Sunday, September 14, 2003

Call it Ambition

David Adesnik of Oxblog gets tough with David Brooks. I'm sure Adesnik is a fine fellow, but one might get the impression from his spiritedness that he's a Resume God under attack.

In his Bobos book, Brooks claims he doesn't want a return to WASP-dom, and I take him at his word.

I appreciate that it's not nice to be told you're part of a generation whose members exist to pad their resumes, but becoming more purely meritocratic has at least some disadvantages. There's really nothing to aspire to anymore, culturally or socially. Kids at better schools aren't social climbers anymore; and however distasteful it might have been when that sort of thing existed, at least there was a vision of a class to climb toward. Much better now to get your MBA than try to be a gentleman.

Moreover, the MBA doesn't find himself gravitating toward politics the way WASP scions used to. Although there are individual cases of young people becoming interested in politics, there is no real vision of public service that goes along with the new meritocracy. (Is our MBA president a president because of his degree or because he represents the last gasp of his pedigree?)

Additionally, although he's middle-aged, I don't think Brooks is part of the old generation as Adesnik implies; his generation is like the one coming of age now -- living in the wake of WASP-dom. I also think Adesnik overplays the "manliness" aspect of what Brooks seeks to remind us of. Brooks' larger point is that pure meritocracy has replaced a kind of faux aristocracy, and this has significant political and social consequences -- most of them good, but some of them not so good. He's not really talking primarily about prep school hazing rituals.

Finally, I think Adesnik mischaracterizes what he sees around him in terms of good students who want to make a difference. Why present them as purely altruistic? I'd much prefer Adesnik call ambition by its proper name without condemning it. And just because Adesnik clearly sees ambitious young people around doesn't disprove Brooks' thesis; such people will always exist as Brooks well knows. The question is whether they are bound and inspired by some kind of gentlemanly ethos due to their birth or whether they deserve to rule because of their SAT score. Another question is whether the new basis for the right to rule somehow perverts or truncates the ambition to rule. Moreover, given the current state of liberal education (which Brooks does not mention), what will tutor the desire to rule in the ambitious youth? Oddly enough, given the decline of the WASP, we may need liberal education now more than ever.

It remains to be seen whether Adesnik's observations are of young people whose nobler and grander ambitions are lasting, permanent, and well-formed or fleeting, fickle, and dangerously untutored or untreated. Will this ambition die hard or become relatively easily domesticated into the quest for a restaurant-quality Viking stove in one's oversized kitchen in Shaker Heights or Scarsdale? Or, unencumbered and left untreated, will it develop into something less petty but more dangerous? Only time will tell. I think these are probably Brooks' points or closer to them than Adesnik's characterization.


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