The Road to Class Day

David Brooks, UChicago’s first Class Day speaker, talks about his time at the College
David Brooks UChicago  New York Times Class Day Convocation Graduation 2017

Class of 1983 | History

This absolutely was the best college for me to go to. Just because it shaped my mind, shaped my soul.
David Brooks
Class Day speaker

In 1981, Chicago Maroon columnist David Brooks focused one of his satire columns on a nightmare he had, thinking about life post-graduation:

“I’m sitting in a very small room in front of a rickety desk with books and papers on it in disarray. My hair is grey and disheveled. I wear a ragged beard and a brownish jacket twenty years out of date with grease stains on the lapels…I’m crushed under the weight of books and I wake to to find myself in a small office, chained to a degree.”

Nearly three decades later, Brooks is now a New York Times columnist, author, and a political commentator for PBS NewsHour, NPR’s All Things Considered, and NBC’s Meet the Press. He teaches at Yale University and has served on the University of Chicago Board of Trustees since 2012.

He returned to campus to talk about post-graduation life once again, but now as the University’s very first College Class Day speaker. Class Day, a new annual tradition starting with the Class of 2017, reflects and celebrates the past four years of the lives of soon-to-be graduates. In addition to an outside speaker, the day also features student speakers and the presentation of College awards.

Hours before Brooks took to the stage to address the graduates, he sat down with the College Media Editors to tell us about his Class Day speech, his vision for the University, and what it was like to attend UChicago in the 1980s.

College Media Editors (CME): Regarding [the aforementioned Maroon satire column], how does the nightmare from your College days compare with your reality today?

David Brooks (DB): Of course I have no memory of writing that. A lot of it is prescient—I did not foresee computers would come—but if you go to my office on any given day I’m still there (hopefully a little better dressed) surrounded by books. And, even though I write a newspaper column, I think what distinguishes me from a lot of other columnists is that I just quote books a lot. And I read a lot of books.

CME: If you could go back to that moment in 1981, what would you tell yourself?

DB: Obviously, we would all say to our college selves, “Relax. You have way more time than you think.” And the big thing I learned is [that] I remember in those days, my ambition was to get any sort of paying job. I thought if I could get a job as a writer for an airline magazine that would be fine. And of course I surpassed all my hopes and ambitions. Everyone says it’s not true, but acts as if it’s true, that career success makes you happy. And I learned that’s really not true. It’s a little less vital to have a total obsession with career that I certainly had.

CME: Transitioning from 1981 to now, what’s it like to be back at UChicago? What are your favorite spots to revisit?

DB: It’s actually very eerie. So many of these buildings, like Cobb Hall, I spent so much time in and so you imagine your young, 20-year-old self walking up and down those stairways. And I come back enough and I see how different the University is, it’s become a big global institution where it felt small and odd when I was here….I feel more influenced by the place now than I did the day I graduated. You become more aware of the way the place shapes you.

I always go to Jimmy’s, which has not changed at all. The Reg has basically not changed at all for better or for worse–it’s got a new little side wing. And then to just walk around the campus and I go into Ida Noyes where The Maroon office is.

CME: How has your UChicago College experience shaped the way you approach your work or your life more generally?    

DB: It just introduces you to this way of thinking, which has to do with the books you read and also just the tone. I teach at Yale and the tone is just very different.

I was once at Rice University and I was seated next to a woman...and we sort of knew we had something in common but we couldn’t figure out what it was, like did I live in her town?...Finally I said, “Where did you go to college?”

She said, “Oh, I went to the University of Chicago.”

We could tell even years later that we spoke in the same way which was heavily influenced by this school.

David Brooks UChicago  New York Times Class Day Convocation Graduation 2017

CME: How has your time on The Maroon influenced your work today?

DB: I learned to do exactly what I do now at The Maroon. And I would write a column once a week for about two or three years with the same process. I rely on notebooks [that] I always carry with me. And, in those days, it was a humor column most of the time so it was just a lot of walking.

I walked around the Midway, I walked up to 53rd street to Harold’s and I just had thoughts coming to my head and I wrote them down. And i organized my thoughts and I just typed them up. And that’s what I do today. Nothing has changed.

When I entered college, I was never going to go into journalism, I had no thought of that. And [someone in The Maroon said] “Hey, do you wanna have a column?”

I thought, “Oh, it would be fun for a little while.” [But] it totally changed my life.

CME: Overall, how has the University changed since you were here?

DB: I think a few things leap out. First, it’s way more global—there’s just way more international flavor. Second, it’s a much happier place. There are just so much better facilities–there’s a swimming pool [in Ratner], new restaurants, everything is better. [During his time at the College,] there wasn’t a lot of emphasis on the quality of life. And then the final thing is the science quad has exploded and that part of campus just looms when you realize the size of the hospital and all that stuff.

CME: You note that the University is “happier” now than it was when you were a student. Given your account of your College experience, what inspired you to come back to UChicago as a trustee?

DB: It wasn’t always fun back then, but it was very meaningful. The stuff I learned from books, my professors, and from the minds I encountered really changed my life. It gave me a much deeper personality than I would have had if I had gone to any other place. And this absolutely was the best college for me to go to. Just because it shaped my mind, shaped my soul.

It also gave me a sense that even if I didn’t know what my life purpose was, that there was a life purpose. It really wanted me to ask the deeper questions, which eventually produced answers. And if I had…gotten into Yale, Harvard, or Princeton, I’m not sure if I would have asked those questions because those places are much more career-minded, much more professional institutions than this one is.

David Brooks UChicago  New York Times Class Day Convocation Graduation 2017

My main interest in being trustee is keeping the College the way it is. It’s to make sure it modernizes without losing its soul. And thanks to people like John W. Boyer and others and President Zimmer, I think that’s happening. There are a lot of people building new programs and I’m all for that but I feel my mission is to try to keep the College the way it is.

CME: What books during your College career influenced you most?

DB: The one, which I was assigned freshman year, was by Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France. I hated it and wrote like five papers against it. And now it’s one of the guiding books of my life. Years later, I’m like, “Oh yeah, I hated it because I secretly knew he was right.” Now I go back to a lot of books I didn’t really read at the time and think there’s a lot of truth there. You read a book and then you read it differently depending on how old you are.

CME: What do you think about today’s generation of students? How is it different from when you were a student?

DB: I teach, so I spend a lot of time around students. And I visit about 30 or 40 schools a year. And I would say students today are way more accomplished than anybody was in my day. To get in here is so much harder. When I went here, Chicago accepted 70 percent of the applicants. I had like a B- average in high school. Now it’s like 6 or 7 percent.

With that, I think has come a crushing business. A greater risk-aversion because it’s so hard to get in here you think, “OK I have to protect what I have.” Social media has meant that there’s much more social comparison going on and everyone is comparing themselves to the other people’s highlight reel and afraid that they’re not living up. There’s much greater fear of social exclusion. But, on the other hand, people are much more communal and much more into groups and serving the country and the world. [My generation was] a little more selfish. So it’s a mixture of pluses and minuses compared to my day.

CME: So what would be your advice to current or entering students?

DB: A couple of things. People are happiest to divide their lives into chapters and they say, “What am I going to do for the next three years?” And then they stop and they took a look at their life from the ground-up and re-ask that question.

The second thing I would say to all college students is your first five years out of college are probably gonna suck. You’re gonna be in a low-level job. Here, highly educated people are paid to look at your writing and pay attention to what you say, and that will go away. Social life is much harder. And so I find a lot of college students underinvest in their friendships and that they’re gonna need those friends in the first five years out.

One of the sad things about Chicago for me is that I don’t really have a close College friend. I have a lot of early childhood friends and a lot of work friends but we just didn’t make intimate friendships. And a lot of people I know who are on campus at the same time I was here, I didn’t know them at the time. I’ve met them since. So people underinvest in friendships and overinvest in school work.  

Watch Brooks’ full address, in which he talks more about his time at the University and what he’s learned, here. You can also learn more about Class Day here.

Editor’s Note: Some answers have been edited and shortened for clarity.

College Media Editor Adia Robinson coauthored this report.

Tagged: Class Day, Convocation 2017, graduation, David Brooks, The New York Times, The Chicago Maroon