Big question for museums: What happens when some of the key values we hold dear … community, empathy, understanding … are considered old-fashioned relics among the broader population?
Why I picked it up: I like David Brooks. I don't agree with him on everything (especially politics), but I understand why he has those viewpoints because he is rational. This book, however, isn't political at all, but instead an assessment of society shifts that are rather insightful. I didn't approach this book as a "museum" book, but I did wonder if he had any takeaways that matter to museums
So … does he have takeaways for museums? Short answer, yes. Though you have to hunt for them.
Overall premise of book: Brooks begins by talking about "resume virtues," such as skills for careers and external success, versus "eulogy virtues," which are about character and relationships. In our society, he suggests we are overly focused on the resume virtues, and that it has been at the expense of the eulogy virtues. The results has been a "slip into self-satisfied moral mediocrity."
The shift has taken place largely in post-WWII America, with a mindset that has gone from "nobody's better than me, but I'm no better than anyone else" to "I'm pretty special."
How? He blames the Greatest Generation, which gave us rampant consumerism, a new ethos of the self, and the self-esteem movement. Now, he acknowledges that these are not all bad things (the self-esteem movement helped many people, for example), but it has played out in ways that has swung the pendulum too far towards narcissism, a desire for fame, and individualism at the expense of common good. This also leads to entrenched opinions and attitudes and an inability to acknowledge when we are wrong (does this sound familiar in today's society?).
We need to rebalance. To gain humility. An old-fashioned concept that is his recurring theme.
But what does that mean to him? Brooks takes issue with the idea that individuals should find themselves, follow their passions, set personal goals, and figure out how to get there. That is the life map of the individually autonomous. Reality requires something different. Instead, he suggests that we allow our life and experience to guide us to work to solve problems and needs. It is a shifting of personal mission from furthering oneself to finding a vocation. A vocation isn't chosen, like a career, but answering a call. Stumbling upon a need and being uniquely capable of serving it.
My museum take: When Brooks talks about finding a vocation, and serving it, lights were going off in my head for museums. I don't use these words when I advise museum boards and staffs, but the message is the same. Museums should not be striving to fulfill institutional goals because they simply can. Their work has to mean something to audiences. Otherwise it is going to spin wheels, not drive impact. How do museums find their vocation by applying their strengths to fulfill needs that real people have in real life?
But Brooks's message also resonated personally, in my own career. I never set out to be the museum-audience-data researcher/source/guru. I answered a calling that I saw when I was a museum director myself. And here is where I think the true message of the book lies. Serving a calling doesn't mean doing something that, individually, we hate. It means taking what we enjoy, want to do, and are good at, and matching it and growing it to meet society's needs. It's something I, in retrospect, did. And it is something that I will strive to inculcate in my own children.
So what is the role of museums in helping develop individual interests in a way that is balanced by our ability to develop cognitive empathy, understanding, and the broadening of minds? How do we help the individual reconcile their own desires with the common good? Is that a role that, as a field, museums should play? I'd argue yes, as museums already play a formative role for avid museum-goers.
In the book, Brooks underscores the need for this reconciliation of individual desires and common good when he examines Google ngrams (which measure word usage over time across media and publication dates). Since the beginning of the 20th century, words like "community," "character," "gratitude," and "kindness" have dropped dramatically.
What struck me was that these words, which apparently are old-school since their usage has dropped so precipitously, are that they are ideas that we talk about in our work a lot. Especially community. But character, gratitude, and kindness are similar to empathy and understanding, two other words we are increasingly using to describe our work. In a world that focuses so much on the self, do these forces of humility, of intrinsic kindness, that we embrace make us a relic to those who are more extrinsically motivated in their lives?
When we talk about community and understanding, does it basically make most people check out? If so, how do we work towards it without articulating it? To drive change that isn't asked for but we believe is right as it leads to humility, kindness, and a better society? What would that look like? Why would people care about it? How can we do it more effectively?
And how depressing is it that we, as a society, don't talk about kindness anymore?
Read or skip? It depends. If you want a book that is hugely applicable for museums, skip. I think I pulled that out for you. But if you want a well-written, deeply thoughtful (and non-political) book about values, morality, and American society, yes, read it. I enjoyed it. (BTW, the bulk of the book is a series of mini-biographies of individuals who exemplified different eulogy virtues. 300+ pages of pontificating on values would have been unreadable. The biographies made it human.)
Full citation: Brooks, David. The Road to Character. New York: Random House, 2015.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.