Vail Daily column: Bankroll life with character, cash
“It is not enough to be industrious; so are ants,” declared Henry David Thoreau. “What are you industrious about?”
David Brooks, New York Times columnist whose political commentary PBS and NPR features, offers an answer to this question in his latest book, “The Road to Character.” Brooks invites Americans to retrieve lost character. Cultivate lives, he writes, in which character counts as much as financial worth. Hone traits such as “selflessness, generosity, self-sacrifice and other qualities that sometimes make worldly success less likely.”
We achieve resume virtues, observes Brooks, skills that make for an attractive work record and financial bonuses. We bankroll these strengths and cash them in with promotions. Everybody knows the mantras: “Input leads to output. Effort leads to reward. Practice makes perfect. Pursue self-interest. Maximize your utility. Impress the world.”
Brooks worries that workers who accumulate financial rewards may become smart scoundrels. All show … with unfulfilled hearts. He beckons readers to walk the road toward character by immersing ourselves in “eulogy virtues,” those “that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being — whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed.”
Could such eulogy virtues guide our personal and enrich our professional lives?
Brooks, a cultural Jew, fleshes out these character strengths, lifted from biblical teachings. At funerals, eulogists salute the deceased, weaving character strands into their lives’ fabric: “You have to give to receive. You have to surrender to something outside yourself to gain strength within yourself. You have to conquer your desire to get what you crave. Success leads to the greatest failure, which is pride. Failure leads to the greatest success, which is humility and learning. In order to fulfill yourself, you have to forget yourself. In order to find yourself, you have to lose yourself.”
Brooks doesn’t sound like Kim Kardashian who considers her selfie pictures to be so stunning that she recently published them in a book. He leans more toward Thomas Jefferson who regarded life as a school for character training, what colonials called civic virtue.
Jefferson rejected today’s popular notion of colleges as job mills. In his vision of college, students mastered classical morality. He expected graduates to possess virtue and employable skills aroused by scientific curiosity.
Jefferson and his peers realized our republic would flounder if a two-way trust was absent. Government officials needed confidence that citizens approved of their work to support national interests. Citizens, then, needed trust in the federal government as an effective instrument to further the common good.
Jefferson feared slick shysters getting their way and controlling the Republic. He warned that “even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny.” To guard against such assaults on the Republic, Jefferson instructed colleges to graduate students with mental rigor and moral character that “they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shape, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purpose.” Jefferson had little patience with the Donald Trumps and Kim Kardashians of this world whose thin souls binge on success.
Winston Churchill crisply stated what Jefferson advocated in character building. “Engines were made for men (humanity), not men (humanity) for engines,” declared Churchill at the University of Miami in 1946. “Expert knowledge, however indispensable, is no substitute for a generous and comprehending outlook upon the human story with all its sadness and with all its unquenchable hope.” Acquire character to balance workplace skills.
Why do some Republican leaders reject Jefferson’s view of colleges as storehouses of character development? They opt for teaching employable skills.
Last February, presidential contender Sen. Marco Rubio tackled student debt. He said that students, before enrolling in college, should be briefed on “whether it’s worth borrowing $40,000 to be a Greek philosophy major. Because the market for Greek philosophy majors is tight.” Former Texas governor Rick Perry passed STEM legislation, challenging college students to major in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines, rather than enriching liberal arts majors.
One of their own corrects such a narrow vision of what colleges should offer. Larry Arnns is president of Michigan’s Hillsdale College, a citadel of conservative political ideology. He emphasizes studying the Constitutional as the base of thriving free-market capitalism. “Instead of going to law school,” Arnns recounts, “I called my dad and said, ‘Dad, I’m going to graduate school (to study Plato).’” He gasped, ‘And what are you going to do with that?’ The younger Arnns responded, ‘I’m going to know it.”
For those who go to college to get a job rather than mold a life based on character, heed the wisdom Brooks, Jefferson and Churchill share. Hone character. Acquire marketable skills.
They aren’t exclusive goals. Don’t restrict college to either an assembly line for job skills or an incubator that gives birth to core values. Acquire a moral compass that guides putting job skills to work.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).