David Brooks, the chronicler of new social structures who gave the world Bobos ("bourgeois bohemians"), writes in this issue about the next generation of the meritocratic overclass: the superachieving young men and women in elite schools. Brooks liked the young people he recently spent a lot of time with, mostly at Princeton. He writes, "We have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious. They like to study and socialize in groups. They create and join organizations with great enthusiasm. They are responsible, safety-conscious, and mature." The archetype at the schools and colleges where the next leadership class is being groomed, Brooks says, is not the student-lounge revolutionary or the cynic or the slacker but the Organization Kid.
Brooks's article is first of all an attempt to describe the making of the Organization Kid. The story he tells is of a cheerful, driven soul whose life from conception on has been quite consciously shaped by parents who believe that a child of the right nature given the right sort of nurture—Mozart in the womb, Car Seat Gallery flash cards, an endless line of afternoons spent in an endless succession of extracurricular classes—will properly end up where he or she was meant to end up: at the very pleasant top of America's vast heap.
As Brooks says, this makes for a childhood that is on one hand filled with boundless opportunity and on the other oddly barren. The barren part concerns what used to be called play. Where we once had play, we now have an oxymoronic portmanteau, the play date. A play date is to play as a study date is to a date. Anything that is organized and controlled by parents is definitionally not "play."
A lot of parents, I suspect, harbor a sense that we are doing something wrong here—that for the best reasons, with the best of intentions, we are robbing our children of the experience of being children. A childhood in which children are not allowed to occupy their own world of self-inflicted danger and subversive behavior and minor criminal activity for at least several glorious hours a day is in some ways not a childhood at all.
But we persist. Why? One reason is that Americans are, by and large, absurdly rich. Rich people have always sought to shield their children from the great and little dangers of life in a way that nonrich people have always viewed as silly. Now that "everyone" is, so to speak, rich, there is no one left to laugh at us, so we can easily forget that we are making ourselves figures of fun.
The natural preoccupation of a wealthy society with averting risk affects more than humor writing: it has profound implications for politics and governance. In any contest of ideas in such a society, the position that favors the least risk almost invariably wins.
Imagine yourself the parent of a six-year-old. You are watching your beloved ride his little bike. He is wearing his helmet; he has never ridden his bike or anything else without his helmet. In a moment of weakly held and dimly understood rebellion, you say to the other parent of the beloved that it would be nice to let the poor wretch ride sometime feeling the wind in his hair. The other parent points out, politely but firmly, that 1,000 or 10,000 or whatever number it is children who ride without helmets suffer head injuries every year. Your position, in other words, is that you are prepared, for no good reason, to see your child suffer a terrible, possibly fatal, injury. This is not a tenable position.
Thus it is on the larger scale of government and law. No matter how ill-considered the law, no matter how deleterious to individual freedom, no matter how little sense it makes in terms of cost-benefit risk analysis, the battle is over and the law is as good as passed the moment these words are uttered: "If only one life is saved ..." And no doubt this is a good thing. I'm certainly not going to be the one who takes a position otherwise, and my sons are going to wear their helmets every day of their lives.
It has been called to our attention that a photo illustration in the December, 2000, issue, on the opening page of the article "A New Way to Be Mad," bears considerable similarity to a 1989 painting by the illustrator Brad Holland which has been published in several prominent venues. The similarity is indeed striking. We believe it to be unintended and coincidental, but we regret the appearance of duplication. Holland's work has long been highly regarded by this magazine, and his distinguished illustrations include a number of award-winning paintings for The Atlantic Monthly.