Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Organization Kids

David Brooks has an interesting column today where he describes Elena Kagan as hewing closely to the personality type of an "organization kid." I hadn't heard the term before and found it interesting, though less so when focused on Kagan herself.

He describes their characteristics as:

These were bright students who had been formed by the meritocratic system placed in front of them. They had great grades, perfect teacher recommendations, broad extracurricular interests, admirable self-confidence and winning personalities.

If they had any flaw, it was that they often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life. They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged.

For a judge, I'm not really certain that lack of intellectual creativity is that much of a flaw so I'm not sure that Kagan was the best focus for this column.

More generally however, if Brooks is right that this personality type has become more common in the last decade, it certainly matches stereotypes that it has, this seems to be exactly the kind of people I don't want in charge of our country as we are facing yet another round of disruptions to the world system. With a rising third world, unsettled financial system, massive underfunded government liabilities, climate change, and domestically, a deeply flawed health care system and unusually deep partisan cleavage, we need disruptive thinkers willing to overturn the old consensus and pioneer new ideas.

Of course, I don't want to go too far with this, I didn't study at an Ivy League school and going off an article by Brooks (and another at The Atlantic) likely hasn't given me a fair perspective. It also seems likely that this is to some extent simply people criticizing those following different paths than they are. Despite these reflections what still concerns me is that our society may be becoming structured in a way that rewards following established paths so highly that it is no longer possible for others to break in. Society has always awarded conformists, particularly intelligent, educated ones, so there is nothing new about complaining about this. But it does raise the question about whether we've made it more difficult for anyone else to participate at higher levels or if strict adherence to a goal oriented achivement culture is now necessary to succeed.

What worries me about this is that when I have encountered what I take this personality type to be that I often see little flexibility. From the Atlantic, "I asked around about this and was told that most students have time to read newspapers, follow national politics, or get involved in crusades." What is the point of education and success if not to engage in these issues? If this summary is accurate, these sort of experiences strike me as something that would make it impossible to synthesize or apply what you are learning. It reminds me of extremely erudite people I have met that are well informed about everythying, and can accurately quote and summarize everyone else's arguments, but show little ability to synthesize and apply what they have learned. This makes for brilliant bureaucrats but I can't see this as providing the flexibility needed to lead our country into a changing world. I hope Brooks is wrong about this representing our elites accurately. It would be depressing if all the resources we pour into education and our supposedly meritocratic selection systems have simply led to selecting for over-achieving conformists.

[Edit: DIA takes up the same subject adding some interesting details]


  1. Nice post. I guess I'd reply as follows, fresh as I am from a promotion from my government job (you are being honored with a comment from a newly minted Los Angeles County precinct inspector for the June 4 primary. (I think it's June 4th, better look that up.))

    I somewhat agree with what you are saying, as far as senior leadership goes- it might be nice to have creative senators and daydreamer presidents- but a private sector that rewards originality and a public sector that rewards caution and precision, strikes me as a fair bargain overall.

  2. Congrats on the new position.

    I'd say if that's the trade off that's happening, not so bad. Since I don't think government and the private sector are necessarily competing for the same talents though, if either sector inadvertently end up closing off avenues for different profiles it may spell long term trouble. Actually, if this frame is accurate, why not ponder that this "organization kid" type is also becoming prevalent in the private sector. A possible generational explanation for the financial crisis?

    On the whole though, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the entire notion Brooks is talking about; I'm prone to believing that the bulk of any prestigious organization is going to be dominated by careerist types, it's probably more rose colored glasses than anything else making anyone believe things used to be different. Depending on the crowd, protesting can be just as conformist as anything else. The description basically sounds like what I'd expect from an elite at any point in time, the people that end up mattering in the elite will still be few and far between and probably not noticeable through any survey of trends within the general student body.

    That's about as close as I get to optimistic.

  3. First off, I hope the tongue-in-cheekness came through in the description of the new "job." It's a promotion within the ranks of those retired and underemployed people who you see at the polling place that check your name and hand you your ballot. I haven't check on the accompanying raise, but I suspect it's still below the legal minimum.

    A thought, based on your comment, I've never (apart from on election days) had a government job but in my experience the out-of-box thinking and creative initiative seems rarely to originate with official leadership. So one thing to mull is whether it matters what type gets confirmed by the senate.

  4. True enough. On the other hand though you do get a visionary at the top now and then, such as Wilson, and I'm pretty sure we had some fairly visionary bureaucrats as well. Names are escaping me but there seemed to be some leadership in the civil rights era and the Marshall plan seems a bit visionary. Don't know enough biography to really comment on whether or not these people's biographies were all that exceptional but it seems plausible that we were getting somewhat more creative leadership at one point.

    In the end though, I am a bit skeptical that there is a real, as opposed to an apparent, difference. People have been griping about leadership as long as we've had government so there may likely be nothing to it. Not having talked policy with either the old or the new elites all I have to go on is the idle chatter of the chattering class. And they wouldn't have jobs if they tried reporting everything was honky dory.

    I did get the tongue in cheekness, just couldn't think of anything cheeky to say back.