Brooks Gives Class of 2010 a "Sentimental" Talk

Drawing on the leading philosophers of the Scottish Enlightenment, New York Times columnist, author, and cultural and political commentator David Brooks stressed the importance of educating one's emotions in a speech at Occidental College's 128th Commencement ceremony today.

 

The failure of much of modern liberalism is its "reliance on a truncated view of human nature ... that we are autonomous, rational decision-makers who respond in straightforward ways to incentives. That's just not true," Brooks told the standing-room only crowd of more than 3,500 family members and friends in Occidental's Remsen Bird Hillside Theater.

Whether the issue is policy-making or success in life, human emotions - or what philosophers David Hume and Edmund Burke would have called sentiments - rule our decisions, Brooks said. "A person's behavior is shaped by the informal constitution of our mind, by habits, etiquette, norms, values, and unconscious assumptions that loop from our mind to other minds and back again."

Citing examples drawn from his own experience as a newspaper reporter on assignment in Chicago, in Russia, and in Africa, Brooks said he found numerous examples of "smart people creating awful results" when they ignored human emotions and the unseen influence of social relationships, whether in clearing slums in Chicago or fighting AIDS in Namibia.

 

"You amputate reality if you try to imagine social problems can be solved through material forces," he said. "That's why I came to think that everything comes down to character and culture, and that's why life is so hard."

Quoting Daniel Patrick Moynihan's statement that "The central conservative truth is culture matters most, while the central liberal truth is that government can change culture," Brooks went on to say that "The best liberalism pushes us to change culture, to change these emotions. The best conservatism warns us that change is hard, and in the long run, if we're not careful, will accidentally destroy the social relationships we may not even see or be aware of."

The members of the Scottish Enlightenment wrote about the importance of sentiments not only as a way to explain public life, but as a means to explain everything, Brooks said. "That's why a degree from a liberal arts college is actually the most practical degree you can possibly get, because that's how you educate your emotions."

Brooks was presented with an honorary doctorate of humane letters, one of five honorary degrees bestowed during the three-hour ceremony. Also presented with honorary degrees were Patricia Alireza '94, physicist and research associate at University College, London; Father Gregory Boyle, executive director of Homeboy Industries; Los Angeles opera mezzo soprano Suzanna Guzmán; and Mo Ostin, legendary Warner Brothers/Reprise music executive.

Four retiring Occidental faculty members also were honored: National Endowment for the Humanities Distinguished Professor of the Humanities and Professor of History Wellington Chan; Theater Professor Alan Freeman '66 M'67; John Hafner, professor of biology and curator of the Moore Laboratory of Zoology; and Associate Professor of Geology James Woodhead.