David Brooks’s Gentility Shift

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Stuart Semmel is Senior Lecturer at Yale University. He teaches modern British history and is the author of "Napoleon and the British" (Yale, 2004).

It’s hard to know what’s more misguided about David Brooks’ September 9 column in the New York Times, titled “The Genteel Nation.”  Is it his analysis of America’s current ills, his pat explanation of the rise and fall of British global power, or the connection he draws between these two cases?

Brooks believes that a phenomenon he terms “gentility shift” is “evident at all levels of society” today.  “Up and down society,” he writes, “people are moving away from commercial, productive activities and toward pleasant, enlightened but less productive ones.”  But the diagnosis seems a poor, Procrustean fit for each of the three social tiers he describes.

Brooks frets that elite college graduates are embracing “law, finance, consulting and nonprofit activism,” rather than “industry and technical enterprise.”  Fair enough, though one is a bit surprised to see Goldman Sachs lumped together with the Sierra Club.  (Did Brooks forget that old standby of blaming Harvard graduates for becoming comedy writers?)  It’s true that very few recent Dartmouth alumni are taking jobs at Caterpillar or General Motors.  But do Google and Pixar really not count as “technical enterprise”?  And were there, fifty years ago, really all that many Princetonians who left for “Akron [to] work for a small manufacturing company,” a practice whose current absence Brooks apparently mourns?  (And might we not be justifiably concerned if this in fact became fashionable?)

Brooks faults members of the middle class, meanwhile, for aspiring to a lifestyle they could ill afford, and thus going into debt, and dragging the economy down with them—a rather partial, shall we say, explanation for the global financial crisis.  But this lifestyle, as Brooks presents it, isn’t simply the oversize house and the second S.U.V.  It’s also the expensive non-technical college educations parents have given their kids, which leave their families poorer and America with “not enough mechanics.”  Surely, though, these supposedly unhelpful college educations might help some new diploma-holders get those managerial jobs in Akron, the ones at which Ivy League grads are turning up their noses?

Finally, Brooks gets to “the lower class.”  His statement that “the problem here is social breakdown” seems to acknowledge that in this case the problem is not gentility shift.  That tends to weaken his claim that a single infection explains the ills of all three social strata.  One might also note that the unemployment, parental abandonment, and failing schools he mentions are rarely characterized as either pleasant or enlightened (then again, neither is hedge-fund management).  Following one’s genteel bliss, then, does not seem to be quite as far-reaching a condition as Brooks implies. 

For the British historian, what really needles is Brooks’ careless sketch of Britain’s industrial rise and imperial decline.  The first problem is that his opening historical sketch lumps these two—industry and empire—together without explanation.  Here’s his narrative, only slightly compacted:  (1) “Sometime around 1800, [British] economic growth took off.”  (2) “Britain soon dominated the world.” (3) “But then it declined.” 

Which global dominance does he have in mind—Britain as industrial powerhouse (the “workshop of the world”), or Britain as imperial overlord?  He blurs these together when he notes that “the great-great-grandchildren of the empire builders withdrew from commerce.”  By conflating industry and empire, Brooks implies that British industrial development and imperial expansion were identical—or at least were causally related in a fashion so obvious as to require no explanation.  It’s true that all sorts of links can be drawn between British industrialization and imperialism.  Most fundamentally, colonies provided both raw materials and marketplaces for many British manufactures.  But the expansion of Britain’s empire had more to do with geopolitics than with Manchester cotton mills.  For example, the empire grew dramatically in 1763, with the end of the Seven Years’ War—long before economic growth took off.  The empire’s contraction, too, didn’t have much to do with Britain’s gradual industrial decline.  Geopolitics again (notably Japanese incursions in the Second World War) and the growth of non-European nationalisms played much more of a role.

For that matter, one influential analysis would suggest that it was finance, not commerce, that lay at the heart of British imperial policy and practice.  P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins see “gentlemanly capitalism” as the economic dimension of British global expansion.  A traditional aristocratic hostility to “trade” made many British imperial entrepreneurs want to “distance [themselves] from the everyday and demeaning world of work.”  Maybe those jobs in finance are not quite as antithetical to world power as Brooks fears.

Brooks presents himself as a dogged anti-materialist, believing that both the rise and the fall of British power (a power which, again, he defines ambiguously) derived from changes “in people’s minds.”   To explain why Britain was the first country in the world to industrialize, Brooks cites Joel Mokyr’s recent The Enlightened Economy.  Mokyr’s writings have indeed given considerable attention—unusual for an economic historian—to non-material factors.  But Mokyr hardly regards intellectual history as a sufficient explanation for the British takeoff; he is fully aware of the critical importance of material causes including Britain’s coal deposits, internal waterways, and land enclosures.  Even if necessary, cultural forces can hardly have been sufficient.  Brooks, however, seems to have taken away the message that this first industrialization resulted entirely from “cultural shifts.”

Decline is Brooks’ real theme.  He attributes Britain’s twentieth-century downturn to “people’s minds,” and worries that Americans will unwittingly repeat the error of those Britons who “tried to rise above practical knowledge and had more genteel attitudes about how to live.”  Here he cites the military historian Correlli Barnett, who made a splash in 1972 by claiming that British geopolitical might had decayed because of the backward-looking, non-technical, humanistic values inculcated into Britain’s future rulers in the Victorian era.  A few years after Barnett’s book, Martin J. Wiener’s English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 offered a less splenetic, but parallel argument.  Wiener ascribed Britain’s economic (not geopolitical) malaise to the decisions of nineteenth-century innovators—self-made engineers, inventors, and entrepreneurs—to embrace the aristocratic values of the ruling class, values that (Wiener implied) they should have spurned.  Instead of thumbing their noses at their social superiors and giving their children practical scientific educations, they bought villas in the countryside and sent their boys to Harrow to read Plutarch.  These nineteenth-century cultural decisions, according to Wiener, had twentieth-century economic repercussions.  Britain lost its inventive spark and settled for a quiet, cozy life of gentility.

Members of Margaret Thatcher’s inner circle devoured and acclaimed both Barnett’s and Wiener’s works.  Among other things, the books seemed to endorse the grocer’s daughter’s impulse to turn out the Old Etonians and bring in the nouveau strivers.  Bashing the classics was an odd way of inspiring conservatives.  But then again, Thatcher famously wasn’t a conservative at all, but a radical, intent on tearing out so many of the sutures that both Labour and Conservative governments had stitched together since the war. 

Brooks, by contrast, has never seemed averse to a genteel reading list.  Just a few months ago, his column spoke out on behalf of the Great Books (“If you go through college without reading Thucydides, Herodotus and Gibbon, you’ll have been cheated”).  He argued for the practical benefits of a humanities major, and claimed that mere “Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge.”  This attitude seems entirely in keeping with Brooks’ respect for the historical importance of culture:  after all, culture can launch an economy into orbit, or send it crashing back to earth.  But his praise of Great Books doesn’t seem to fit with his warning that gentility might undermine American might.  Is he arguing that studying the humanities is useful, but only if used as a springboard towards a technical career (inventing the iPod, for example, the “great brand” that serves as the stunningly pedestrian holy grail of his June column)? 

Or is the problem not gentility at all, simply gentility shift—the problem of too many people reading the classics?  That, at least, would be a well-established conservative position.

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vaughn davis bornet - 9/20/2010

How great to start Monday morning, not with sorting manuscript, but with conjectures on the rise and fall of empires and observable changes in entire classes of people at home and abroad.

Yet with the benefits has has come, as is now to be expected it appears, the personalization of the intellectual argument.

David Brooks is made to bear the brunt, for there must be a conservative position to hammer. What a waste; and would this be the case if these scholars were face to face? Unlikely.

Anyway, as one with two English "fields" for the doctorate, I missed something in the learned analysis of Britain's rise and decline. WAR. In WWI, GB lost on the ground alone in the vicinity of one of nine youths, young adults, and future leaders in general; in WWII over a third of a million from the UK itself were killed or missing. Who were they? Often enough in both wars they were the future leaders and the best educated from Society. Maybe a footnote in "rise and fall" essays would do it, but I have often thought more should be made of this loss of the best and brightest.

New subject: In a typical state college in the US I observed real decline during the latter 20th century in humanities and liberal arts concentration in favor of business and choice of future financial opportunity. If this should somehow be redressed I would not mind.

Yet there is today real competition across the accomplishment landscape in the US and elsewhere from a vast new array of Asian young people on the make in American classrooms. And it is just starting, in my view.

Change in such respects is now rapid and vastly meaningful. The essay above, and its precipitating Brooks essay, are in my view early announcements of coming modifications in what we have taken for granted in the latter part of my lifetime. This seems BIG.

Which do we need and must have: my electronic cable installer grandson (best around) or my stockbroker grandson (totally ready to take on investment burdens)? I would hope both need to know Plutarch, but I conjecture that neither worrys much about the matter. I am on Plutarch's side, but it's been seventy years more or less since I even glanced at his product in Modern Library.

In my years we took for granted the unemployment of India's intellectuals, those Ph.D.s in sociology, for example. Lord, today, here, it would be nice for America's youth to get liberal arts educations in spades! But our Nation is collapsing (yes, it's just about THAT) for lack of employment for those who only yesterday could Do Things in Detroit and Akron. Vast numbers are now unemployed despite higher education in troublsome subjects, the tough ones, the activities once a sure shot at lifetime employment and solid pensions.

Thanks for a good read, probable Plutarch readers, now mind openers in mid September, 2010.

Vaughn Davis Bornet, Ph.D. Ashland, Oregon