A “Very Important” Message for Mr. David Brooks

Back in March David Brooks titled one of his New York Times columns “The Modesty Manifesto.” In it, he argued that over the course of a few generations American culture has shifted from an emphasis on self-effacement to one on self-enlargement — in short, that Americans now hold themselves, as individuals, in much higher regard than they once did.

Some of the supporting data that Brooks cites, both in the column itself and in various speeches and interviews he has given recently, bolster his case. Who would argue, for example, with statistics that show a growing disjuncture between the declining achievement of American students on global math tests and their persistent confidence in the excellence of their math ability? Other points that Brooks makes, such as one about how sports players are much less humble than they used to be, aren’t especially persuasive and merely elicit a knowing chuckle from readers.

One item from his column that Mr. Brooks keeps repeating on the lecture and interview circuits is more sinister. He cites polling data showing that in the 1950s 12% of American high school seniors said they were “a very important person” and that by the 1990s a whopping 80% believed that they were. Leaving aside the fact that Brooks keeps changing the date for that 80% figure (sometimes he says it’s from polling done in the 1990s, sometimes from 2005), Brooks is refusing to look under the surface of this seemingly alarming number.

What Mr. Brooks would like us to assume — and, judging from the reactions he gets from live crowds, what we do assume — is that there has been a roughly sevenfold increase in the percentage of high school seniors who think they’re more important than other people. If, however, you reflect for more than the ten seconds that Brooks takes to manufacture dismay among his audience, you see that the question “Are you a very important person?” doesn’t mean the same thing today that it did in the 1950s.

Back then students are likely to have viewed this question as one about their worth relative to that of other people. Nowadays most students would interpret it to mean “Do you have intrinsic value as an individual?” Sure, the very fact that young people would now translate the question differently reflects a cultural shift. But it’s a shift in their awareness of the value that all people have, themselves included — not in how many of them see themselves as better than other folks. The answer “Yes, I am a very important person” can now exist side-by-side with the belief “And so is everyone else.” It is simply not the same type of statement as “I believe that my math skills are better than average.” One is about intrinsic worth; the other is about relative worth. The polling question “Are you a very important person?” may not have changed in half a century, but its cultural meaning has. Comparing responses to that question across generations is an apples-and-oranges proposition — indeed, it amounts to a distortion of the facts.

Brooks, of all people, should understand this. After all, his latest book, The Social Animal, is a study of how unconscious factors shape human behavior and biases. Brooks has, in fact, begun to build much of his reputation as an intellectual on his ability to tease out how people’s beliefs and values are strongly influenced by factors that lie just under the surface. In both that role and his one as a political commentator, he likes to cast himself as a sober, straightforward thinker who rejects the hyperbole that so many of his fellow idea-mongerers routinely use. I can’t help but conclude, then, that Brooks’ assertion in his self-proclaimed “manifesto” — that the statistic about “very important” high school seniors is one of the smoking guns in the crime of American immodesty — is totally disingenuous. Smart, clear-headed people know when they’re twisting data to their advantage.

Am I outraged by this petty fraud? Not really. This kind of chicanery is now a given in American political and media discourse, as Mr. Brooks himself has often rightly pointed out. It’s just especially disappointing from someone, even someone I frequently don’t agree with, who likes to cloak himself in the mantle of an honest, modest alternative to the lying, carping chatterboxes who really do think they’re more important than everyone else.