation is only one aspect of what a person requires to lead a fulfilling life.

“The part of David Brooks’ speech that I will remember the most is that he said there are four things everyone needs to be happy,” Archer Biggs, ’19, said. “The first is a family, the second is a vocation, the third is a philosophy or faith and the fourth is a community. I think that’s very true.”

David Brooks addresses the Washington and Lee community in Lee Chapel. Photo by Savannah Kimble, ‘18.

Referencing his recently published book, “The Road to Character,” Brooks also discussed the differences between living a life filled with what he terms resumé virtues, such as a high-paying job, and eulogy virtues, like honesty and compassion.

“I was most impacted by what he said about finding inner joy and happiness rather than focusing on external achievements,” Morgan Maloney, ’19, said. “I definitely felt like he made some excellent points about the need to focus on virtues that aren’t necessarily quantifiable. I feel like so much of the time we focus on how to get ahead in our careers and our academics, and we forget the other qualities that make us fulfilled people.”

According to Brooks, universities are ultimately meant to serve as a counter-culture where students are led to discover their passions from without, not from within.

“A university shows students how to open up,” Brooks said. “It widens your emotional repertoire: vocabulary, subtlety, feelings, when you read a novel or a poem or look at a piece of art. It provides us with exemplars, widens our horizons of risk and teaches us to turn everyday life into moral cultivation.”