Review of The Road to Character by David Brooks (Random House 2015).

What’s your CV/Resume say about you? And what will people say about you at your funeral?

Those two questions (and the fact that the answers may be quite different) are at the heart of a fascinating, and probably quite challenging for some, book by David Brooks – The Road to Character (Random House 2015). Brooks kicks the book off by musing on the difference between what he terms the resume virtues and the eulogy virtues – the latter about skills for the job market and external success, the former your core virtues – whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful and what kind of relationships you formed.

Brooks takes us on a thought-provoking journey in which he laments the fact that for many the world is shaped by the resume virtues – that it’s all about “me”.  That our culture drives us to succeed but neglects the “inner life”.  Career is all and the competition to succeed is fierce.

The key word at the centre of this debate is “character”. Now there’s a word.  People used to talk about a person being “of character”; not “a character” – that’s quite different.  Being “of character” meant the person had moral fibre; they drew a line between what was acceptable and what wasn’t, good and bad, and toed the line.  You could trust them; they had reliable virtues – honesty, fairness, courage, compassion, fidelity.

A prompt for Brooks’ determination to explore the subject was a programme he heard on his car radio called Command Performance, a replay of a variety show featuring the likes of Sinatra, Dietrich, Cary Grant and Bette Davis that was broadcast to Allied troops the day after the War against Japan was declared over.  What struck Brooks was the tone throughout the show of self-effacement and humility (another word that features a lot in this book) by the victors. The modest tone of the broadcast was in sharp contrast to what Brooks saw shortly after it, turning on his TV to catch a gridiron game and seeing a player doing a “self-puffing victory dance” for the camera over a modest on-field achievement. It set him thinking about how in terms of the place of “character”, our world has changed.

Brooks sets out to map what character looks like or should look like – through a series of studies of individuals from history, ancients and modern.  Some you’ll know of, like WW2 general and later US President Dwight “Ike” Eisenhower, his military colleague General George Marshall, the compiler of the first English dictionary Samuel Johnson, and British novelist George Elliot (born Mary Anne Evans); others are perhaps less familiar – Francis Perkins, a key figure in FDR’s administration, St. Augustine, and US civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.

All in their own way faced massive challenges that brought out their character strengths, and Brooks’ accounts of their lives focuses on how each of them exemplified one of the activities that lead to character. All diverse accounts but the common thread was “they had to go down to go up…to descend into the valley of humility to climb to the heights of character.”

These are insightful, stirring stories. Johnson’s is a revelation; Marshall’s very moving.  But Brooks isn’t writing a biographical history book; his point is that these virtues related to character are increasingly absent in our self-centered world. It’s largely absent in the youth world view and he can’t see where young people might acquire any moral training; all the urges are to beef up the resume and beat the next person for the job.  Schools drive that, so do parents.  There’s very little focus on what being a good person and a good citizen looks like, or so it seems.

It’s impossible to do justice to Brooks’ book in a simple blog but for me he’s spot on.  A moral compass is needed in society but it can be difficult to find.  In this age of the selfie, young people (and many much older) often struggle to actually even identify any moral questions they wrangle with. If it feels good do it.  What do they aspire to? Being famous is a big deal; asked who they’d like to have dinner with, US middle school girls listed Jennifer Lopez, Jesus Christ, and Paris Hilton as 1, 2 and 3.  Figure that out.

There are reassuring pockets of hope though; here in NZ, Sam Johnson’s student army after the Christchurch earthquakes, in the UK the wonderful DIY-SOS TV programme (and our own Mucking In).  Right now, Germany makes a poignant statement in its acceptance of Middle Eastern refugees.

Brooks’ answer isn’t straightforward.  I think he just wants to seed a broader conversation about the place of what he terms a “moral ecology” – or the right moral ecology. The current one centres on the advancement of the individual, says Brooks, and has led to a rise in narcissism and self-aggrandizement. To replace it, he invites us to adopt what he terms a Humility Code, “a coherent image of what to live for and how to live” – a set of 15 propositions to restore the balance and revive the eulogy values. Worth a look.

​This is a milestone book.  It’s not an easy subject.  Brooks is swimming against a prevailing current of trends, teaching, attitudes and institutions that promote the cult of the self.  But it would make for a better world to turn the tide.