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Book Review: The Social Animal

The premise of The Social Animal by David Brooks (Random House, New York, 2011) is both unique and fascinating. Brooks distills the findings and learnings from the last 30 years of brain research through the fictional stories of Harold and Erica. Rather than a lengthy litany of detailed studies and research findings, Brooks illustrates the impact of our unconscious as he traces Harold and Erica’s lives from birth to death. The book seamlessly weaves the research to highlight why Harold and Erica make various decisions and choices throughout their lives. As Harold and Eric experience childhood, school, falling in love, falling out of love, career ups and downs and aging, Brooks expertly sheds light on the underpinnings of our modern culture, with both a critical eye and one that rejoices in our very human and social nature.

Not surprisingly, there are several lessons portrayed through their k-12 education.  While some of the research findings illustrated in the relevant chapters (“Learning,” “Norms” and “Self-control”) will be familiar to many in the education world, the story telling format allows us to look at this research in new and fresh ways.

Harold and Erica had very different experiences in school. Harold, from an upper middle class family, experiences success and acceptance in high school as the jock and the “mayor” of the school. Erica, from a background of poverty, struggles for acceptance and understanding. Through Harold’s story, Brooks describes the learning process, and implicitly condemns the current high school structure of “passive institutional learning.” He also makes it clear that our current high school structures do not take into consideration the social and emotional development and intensity of the teenage years.

“The students would burn out if forced to spend their entire day amidst the social intensity of the cafeteria and the hallway. Fortunately the school authorities also schedule dormant periods, called classes, during which students can rest their minds and take a break from the pressures of social categorization. Students correctly understand, though adults appear not to, that socialization is the most intellectually demanding and morally important thing they will do in high school.”

Brooks uses Erica’s story to devastatingly describe the impact of living in a culture of poverty on the intellectual, emotional and social development of children. Brooks describes poverty as an “emergent system [where]…the pieces of a system interact, and out of their interaction something entirely new emerges.” The implication is that you cannot alleviate the effects of poverty by attacking the parts. He offers up as a potential solution - a school that is also a “neighborhood and a family” based on the James Coleman research that parents and community have a greater effect on achievement than school.  In other words, for children in poverty, schools must provide a different set of cues and unconscious influences than their outside environment. 

Brooks is also not without a sense of humor. How can you not enjoy a book that cites a study that finds that “the friendship networks within the U.S. Senate were remarkably similar in structure to the social licking networks among cows.”?

Even if the reader may not always agree with Brooks’ illustrations or conclusions, the book is informative and interesting. I would recommend reading the book with an open mind, looking to understand the implications of the research and then applying these implications to your own life, work, and world.

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