Why Forms Matter

Brian Brown: Why does Washington consistently disappoint us? Why can’t you figure out what to do with your life? The reason is the same.

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Ever wonder why you reached senior year of college and didn’t know what you wanted to do with your life? Ever wonder why most of the news out of Washington is consistently disappointing?

Tweed-clad academics sometimes use an odd phrase: they say that “forms matter.” They don’t mean that your W-2 will save lives. They mean that the structures of things are almost as important as the things themselves. That’s an inconvenient idea in an age when we like to create our own lives, but it’s a huge part of the answer to those questions above.

But you’ll have no idea what I’m talking about unless I first explain what those annoying academics mean when they say “forms matter.”

“Forms Matter”: What It Means

Architects use the term “forms” as well when they say “form follows function,” by which they mean a well-designed room or building (or for that matter chair or kitchen utensil) will have a structure appropriate to its purpose. A residence should look like it was meant to be lived in; a library should make you want to come in and read. When people build things that don’t follow this rule, they’re usually ugly, and nearly always dysfunctional (for more on why the Gehry work pictured above is awful, read this).

Nonphysical things work the same way. The reason is that we live in a natural world, a world with a nature. When we do things that tap into truths about science or human nature, we get wonderful inventions, art, political institutions, and so on. When we miss the mark (or avoid it on purpose), we get explosions in the lab, paintings that nobody understands, and Occupy Wall Street. How we think about God will affect how we order our worship and vice versa (that’s a post for another day). Better structures to help kids think about life lead to better outcomes in adulthood. Better ways of organizing a government (better political forms) will lead to better long-term outcomes even if there aren’t always great people in the government. And even the best people won’t be able to accomplish great things if a bad system consistently gets in their way.

In science or art, knowing the rules is called expertise—the combination of technique and artistry. In life, it’s called wisdom—the combination of knowledge and good judgment. In art, the difference between a beginner and an expert is that the beginner knows he wants to paint a beautiful landscape; the expert knows how to navigate the brushes and paints to get there—not just the theoretical ideas, but the actual skill that has come from a lot of practice. Likewise, in life the difference between a fool or a child and a wise adult is that the wise adult understands the murky middle ground between a goal and its achievement. He understands forms, both for particular topics and for life in general.

Why It Matters that Forms Matter

Unfortunately, most of us don’t seem to have this kind of good judgment when it comes to living our own lives or passing laws that affect everyone else’s. I’ll give two examples. In my last article I discussed Ezra Klein’s observation that the form, the structure, we give our kids is that of a professional student. By the time a kid is 21, virtually her entire life has been spent in school or applying for the next round of school. She knows how to be a student; she’s good at that. But she’s usually given no structure whatsoever about how to think about life after school. So she’s shocked (though she shouldn’t be) when she reaches her last year of college and discovers she has no idea what to do next. So, as Klein points out, she does what she’s done her entire life: look for a next step that is structured like all the previous steps, an obvious choice with a familiar-looking application process. Klein focuses on how the finance world has capitalized on this, but I want to think about it in terms of the kid who is determined to help people right now. She has no form for thinking about the rest of her life; she is supposed to make it up. Since she has no knowledge, skill, or experience with which to do so, her mental equation often looks like this:

“[I want to help people]
[Nonprofits help people, don’t they?]
[I’ll go work for a nonprofit].”

You can see what’s missing: the intermediate step of good judgment. She is taking a beginner’s approach to life choices, one that a 10 year-old could have taken. There’s no knowledge and no skill, so the thinking is rudimentary and many rewarding career possibilities (which she might have liked better) are extinguished. Ironically, her entire life was spent preparing her for this moment, and now that the moment is here it’s clear she is not remotely ready for it.

The second example: there have been a couple major incidents in the media recently in which one side has accused the other of hating women. One was the HHS contraception mandate (more on that later this week), where people who didn’t want to be required to provide particular services were said to be anti-woman. The other, nicely captured in the Huffington Post’s coverage, was the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which as you can see from the coverage had some opposition that was all about hating women.

I’m not getting into the pros and cons of either case here, or of the accusations. But I want you to notice the mindset that went into the accusations. The thinking was a simple equation:

“[I want to achieve a goal]
[Laws achieve goals, don’t they? I’ll get a law passed about it!]
[And they all lived happily ever after].”

What’s missing here? That’s right, the intermediate step: good judgment. There’s no consideration of questions like whether legislation is the only way to achieve the goal, whether this particular legislation is the only way to achieve the goal, whether the legislation has any other provisions in it that people might object to, or whether simply passing a law will fix the problem at all. Therefore anyone who opposes my method must, by definition, hate the goal I want to achieve. I’ve applied my desire to achieve a goal without any thought to forms, either in terms of how I think about the problem or in terms of what means I apply to solve the problem. (And like Ezra Klein elsewhere, I have no respect for the political forms that might help me think about the problem. After all, the Constitution is, like, old and stuff!) This is a beginner’s approach to politics, but it’s often coming from people who have the knowledge, which forces me to say it’s a fool’s approach to politics.

We live in a world where forms have been discouraged, by Disneyite individualists who wanted us to make up our own lives and by unscrupulous optimists who wanted to pursue business opportunities or scientific discovery without regard for consequences to the environment or the human condition. And we have a generation of kids who know little of the past and have no framework for thinking about the future, and several generations of people involved in politics who have no framework for solving problems.

If we want better answers from today’s leaders and better questions from tomorrow’s, we’d do better to pay more attention to forms, because forms matter.

1 Comment

  • March 25, 2012


    The main idea behind the this is how we are fought how to do all the “right” things our whole life up into senior year, and then once we get out of high school and into college we don’t know what to do. We’re so busy forming our lives into what we think they should be and were not focusing on what we want them to be.