In the buzz around Elena Kagan’s nomination to the Supreme Court last year, New York Times columnist David Brooks likened her to the Organization Kids he researched at Princeton back in early 2001: He wrote
She seems to be smart, impressive and honest — and in her willingness to suppress so much of her mind for the sake of her career, kind of disturbing.
My sister-in-law emailed me about the op-ed, and gave me a link to the 2001 Atlantic piece in which David Brooks coined the term, “the organization kid.” Since she was still in college in 2001, this is the first time she’d seen the 22-page treatise against a group of uber-motivated, focused, optimistic and elite kids who didn’t challenge authority and believed that concepts of virtue and accomplishment were interchangeable.
I’d read the piece back in 2001, but decided to read it again this week. And I encourage you to do the same because, wow, does that piece stand out as an historical artifact only nine years later.
In describing the environment into which the Organization Kids had been born, Brooks writes
There have been no senseless bloodbaths like World War I and Vietnam, no crushing economic depressions, no cycles of assassination and rioting to foment disillusionment. They’ve mostly known parental protection, prosperity, and peace.
I am an Organization Kid. I graduated from Princeton in 1999 — just two years before Brooks came to campus to interview students for this piece. I was one of the elite who worked hard, didn’t often question authority and assumed that playing by the rules would be rewarded down the line. In college, I doubt I thought much about virtue and vice (those kinds of deep thoughts would only come later, in graduate school and beyond) and I know I made rosy assumptions about the future.
While Brooks didn’t mean the piece to be a flattering homage to us Organization Kids, rereading this pop-social history nine years later made me nostalgic. The article describes a happier time, at the end of that innocent, optimistic era: Six months after his article, Organization Kids had their own “senseless bloodbath” on September 11. A few years after that the “crushing economic depression” took hold. The assassinations and riots have been overseas, for the most part, but many wonder if it’s only a matter of time before Greek protests come to America.
“Maybe the lives of the meritocrats are so crammed because the stakes are so small,” wrote Brooks in 2001. For Elena Kagan, and for the nation, the stakes aren’t small. I’ve got a lot of faith in the Organization Kids: If it’s tough times that bring out our sense of morality and virtue, maybe we’ve changed for the better. Or maybe it’s the next generation — the young-adults in college today — for whom we should have the most hope.