Brooks supposes that people were less self-satisfied in the now-distant past when most presumed themselves (and all human beings) to be "fallen," hopelessly imperfect by virtue of original sin. Such people, presumably, would not have believed that they knew everything they needed to know. Instead, Brooks claims, they knew that "to be a decent person one had to struggle against one’s weakness. In the mental sphere, this meant conquering mental laziness with arduous and sometimes numbingly boring lessons. It meant conquering frivolity by sitting through earnest sermons and speeches. It meant conquering self- approval by staring straight at what was painful."
The truth was probably less ideal than Brooks's account. For most of our ancestors, the struggle against "mental laziness" did not extend to questioning the truth of allegedly divine revelations, for instance. But on their own terms they did often demonstrate an intellectual humility and an appreciation of improvement through learning that seem less prominent today. Brooks aligns himself with the more idiosyncratic conservatives by placing part of the blame for the change on capitalism. If anything, capitalism's corrosive effect has intensified lately.
In the media competition for eyeballs, everyone is rewarded for producing enjoyable and affirming content. Output is measured by ratings and page views, so much of the media, and even the academy, is more geared toward pleasuring consumers, not putting them on some arduous character-building regime. In this atmosphere, we’re all less conscious of our severe mental shortcomings and less inclined to be skeptical of our own opinions.
Brooks writes that "The ensuing mental flabbiness is most evident in politics." While his bipartisan examples of Republican insistence that the President is a Muslim and Democratic skepticism about the 2007 Surge in Iraq don't seem equally apt, let's give him credit for making a nonpartisan point. Better yet is this bit of common sense: "Issues like tax cuts and the size of government, which should be shaped by circumstances (often it’s good to cut taxes; sometimes it’s necessary to raise them), are now treated as inflexible tests of tribal purity."
It's pretty bold of Brooks to write that what he calls a "metacognition deficit" -- a reluctance to "habitually step back and think about the weakness in [our] own thinking and what they should do to compensate" -- is the underlying problem among all the problems that afflict the country. It would probably be expecting too much to want him to offer a solution in the same column, but the problem is stated with commendable force. I'd like to see him return to the subject, to see whether he'd link our time's "mental flabbiness" with the anti-"elitist" attitude that prevails in so many places today. Do we suffer from a hostility to knowledge itself or from a resentment of the knowledgeable? Do we reject reasoned advice because taking it would make us "inferior" to the advisor in our own minds? Are we so enthralled with the idea of a pure, originally whole self with a destiny distinct and independent from everyone else's that we rage against compromising our ideals and interests with almost existential fury? These are not new topics here, but in the wider world David Brooks may deserve credit for starting a new and necessary discussion.