Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

From the author or “The Road to Character” this is his follow up non-fiction book about the Quest for a Moral Life. This book was recommended to me by a professional colleague, and as I was reading it, I kept wondering about the connections to the role of an educator. This is not a book about education in the formal sense, but rather it is a book at about the approach educators need to take a moral stance in their lives and calling as an educator.

You would be interested in reading this book if you were:
– seeking a rejuvenation, a reframing of your role as an educator and a leader in education
– searching for a moral framework through which to reposition yourself in the learning journey of your students and your colleagues
– seeking contemplation about choices you make/are making/have made in the context of seeking joy, seeking community, and seeking service to others

The Starfish of the Pool?

“I’ve come to recognize first- and second-mountain organizations too. Sometimes you work at a company or go to a college, and it doesn’t really leave a mark on you. You get out of it what you came for, and you leave. Second-mountain organizations touch people at their depths and leave a permanent mark…These institutions have a collective purpose, a share set of rituals, a common origin story. They nurture thick relationships and demand full commitment. They don’t merely educate, they transform.” (pg. xvii)

In this paragraph from the introduction, the book is laid out in full. The author goes on to deep dive into what it means to live a ‘first-mountain’ life; he addresses collective purpose, the role of rituals, origin stories and commitment. All ingredients to get to the second-mountain. A mountain of living joyfully.

The book begins by identifying where our culture has been led astray “…I no longer believe that the cultural and moral structures of our society are fine, and all we have to do is fix ourselves individually.” (pg. XX)

In fact, he repudiates the story of the starfish. You know the one where there is a boy walking down the beach covered in stranded starfish. The boy picks one up and throws it back, only to be chided by a passerby saying “Why bother, you can’t save them all?”, to which the boy responds “Yes, but I saved that one!”.  This approach, the author claims is celebrated for all the wrong reasons, and so too is the way it plays out in society.

Rather, consider the pool analogy. You can just fix, clean or take care of a part of a pool that you are swimming in. It just doesn’t work like that. You have to care for the whole pool. To concern yourself with cleaning only your part of the pool is poorly spent energy. It results in frustration and a zero chance of success.

We have to shift away from individualism and move into community with others.  A pre-occupation of the self and one’s immediate surroundings/context, results in a divided and alienated cultural context. “We have become too cognitive when we should be more emotional; too utilitarian when we should be using a moral lens; too individualistic when we should be more communal.” (pg. xxii)

This is a great quotation to reflect upon in our practice.

Moral Ecology: The Role of Leaders

“We all grew up in one moral ecology of another. We all create microcultures around by the way we lead our lives and the vibes we send out to those around us. One of the greatest legacies a person can leave is a moral ecology –  a system of belief and behaviour that lives on after they die.” (pg. 4)

Within a school, a moral ecology can be created by a response to the recent school closures. But moral ecologies can change. The author cites the change mechanism called “Ratchet, hatchet, pivot; ratchet” – not the punctuation! It is a cycle and moral ecologies are not meant to be stable over time; rather, they flex and flux with the demands of life.

Ratchet: the current moral ecology is no longer suffecient to respond and hold community together
Hatchet: a counter-culture movement emerges that causes turmoil and competition (it feels like society is breaking!)
Pivot: a new moral ecology emerges that takes the best/most relevant characteristics from the old and the new creating a new set of beliefs and behaviours, of right and wrong
Ratchet: once that new ecology is in place, “the stumble of progress takes another step” (pg. 8)

Education has not seen this level of urgency – the dual pandemic of COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter – nor has it experienced this intensity of change. This is the time for the hatchet – to create a new moral ecology, a new compass, for ourselves, our organization and our moral purpose in our schools.

Leaders will play an incredibly important role is shifting away from hyper-individualization and siloing within our schools. They will have to work hard to bend, remove and re-place structures that allow for a new perspective, within a new ‘place’, with people working in partnership. This requires a new approach to thinking, and what it means to think.

A Thousand “No”s for a few Precious “Yes”s

“But if you aren’t saying a permanent no to anything, giving anything up, then you probably aren’t diving into anything fully…[David Foster] Wallace thought the wya to fight all this was to focus your individual attention – through a sort of iron willpower. ‘Learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think…It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. ” (pg. 19)

The book poses three big questions that every institution of education purpose should seek to support their students in answering:

  1. What is my best life?
  2. What do I believe in?
  3. Where do I belong”

These questions are not answered without thinking. They are not answered without suffering. “The British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge put it bluntly, maybe a bit too bluntly: ‘I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my 75 years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence, bas been through affliction and not through happiness…” (pg. 49). In short, a vacation to Hawaii won’t be transformational.

Commitment vs. Contract

“…a commitment is different from a contract. A person making a contract is weighing pros and cons. A person entering into a contract doesn’t really change. She just finds some arrangement that will suit her current interests. A commitment, on the other hand, changes who you are, or rather embeds who you are into a new relationship.” (pg. 55)

If a contract benefits the participants, it is a commitment that will transform them. It is building a structure of behaviour and reframing your own behaviours in alignments that structure. Commitments, writes the author, give us:

  1. Our identity
  2. Sense of purpose
  3. Allows us to move towards freedom
  4. Build our moral character

Not all of this changes or happens at once. This is the journey from the first mountain to the second. This is a practice. Thus, as educators working in an educational environment, we need to create opportunities of commitment and name them as such intentionally. We don’t contract our students to play on sports team or be in the musical – maybe that is why these experiences have the potential to be so transformational. How might we extend this notion of commitment to other opportunities – like committing to values, traditions?

Building the Moral Ecology

“A systems approach means acknowledging that each of us sees only a part of a complex world. If you pull one lever here, you’re probably going to produce an unexpected outcome over there. It takes the entire [community/leadership/members], to map the whole system and act on all its parts in a continuous way, with continuous feedback conversations.”

If we take the lessons and learnings from the book, then we have to apply systems thinking to make it happen. Thus, you need to collect data, rich data that shines a light on the organization. What will be your flashlight? What will be your focus?

Some Cautions – this book does definitely stray from direct application to education. In many ways, this book is a surfacing of the author’s own personal journey to commitment to a moral life. The stories and examples are wonderful, beautiful, and sometime heart-wrenching. Totally worth it – but I didn’t want anyone to think that this was a book about education.


1 thought on “Book Review: The Second Mountain by David Brooks

  1. Fantastic insights – thanks for this review, I think just downloaded the audiobook 🙂
    Those three big questions are so easily pushed to the bottom of the priority list in the busy day.
    Contemplative words for this immensely reflective time in the world.

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