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]