Changing minds
The Dangerous Order

Collective Responsibility


Finally following upon my last blog post from David Brooks' The Road to Character.  To focus his discussion of vocation, Brooks writes about Frances Perkins, one of the architects of the New Deal and the first woman to serve in a Presidential Cabinet.

Perkins grew up in a New England Protestant family where she received a traditional upbringing--"parsimonious, earnest, and brutally honest."  He continues, "Yankees were reticent, self-reliant, egalitarian, and emotionally tough."

Politically, Yankees were different from what we are used to today, they "combined what you might call social conservatism with political liberalism. Traditional and stern in their private lives, they believed in communal compassion and government action.  They believed that individuals have a collective responsibility to preserve the 'good order.'"

He writes on the education she received, which emphasized the classics and "a certain style of heroism--to be courageous and unflinching in the face of the worst the world could throw at you."  Instead of building up self-esteem, as has been common in education in my lifetime, Perkins education "didn't tell her that she was awesome and qualified for heroism.  It forced her to confront her natural weaknesses.  It pushed her down.  It pushed her down and then taught her to push herself upward and outward."

Perkins spent time at Hull House and was influenced by Jane Addams, making a nice connection between this book and Amy Kittelstrom's Religion of Democracy which concluded with Addams.

Perkins believed in incremental change.  Brooks writes, "She would compromise ruthlessly if it meant making progress."  Al Smith taught her that "You have to be practical, subordinate your personal purity to the cause."  She became known as "half-a-loaf girl" for her willingness to compromise.

When she suffered attack in her political career, including an attempt to impeach her, she responded with reticence.  Perkins wrote, "I have discovered the rule of silence is one of the most beautiful things in the world.  It preserves one from the temptation of the idle world, the fresh remark, the wisecrack, the angry challenge . . . . It is really quite remarkable what it does for me."

On the downside, her reticence and commitment to her public duties destroyed her private life--her marriage and her relationship with her daughter.  But she achieved great successes--Social Security, a minimum wage, overtime, unemployment insurance, laws restricting child labor, the CCC, and more.  

Near the end of the chapter I received a great shock.  One of her pallbearers was Paul Wolfowitz.  He was a college student at Cornell where she ended her career as a teacher and something of a dorm mother.  The strangest historical connection I've ever encountered--the architect of the New Deal and the most influential of Neo-Conservative hawks.


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