Web Exclusives: Tooke's Take
a PAW web exclusive column by Wes Tooke '98 (email: cwtooke@princeton.edu)

April 18, 2001:
Generating Folly
A broadside of silliness sends our young columnist into a funk

Any reader of this column interested in a free dose of tripe ought to peruse the cover story of The Atlantic this April by David Brooks (http://www.theatlantic.com/). In a long and long-winded essay entitled the "Organization Kid," Brooks uses Princeton as his case study to examine the values and morality of today's college students. His "research," as far as I can tell, consisted of visiting campus, speaking with a few administrators and students recommended by professors, dropping by a dining hall or two, and then deciding that he was ready to take his shot at a Pulitzer Prize. Brook's ultimate conclusion, to quote the kicker on the article, is that "The young men and women of America's future elite work their laptops to the bone, rarely question authority, and happily accept their positions at the top of the heap as part of the natural order of life."

The final product is one of the most consistently ludicrous pieces I've read in several months. As several current Princeton undergraduates have pointed out in The Atlantic's online forum, going to any university and interviewing students recommended by professors is somewhat like visiting the old Soviet Union, interviewing the Politburo, and deciding that everyone in Russia really digs communism. If you really want to write an article about tomorrow's future elite, visit Prospect Avenue late on a Saturday night. Go to a basketball game. Stop by a dorm room and watch Survivor or Sportscenter with a bunch of students who understand that three-quarters of your college experience comes in down time with your friends. In short, hang with the self-described "power tools" if you must, but have the reportorial instincts to realize that there's another show in town.

Brooks is just the latest in a spate of would-be sociologists determined to define and name what he and his comrades continually refer to as "the next generation of America's elite." In fact, even the next generation of America's elite seem unable to avoid the topic - Jedediah Purdy, a recent Harvard graduate, wrote a nauseatingly prim book entitled For Common Things: Irony, Trust and Commitment in America Today. The problem is that the kind of earnest authors who tend to write those kinds of books and articles always gravitate towards people as relentlessly gray as they are. Their inevitable conclusions reflect nothing more than their own bias; the exercise becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy that leads the author in whatever direction he or she chooses. And what we ultimately learn from these articles is only that David Brooks is a sloppy scholar and that Princeton professors, when quoted on virtually any subject, come across as hopelessly arrogant and out of touch.

But is there value to the exercise if well executed? Perhaps. Brooks is correct when he claims that this is a generation struggling to define itself. As Brooks writes, "Part of what makes [these students] novel is that they don't think they are new. They don't see themselves as a lost generation or a radical generation or a beatnik generation or even a Reaganite generation. They have relatively little generational consciousness. That's because this generation is for the most part not fighting to emancipate itself from the past. The most sophisticated people in preceding generations were formed by their struggle to break free from something. The most sophisticated people in this one aren't."

Now that is a point worth exploring. But if you want to explore it, start from the premise that any attempt to generalize about students at a place like Princeton or Harvard or Ohio State is doomed to ridiculous failure. Look for shared values and assumptions and morays; find a student sample representative enough to truly try your thesis. And if your ultimate conclusion is that this generation is too lost and too confused to yet attempt to find a collective identity, then maybe you'll be on to something.

You can reach Wes Tooke at cwtooke@princeton.edu