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 Inside and Beyond

David Brooks’s

The Road to Character:

Summary, Critique and More

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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In the 1950s, a Gallup poll asked high school seniors whether they considered themselves to be very important persons. Only 12 percent said “yes.” 50 years later, the same question was asked again, and 80 percent of students replied that they considered themselves very important.

David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, investigates in his book, The Road to Character, the shift in our culture that has inflated people’s perception of their self-worth. He argues that people cannot be happy and have a meaningful life as long as they submit to the ideas of our modern culture and focus only on their own sense of importance and external success. In Brooks’s opinion, we have to seek inner light and pursue a greater cause in order to experience a fulfilling life.

The goals of this book are as follows:

  • To provide you with a concise, well-organized and clear summary of the key ideas and facts of Brooks’s The Road to Character;
  • To provide you with a review of credible ideas, facts and findings that supplement or contrast with those in Brooks’s bookthese “beyond-Brooks’s-book” ideas, facts and findings will provide you with a bigger picture of the issues discussed in Brooks’s book and help you better understand and critically think about its topics;
  • To offer you additional insights into the stronger and weaker sides of The Road to Character via its critique;
  • And to provide you with a list of carefully researched resources, including other books and free online resources that supplement Brooks’s book and its critique.

Who Should Read This Book?

This book is intended for people who wish to read David Brooks’s The Road to Character in the future and want to get a better idea of what the book is about.

This book is also intended for people who have read Brooks’s book and want to reflect on what they have learned, review other credible facts and findings that support or contrast with the ideas and facts from Brooks’s book, and find out more about strengths and limitations of his book.


What This Book Does for You

Here is what this book series, Inside and Beyond of That Book, does for you:

  • It crystallizes the important ideas and facts from Brooks’s The Road to Character and presents their summary in an orderly and clear manner.
  • This book provides credible facts and findings that are related to the ideas and facts presented in Brooks’s book, even though they are not included in his book. These “beyond-Brooks’s-book” facts and findings give you a bigger picture of the topics and issues discussed in The Road to Character.
  • This book provides a critique of Brooks’s The Road to Character.
  • This book provides a list of additional, carefully researched resources, such as books, periodical papers and free online resources, that are directly related to the topics discussed in The Road to Character.


Special Elements Used in This Book

Special elements clarify concepts and factual material, set off different types of information and make them easily recognizable. This book uses the following special elements:

Inside Brooks’s book

This material is a summary of important ideas and facts from Brooks’s The Road to Character, which are further analyzed and criticized in Part II of this book.

Beyond Brooks’s book

This material supplements or contrasts with that in Brooks’s book, providing readers with a bigger picture of the topics and issues discussed in The Road to Character.

Introduction and Overview of

The Road to Character

David Brooks is a political and cultural op-ed columnist for The New York Times and already an author well known for his previous books, Bobos in Paradise, On Paradise Drive and The Social Animal. He says that he is “paid to be a narcissistic blowhard, to volley my opinions, to appear more confident about them than I really am.” He also teaches an undergraduate course titled “Humility” at Yale University.

Brooks was raised in New York by Jewish parents who were in academia. When Brooks attended the University of Chicago, he considered himself “a socialist.” After graduation, he got a job as a police reporter in Chicago. His work allowed him to observe the city’s public housing projects, and this experience moved his political views more to the right. Brooks then worked as an intern at the National Review. Its founder, William F. Buckley, was a conservative. About a year and half later, Brooks left the National Review for The Wall Street Journal. From the early to mid-1990s, Brooks covered Europe for the Journal. He then worked as a senior writer for The Weekly Standard. In 2003, Brooks was hired by The New York Times as a columnist.

In his earlier books, Brooks addresses psychological, social and spiritual problems that modern American society faces. In Bobos in Paradise, he describes “bourgeois bohemians” who merge the consumerism of the yuppies with the social values of the hippies. In On Paradise Drive, Brooks looks at how US consumerism is related to self-expression, and in The Social Animal he addresses the findings in psychology and neuroscience that may help us understand the modern epidemic of people’s isolation and loneliness.

In The Road to Character, Brooks continues exploring the problems of modern American culture. His book presents a conservative point of view as he argues that our culture has lost the “moral vocabulary” of past generations. He points out that people today consider money, superficial recognition and external success, as well as material possessions, as their first priorities. Brooks discusses the value of soul-searching and a quest for inner light, as well as the importance of finding values in life. He also calls for a return to humility.

According to Brooks, one of the reasons he decided to write The Road to Character was his realization that, in spite of his well-paid and successful career, something important was missing in his life and he had to find that something inside himself. While examining his own life and the lives of other people, Brooks further recognized that career success does not necessarily make people happy. Furthermore, the divide between what people are and what they could be keeps growing as people go on with their lives without examining the meaning of life and higher moral standards. To address this issue, Brooks proposes that we should look inside ourselves and examine our weaknesses.

In his book, Brooks scrutinizes the shift in society’s definition of morals and strong character that has taken place over the last several generations and discusses how technology has molded our idea of character. Brook argues that in our culture, which lacks a moral vocabulary, people can easily slip into individually centered ways of living reinforced by a self-assured moral mediocrity. Consequently, people judge themselves using less morally demanding and more forgiving criteria.

Brooks admits in The Road to Character that he has not achieved generosity of spirit and the depth of character that he observes in some people. However, when looking for a way to be more like people with good character and greater inner peace, he recognized that there are two sets of virtues, “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” The résumé virtues are the virtues people bring to the marketplace. Eulogy virtues are the virtues and qualities that describe a person at a more profound level. For example, honesty, compassion and ability to love are described as eulogy virtues.

The eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé virtues. However, our culture and educational system place much greater emphasis on teaching the résumé virtues that people need in order to achieve external success. As a result, many people have a good idea of how to have a successful external career, but they have no good understanding of how to build their character. They dedicate their life-long efforts to pursuing external success, but their character remains ill defined.

Brooks argues in his book that the modern “Big Me” culture makes us more and more self-preoccupied and self-assured, encouraging us to broadcast our personal brand. Brooks aims to show in his book how we can build character and re-establish balance in our lives by nurturing our eulogy virtues. For this purpose, he profiles prominent leaders, activists and thinkers from several different eras and describes their strong sense of character. Brooks acknowledges that these people were not perfect and they had to confront their flaws in order to develop admirable virtues.

Brooks emphasizes in his book that we are not born enlightened and with strong character. Instead, we have to persistently work on ourselves in order to build character and develop our inner virtues. This kind of work necessitates certain moral and spiritual accomplishments. Brooks referred to the list of these accomplishments as the Moral Bucket List in his essay published by The New York Times.

Finally, Brooks emphasizes that reading his book will not make you a better person and will not build your character. However, in The Road to Character, he brings together various theological, philosophical and biographical studies that could point you toward a path to yourself as a better person.


Go to Part I A Summary

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