"Being a conservative columnist on The New York Times is like being the chief rabbi of Mecca," said political commentator David Brooks, drawing a big laugh from the audience. If anyone has the tact for that job, it would be Brooks, who throughout a visit to campus on Wednesday managed to avoid saying anything that might draw the ire of Bowdoin's liberal community.
Brooks' lecture, "Social Animal and Higher Education," featured more sociological commentary than political analysis. Citing numerous studies, Brooks argued that formative social and neurological experiences permanently affect how we interact with the world, often determining the direction of our lives. For example, he described a University of Minnesota study where scientists examined the attachment patterns of 18-month-old babies and could predict with 77 percent accuracy whether a child would graduate from high school. The hidden side of human nature, Brooks told the sold-out crowd in Pickard Theater, plays an integral role in determining our happiness.
Brooks enjoys interviews with politicians—he tries to do three per day—and he seems to have absorbed some of their grease in the process, displaying a witty, gregarious demeanor and tendency to evade tough questions. An afternoon discussion session with students interested in journalistic careers—a bleak subject these days—was peppered with encouragement but little analysis of the newspaper industry's crumbling revenue model.
During an interview with the Orient, he provided substantive answers to complex issues, but his answers sometimes circumnavigated the question asked. Though by no means an imposing man—he wore a pink tie and striped purple shirt—Brooks presided over the evening's dinner conversation with a politician's confident authority. And while he might have been reluctant to engage his audiences politically, Brooks was happy to make them chortle.
"Spending so much time around politicians, I can tell you they are all emotional freaks of one sort or another," he said. "They all have what I call 'logorrhea dementia,' meaning they talk so much they drive themselves insane. They are guaranteed to invade your personal space, and when you talk, they stand way too close."
"I had dinner with a Republican senator several months ago and he had his hand on my inner thigh the whole evening," he added.
Throughout the day, Brooks gleefully poked fun at those with fancy cars, degrees from elite schools, overachieving children, üüber-healthy diets and fanatical exercise routines: the privileged class of Americans. Of course, he mostly interacts with and is read by those same Americans, so he knows it makes them feel less guilty about their privilege when they can laugh at themselves.
"We are overconfidence machines: 95 percent of professors in America say they are above average in teaching skills," Brooks said, as students in the audience chuckled knowingly.
"Ninety-six percent of college students say they have above-average leadership skills," he added, this time to quieter, more nervous laughter—some seniors do not have jobs yet.
Many of Brooks' remarks were highly scripted as well. In fact, Brooks took several jokes verbatim from his recent article in The New Yorker. That survey of professors' perceived teaching ability? He mentioned it at least three times in four hours.
Brooks' lively delivery and political sensitivity reflect a humorous disposition towards life, keen memory and self-discipline; he frequently poked fun at his status as a columnist, effortlessly recited statistics from psychological studies, and carefully avoided the several bottles of wine perched on his table at dinner. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy being surrounded by liberal arts students.
"I'm a huge fan of smaller schools," Brooks said in an interview with the Orient. "You are also going to meet more people at a smaller place. And the students often talk about stuff outside of class that they talked about in class."
Continuing on that subject, Brooks recounted one of his well-rehearsed facts: "It's reasonably well-established that 90 percent of what you learn in the classroom you will have forgotten in five years."
But with midterms and papers looming, no one laughed at that.