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Opinion Columnist David Brooks Wows at St. John's Prep

Opinion Columnist David Brooks Wows at St. John's Prep

Above: New York Times best-selling author, opinion columnist, and commentator David Brooks visited St. John's to discuss the art of fostering deeper connections in order to feel seen, valued, heard, and understood.


Event Photos

Brother Sullivan lecturer David Brooks explores the power of personal struggle, the limits of AI, and having faith in lifelong growth.

A globally recognized public intellectual, revered New York Times columnist, and bestselling author, David Brooks displayed a folksy, emotionally vulnerable, and self-described ‘unrealistically optimistic’ style throughout every minute of his eight hours on campus earlier this week. The title of his evening address was “Ethical Leadership & Seeking to Understand How to Know a Person,” but in separate discussions with students and faculty as well as during the main event, he ranged far afield while unpacking the art of fostering deeper interpersonal connections in order to feel seen, valued, heard, and understood.

Seniors Andrew Ruocco and Noah Sennott introduced Brooks. The former set expectations by pointing out the writer’s knack for “bringing audiences face to face with the spirit of our times using humor, insight and quiet passion.” Sennott said Brooks’ newest book, “How to Know a Person,” upon which his remarks were based, explains “how we can all strive to build rich inner lives, marked by humility and moral depth.”

David Brooks shares the Kaneb Theater stage with members from the Student Leader Initiative.

Interestingly, Brooks’ interaction with students earlier in the day presaged some of the themes of his speaking engagement—a development that seemed to impress him.

“What struck me is they had all come with project ideas that were all about social capital and school,” he said after meeting with members of the Student Leadership Initiative. “They were all about how to create more integration, social connection between eighth graders and sixth graders, between seniors and sixth graders, between people across different cliques. It was interesting to me that they all chose different versions of the same thing [in perceiving a clear need].”

As someone who writes about social connection for a living, Brooks endorsed the student projects as vehicles to combat the “to do” clock in our heads that makes forming relationships so difficult, since forming such connections takes time. 

“If you’ve got homework, athletics, or a club, how much is the time problem a factor in making it harder to build these kinds of relationships?,” he asked students, rhetorically. “It’s definitely easier said than done. There’s a thing called social capital, which is basically a fancy word for how many friendships are there in a place. And there are two kinds of social capital. One is called bonding, which is how tight you are with your friends. The other is called bridging, which is how good you are at making connections across differences. A lot of people are good at bonding, but bridging is a lot harder.” 

Brooks told students their desired outcomes—better and broader connections across and between the student body, faculty and staff—were definitively attainable. He also urged patience in pursuit of those goals. 

“I think the only way you can do it is to educate your emotions, and for guys, that’s not always easy,” he said. “To read literature, to experience poetry, to suffer with others, to have the kind of conversations that all you guys are having with other people in this community, that’s a way of just widening a repertoire of what other people are feeling. And we’re not always great at expressing our emotions, but that really is the key to everything you guys are setting out to do. I just ask that you emphasize the micro skills: How to say hello, how to greet somebody with your eyes, and how to actively listen.”

Brooks emphasized that it’s incumbent upon all of us to make others feel valued, noting that ‘in a school, no matter what you do, everybody's a teacher.’

“In what’s been a deeply reflective week at St. John’s Prep, Mr. Brooks’ message was closely aligned with our School’s cultural priorities and the value we place on civil discourse,” said Head of School Ed Hardiman P’19 ’21 ’26. “He calls us to ignite the divine spark within ourselves and all those we encounter. He calls us to be illuminators who seek to acknowledge the infinite value of every person we meet and recognize God’s image and likeness within them. This allows us to discover meaning, love, and to pursue our passions.”

A ‘MORAL ECOLOGY’

In his sit-down with faculty, Brooks hit on a variety of topics in a single hour. 

He offered his thoughts on periods of personal struggle: “Moments of suffering interrupt your life and remind you that only spiritual and relational food … can allow you to see versions of yourself deeper than you ever knew existed. Those moments reorient us a little and generally inspire us to be more spiritual, to want to be more relational.”

He also weighed in on the inherent worth of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition, noting that “it helps to have a diverse student body, but it helps just as much to have a foundational worldview that leads to a set of conversations that are deeper. The ability to draw on 2,000 years of Catholic social teaching is a useful resource across pretty much every academic department.”

With Artificial Intelligence at the front of most educators’ minds, Brooks offered a point of view less alarmist than many (while noting the pitfalls with regard to academic honesty).

David Brooks signs a book for a guest at the the reception hosted by the Office for Institutional Advancement prior to the lecture.

“Artificial intelligence is about to change our definition of what human intelligence is,” he said. “A lot of the things we’re training students to do, AI is already pretty good at. I think AI will reveal who we are as humans by revealing what it can’t do. So, we have to figure out what that is. 

“We know AI is good at mimicking, but it doesn’t possess understanding,” he continued. “It obviously doesn’t possess emotion. It doesn’t have a model of how the world works. It’s a synthesis of billions of pieces of information. The human mind is vastly more complicated than the bots. If you have a thing that can replicate patterns but doesn’t produce motivation, doesn’t get hurt, doesn’t even have individual identity, it’s just a long way from being a human being.”

In his evening remarks, he returned to the theme of laying down what he calls “a moral ecology.” He spoke about developing rituals within servant-leadership that prioritize a shared human experience rather than some notion of charity.

“I have a friend who says she practices ‘aggressive friendship,’ which means she’s the lady in the neighborhood who invites everybody else over,” he said. “Other friends and I talk about how we like our friends to be ‘linger-able.’ They’re the kind of people who just linger. And so if you can get that going where people—instead of hanging around with their current friends—move outside their comfort zone, you’ve got something. 

“Like a lot of writers, I’m just working out my own stuff in public,” he added. “I wanted to become more emotionally attuned, so I wrote a book about emotion. I wanted to develop better character, so I wrote a book about character. I do think I do have great faith in lifelong growth. I know people who are radically different at 70 and they were at 50. I do believe these transformations can really happen at any time in life.”