03/18/2011 10:23 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Education of David Brooks

Conservative columnist David Brooks writes that "students learn best from someone they love." He begins his masterpiece, The Social Animal, promising "the happiest story you have ever read." Brooks asserts that our "outer mind hungers for status, money, and applause," and, I would add, higher test scores in order to ward off the accountability hawks. But schools should cultivate the inner mind which "hungers for harmony and connection."

Brooks summarizes the work of Nobel Laureate James Heckman and others that explain why we need high quality preschool to teach socio-emotional skills because "learners learn, and skill begets skill." Because the breakdown of the family has broken our "cultural transmission belts," public schools must teach self-control, inner-directedness, delayed gratification, and stick-to-it-ness. These schools must be built on trusting relationships. They must be full of conversations, story telling, and, above all, laughter.

It is not unusual for the affluent, including data-driven "reformers," to send their children to schools that are not "dry, mechanistic place(s)" responding to rewards and punishments. So, Brooks' message is especially important for urban schools, and why they need to be "emotional and enchanted," not test-prep factories. Fortunately, urban schools could be fertile places for his ideas. Those schools could build on some of their greatest assets -- the "street smarts" of children, as they help kids to better "read people, situations, and ideas."

Teachers need to be free to admit that "within weeks, students forget 90 percent of the knowledge they learn in class." As Brooks explains, the teachers who get remembered help shape the way students perceive the world and "absorb the rules of discipline," as they connect with the great chain of knowledge and learning. The job of teachers is to "apprentice" students for the 21st century.

Schools should be free to admit the truth that students understand which is, "socialization is the most intellectually demanding and morally important thing that they will do in high school." Those schools must be safe for intellectual exploration because, "All of us, from cradle to grave, are happiest when life is organized as a series of excursions, long or short, from the secure base."

I was leery about Brooks' trope, based on Jean-Jacques Rousseau's Emile, of creating hypothetical characters but he pulled it off. While his overall manifesto is outstanding, Brooks' details about teaching and learning are equally profound. Classroom instruction should draw from the same part of the soul as a mother's love, when she helps a child persevere through homework. The classroom, like a culturally rich home, should provide an "extended conversation." The greatest respect we can pay poor children in the toughest schools is to bring them into the same profound conversations that serve as training grounds for the elites. And although I would use a different word than "pessimism," great teaching requires an understanding of the ways that educational experiments can go wrong.

Perhaps the sobering nature of my teaching experience explains my only serious quarrel with Brooks. Understandably, he wants a happy story. He knows that a patient is more likely to chose to undergo surgery if told that there is an 85 percent chance of success, as opposed to a 15 percent chance of failure. Brooks tells of a glorious charter school -- the type that might do great things for 1 or 2 percent or maybe even 5 percent of our poor children. He does not mention, however, the deal with the devil that is data-driven accountability. In order to fund humane and holistic charters for a few, the "reformers" who Brooks still seems to admire, have bought into the corporate transmission belt model of dumbed-down, test-driven schooling for the many. I wish he had borrowed from the father of community policing, Chief William Bratton, who explained that data-driven accountability is like chemotheraphy, and that it becomes poisonous if kept up for too long. After all, Brooks' book explains why that is the case.

But those are a specialist's quibbles. Brooks' tour de force is the result of a much deeper and wider journey. And if he continues down the path charted in The Social Animal, we might get to see David Brooks join Diane Ravitch on the front lines of Wisconsin.