David Brooks

David Brooks delivered the 2024 Hagerman lecture. Lehigh's Center for Ethics hosted the event in the Wood Dining Hall.

New York Times Columnist David Brooks: ‘Democracy is Conversation’

Lehigh’s Center for Ethics hosts Brooks, who is also an author and PBS NewsHour commentator, for its 2024 Hagerman lecture

Photography by

Holly Fasching

David Brooks has spent a lifetime as a journalist, from the police beat in Chicago to the op-ed pages of The New York Times and national TV news programs such as PBS NewsHour. But in a lecture Tuesday in Iacocca Hall on the Mountaintop Campus, his vocabulary was heavy on seemingly "touchy-feely" words such as kindness, respect, consideration, humanity, morality.

To Brooks, being a good and thoughtful person and making connections with others is imperative in order to combat the state of division in the country.

So it's not surprising that Brooks was tapped to deliver the 2024 Hagerman lecture hosted by Lehigh’s Center for Ethics. In his introduction, Michael Gusmano, center director, said Brooks was the perfect speaker, with his combination of “honor, insight and quiet passion.”

Brooks began his visit with a Q&A with Lehigh students and ended with a signing of his newest book, “How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen.”

With his signature low-key and earnest style of wisdom and wit, Brooks held the full house rapt for an hour. He provided a lesson plan for civility and quoted heavily from big thinkers in education, religion, philosophy and science, including Einstein, Tolstoy and Martin Luther King. He told some of the stories of kindness detailed in his book. Some were realized as part of his organization Weave: The Social Fabric Project at the Aspen Institute, whose mission is “to promote the building of connection and weave a rich social fabric in schools, workplaces and throughout every part of life.”

“The topic I was given is ‘Character, Ethics and Politics,’ and my main goal tonight is to argue that these three things can go together,” Brooks began, the audience responding with a collective chuckle. “I’m going to talk about how we can be considerate to each other given the complex circumstances of life.”

Brooks explained that he is not the type of person for whom having social grace and being “morally upright” came naturally, given his upbringing in a Jewish family that was not the “warm and huggy” “Fiddler on the Roof” type. “I come from the other kind of Jewish family. The culture in our family was ‘think British, act Yiddish,’ he said.

He said his early years were spent in New York City, where a teacher said, “David doesn’t play with other kids. He just watches them.” He attended high school in the affluent Philadelphia suburbs, then college at the University of Chicago, where he said he had a double major in “history and celibacy.” He gained mainstream recognition when he was hired as a conservative columnist at The New York Times.

Democracy is conversation. It is compromise. It’s a series of very subtle and very challenging social skills across ideological differences.

David Brooks

Brooks described himself as a work in progress, saying it took him a lifetime to grow into an enlightened person. He said that in one of two interviews he did with Oprah Winfrey, she commented, “Rarely have I seen someone in middle age change so much.”

Said Brooks: “I’m a grower, and I’ve tried to become more emotionally open and more human … The sad part is, as I’m becoming a little more human, our society is becoming more dehumanized.”

Brooks rattled off statistics about how much more depressed and sad and lonely people are than they used to be, particularly younger people. He said that when people feel this way, they become meaner and more distrustful, both of institutions and of other people.

“Social trust,” he said, “is a faith, based on the idea we share the same values and the same norms. High trust societies have high economic growth, less polarized politics, less inequality. Everything you want in a society grows when there’s high social trust.”

Brooks said distrust in both institutions and people bleeds into politics. People, Brooks said, use politics as a form of social therapy. “Politics is the illusion of belonging. But you’re not doing anything together. You’re just hating the same people.” He added that embracing a political tribe can give you the illusion of moral action and righteousness, but “you aren’t sitting with a widow or feeding the poor.”

The reasons for this phenomenon are many, he said, ranging from social media to diverse demographics. But the biggest reason, Brooks said, is, “We inhabit a society where people are no longer trained to treat each other with kindness and consideration.”

David Brooks

Brooks explained the pathway to re-teaching moral formation.

He said traditional institutions such as schools and even churches don’t teach “moral formation” the way they used to. Instead, he said they teach “self-actualization, how do I celebrate myself.”

“Democracy is conversation. It is compromise. It’s a series of very subtle and very challenging social skills across ideological differences,” said Brooks.

The question then, he said, becomes, how do we turn things around? Brooks maintains that moral formation is a learned skill and he explained the pathway to re-teaching it.

The Pathway to Moral Formation

The first component, he said, is personal renewal. Examine how you treat other people. He quoted the philosopher Iris Murdoch, who said, “Normally when we see each other we look at each other with self-centered eyes. Our job, she said, is to cast a just and loving attention on each other."

Brooks said we need to give people the gift of our presence. “A lot of ethics is just showing up for people.”

We learn our morals the way we learn our habits, by being surrounded by people who behave a certain way and we copy them. Who creates those moral communities? In my opinion, ethical leaders.

David Brooks

He talked at length about improving our conversations. Tips included “be a loud listener” (vocalize interest), “don’t fear the pause” (give people a chance to collect their thoughts) and “don’t be a topper” (don’t always compare your experiences to theirs).

His tips to resolving conflict include “keep the gem statement in the center,” meaning find something you agree on, and to try to understand the philosophical reason causing the disagreement.

The quality of your conversation will depend on the quality of your questions, Brooks said. “Everybody in this room was once phenomenally good at asking questions,” said Brooks. “I know that because you are all former 4-year-olds.”

Brooks said good conversations make people feel validated, respected and seen. He quoted from a book “Crucial Conversations”: “In conversation, respect is like air. When it’s present, nobody notices; when it’s absent, it’s all anybody can think about.”

The second component to turning things around is civic renewal, Brooks said. “People are formed in community. We learn our morals the way we learn our habits, by being surrounded by people who behave a certain way and we copy them. Who creates those moral communities? In my opinion, ethical leaders.”

Brooks said ethical leaders have a number of traits, including an understanding that moral formation is part of the job; the ability to create an atmosphere where ethical behavior is expected and understood; an understanding of the importance of small acts, not just grand gestures, and the ability to look at the job through a moral lens.

Universities, he said, are among the ethical leaders who can shape moral people by introducing students to great intellectual thinkers. Brooks said the responsibility of the university is not just advancement of knowledge and career preparation, but “cultivation of its students.” He praised Lehigh for taking that seriously, particularly with the creation of its Center for Ethics.

Brooks ended with a note of optimism, quoting civil rights activist and author James Baldwin, who he said practiced “defiant humanism.”

“There may not be as much humanity in the world as one would like to see. But there is some. There’s more than one would think.”

Story by Jodi Duckett

Read more stories on the Lehigh News Center.

Photography by

Holly Fasching

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