Monday, July 11, 2011

David Brooks Helps Us Understand Ourselves: "The Social Animal"

One of best entries into the spring (now summer) reading sweepstakes has been The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, by David Brooks. I highly recommend Brooks's book, and I found myself getting all caught up in the growth and development, transitions, adventures, and final resolutions of the couple Brooks uses to convey his message.

Harold and Erica are a fictional couple, and Brooks cleverly uses them as the vehicle, so to speak, to express his many ideas about the role of non-cognititive influences in our lives. Some reviewers didn't much like the technique, but it certainly worked for me. And despite to rough treatment from some of his critics (one reviewer stated that the fictional characters "do not come to life" and referred to them and others in the story as "mannequins for the display of psychological and social generalizations," a depiction that - to me - is 'way off base), Brooks's imaginary couple is a makes sense. Using this technique is a very good way for Brooks to tell his story and make his point.

Let me explain: I spend my professional life dealing with knowledge management (KM) and what we call - in our industry - knowledge services. One of the accepted tenets of good KM is story-telling. Why? Because it has been a technique used throughout mankind's history (well, as far as we know) and we know it works. Certainly for the last several thousand years, we've conveyed ideas and illustrated what needed to be conveyed by putting the content into a story of some kind. Much energy and effort has gone into the study of story-telling, and everybody accepts that it's easier to make a point with a story than simply to state and re-state a lot of facts.

So let's cut David Brooks a little slack here. He has some very good points to make, and if he chooses to make those points through characters he creates, why not? And his message is an important one, for Brooks is sharing the idea that the conscious decision-making "tools" we've come to accept over the years are supplemented - often to a great degree - by non-cognitive influences that we don't have much control over, or give much thought to.

Here's how Brooks described this idea in an essay obviously closely related to the book ("Social Animal: How the New Sciences of Human Nature Can Help Make Sense of a Life," in The New Yorker of January 17th of this year):

"Over the past few decades, geneticists, neuroscientists, psychologists, economists, and others have made great strides in understanding the inner working of the human mind. Far from being dryly materialistic their work illuminates the rich underwater world where character is formed and wisdom grows. They are giving us a better grasp of emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, predispositions, character traits, and social bonding, precisely those things about which our culture has least to say. Brain science helps fill the hole left by the atrophy of theology and philosophy."

Of course. And thanks to being to read about how all these different and hardly acknowledged (by most of us, at least) influences affect how Harold and Erica live their lives, Brooks has helped me understand some of what goes on in my life. And in the lives of lots of people with whom I interact on a regular basis.

"Mannequins"? Hardly.

Thanks, David Brooks, for providing me with such a well-told story and at the same time teaching me something about myself and the world I live in.

Monday, July 4, 2011

America's Birthday

The Fourth of July is a very special holiday for all Americans, and all of us have our own way of celebrating. Of course there's the now-obligatory picnic, although nowadays it's more likely to be a barbeque with friends instead of a drive down the road to a picnic on the grass. And some places still have parades, and almost everywhere there are fireworks and band concerts and just lots and lots of celebrating.

Patriotic music is a big part of the picture, and some of our radio stations spend the entire day (or an entire week-end, as with this year's four-day week-end, thanks to the Fourth of July being on a Monday) playing nothing but "patriotic" or, at the very least, "all-American" music, honoring many of the great American composers. So we hear a lot of Copland and Ives and Ned Rorem and many, many American folk songs. All great fun, and all very appropriate.

And as it turns out, one of our most beloved 19th-century American composers, Stephen Foster, was born on July 4th, so we get a big dose of Stephen Foster as well (ever wonder what he had in mind when he wrote about Jeannie with the light brown hair "tripping where the bright steams play"? was she falling on her face in the river and he thought that was romantic?).

OK. We'll move away from the disrespectful.

Back to American music. At my house, the playing of the Peter Wilhousky arrangement of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" has been part of the ritual for as long as I can remember. During the big day itself - or even, as I say, over a long holiday week-end if we are that lucky - we'll hear many different arrangements (both orchestral and choral) of this stirring anthem. And even though it is a Christian hymn, non-Christian Americans don't think of the piece as divisive or "slanted" or even particularly religious, simply because it came into our culture as a campfire spiritual and became one of the most inspirational songs of the American Civil War in the 1860s. It's part of our musical heritage and our historical legacy.

The Wilhousky arrangement was special in our family because it was the one we learned in our high-school chorus (and our teacher, Mrs. Marie Reynolds Dobbs, still lives in Radford, VA and hopefully, if someone shows her this post, her memories will be as happy as mine as we think about this great national hymn). Wilhousky was a popular American composer, orchestra leader, and music educator, and he became famous for his arrangement of "The  Battle Hymn of the Republic" which is, according to some, probably the most famous arrangement of the hymn after the 1940s in the United States.

That fame was greatly strengthened in the 1950s or so (perhaps a little later - one big concert in New York was on November 6, 1958) when the 330-voice Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Philadelphia Orchestra, under the great Eugene Ormandy, teamed up to tour the country. Among the most popular selections performed on the tour was Wilhousky's arrangement, and with the publication of the LP of some of the selections performed on tour, Julia Ward Howe's hymn became standard fare for every chorus in the country. And I was lucky to be singing in one of them.

My own LP (actually, there were eventually two) is now long-gone, but there's a very decent (and definitely stirring) performance available on YouTube. No, it's not the Philadelphia and there's no Eugene Ormandy but it's pretty powerful. Have a listen - go here and you won't come away unmoved. It's a performance of the choir on tour at the Chautauqua Institution, recorded on June 23, 2008.

Almost equally stirring - for this listener - was Sunday's broadcast of Kent Tritle's The Choral Mix, broadcast on WQXR in New York (and hopefully syndicated throughout America). It was a super show, and this one - appropriately enough - featured performances of the Singing Sergeants of the United States Air Force. And yes, the broadcast ended with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" - not the Wilhousky arrangement but a super-stirring performance anyways.

Happy Birthday, America.