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David Brooks Celebrates Human Nature’s Natural Compassion, Overlooking Conservatism’s Natural Darwinism

July 8, 2016

David Brooks, an orthodox old-school conservative, seems incapable of connecting his humanity with his political thinking. In today’s column, “The Power of Altruism”, he offers several examples of research that demonstrates the fundamental compassion that humans possess and then laments that selfishness is viewed as the primary motivation for human behavior. He writes:

When we build academic disciplines and social institutions upon suppositions of selfishness we’re missing the motivations that drive people much of the time.

Worse, if you expect people to be selfish, you can actually crush their tendency to be good…

To be a good citizen, to be a good worker, you often have to make an altruistic commitment to some group or ideal, which will see you through those times when your job of citizenship is hard and frustrating. Whether you are a teacher serving students or a soldier serving your country or a clerk who likes your office mates, the moral motivation is much more powerful than the financial motivations. Arrangements that arouse the financial lens alone are just messing everything up.

Given the research cited in this column and this compelling paragraph, how can conservatives like Mr. Brooks possibly believe merit pay for teachers is a good idea? CAn’t they see that by encouraging teachers to earn more money by virtue of increasing test scores they are making an altruistic profession into a utilitarian one. They are, in Mr. Brooks’ words, “manipulating an institution that arouses the moral lens” and converting into one that is based solely on bloodless test scores. As a result, neoliberal and conservative “reformers” are creating a school culture that is “less cooperative, less trusting, less effective and less lovely.”

As a result of the “reform” movement we are taking children who are naturally caring and converting them into young social Darwinists who want to build their resumes so they can get into good colleges and earn lots of money. When will we collectively realize the damage we are doing to children as a result of this ‘reform” and cultivate the caring nature of children instead of feeding their competitive fire?  Given the recent passage of ESSA and the desire to measure the effectiveness of post-secondary education based on earnings I don’t expect to see a change any time soon unless opinion writers like Mr. Brooks come to their senses and begin advocating a more humanitarian approach to education.

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