David Brooks on what it takes & Elena Kagan

Brooks, columnist at the NY Times and more generally a moderate-conservative political commentator, has an interesting op-ed piece today.

I don’t like what he’s said, but it actually covers a lot, and I’d like to know what others here have to say. I could also be quite wrong, of course.

So what’s he said? The basic idea is that we now have a generation or two of Organization students. They pass all the tests, including the personality ones, with flying colours. Very bright they sail on by, but they do so because they don’t pause for commitment and passion to ideas or causes. Plus, Elena Kagan is one of these, and that’s the kind of person that can now get through the confirmation hearings.

He starts:

About a decade ago, one began to notice a profusion of Organization Kids at elite college campuses. These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged.

That’s step one. Step Two argues that Kagan looks to be like them. She doesn’t take stands on hard issues, for example. The evidence comes from acquaintances, her public speeches and her few articles.

So far, I haven’t met anybody who is not an admirer. She is apparently smart, deft and friendly. She was a superb teacher. She has the ability to process many points of view and to mediate between different factions.Yet she also is apparently prudential, deliberate and cautious. She does not seem to be one who leaps into a fray when the consequences might be unpredictable. …

She has become a legal scholar without the interest scholars normally have in the contest of ideas. She’s shown relatively little interest in coming up with new theories or influencing public debate.

The conclusion is that in fact she’s a bit creepy:

I have to confess my first impression of Kagan is a lot like my first impression of many Organization Kids. She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.

So what’s wrong with this? Well, to some extent it isn’t true. She has had to make some principled decisions as Solicitor General. And there’s something else that doesn’t ring true. If she’s made herself into a Stepford professor, why does everyone admire her so? I mean, there are these Stepford profs and they can go very, very high, but they are not generally admired.

But there’s another worrying factor. There is a value placed on confrontation and a genuine lack of sympathy for those who value consensus building. Some people, when they genuinely do not share some value, are inclined to make up pretty bad explanations for the actions of those who have it. Not having much sense of the great pleasure one can get from guiding a discussion to a wise consensus, they can see the course of one’s actions as amounting to a subtrefuge.

The same thing can happen when people see commitment to a cause as actually an attempt at self-promotion.

But that’s not to say there is nothing here to worry about. What do you think?