David Brooks’ column entitled the “Service Patch” is insightful in several respects. Brooks is right that highly successful students nowadays see two options: “crass but affluent investment banking” and “the poor but noble nonprofit world.” They show “little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, [or] government service.” I frequently ask young liberal activists–people who favor expanding the government–whether they would work for the government, and they almost all demur. Incidentally, if there are two political movements in America: the people who argue for government but would despise working for it, and the people who argue against government, the latter will win most elections.
Brooks is also right that the phrase and concept of “community service” has replaced thinking about character, justice, and social impact. “Service” means unpaid or not-for-profit activity that helps people who can’t afford to pay. That is not necessarily good for the world, and it is certainly not the only way to advance justice. Like Brooks, I think that deciding what makes a good life “require[s] literary distinctions and moral evaluations.” Finally, Brooks is wise to follow the work of Rob Reich (“not the former labor secretary, the other one”).
I would push Brooks’ points a little further. People have much less capacity than they believe they have to make the right decisions once they are in a particular situation. The general finding of social psychology is that context determines behavior most of the time. So if you work for a hedge fund, you are going to do what hedge fund managers do, which is influenced by economic opportunities and local norms and expectations. You are not going to become the heroic exception who does good while everyone else does well.
But you can decide which situations to place yourself in. Wall Street and an urban public school both present opportunities and temptations, but they are very different. You are not going to strip industrial firms for short-term profit if you teach elementary school, but you are not going to neglect needy kids if you work for a bank. So you have to decide what opportunities and temptations you want to face. That will determine the quality or value of your life. It is a matter of deep and reasoned introspection, which should be an essential function of college.
Tufts, for example, educated JP Morgan Chase executive director Jamie Dimon; he majored in pysch and econ here. I don’t think Tufts could have taught him much that would have changed his decisions once he took his job, but I do think we could have helped him to think about whether to start on the path he’s on. To switch universities: in 1970, 5 percent of male Harvard graduates worked in the financial sector. In 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard seniors said they were heading for finance jobs. I think that is an indictment of higher education not because the financial industry is unnecessary (we do need it), but because four years of reasoned introspection about the good life should not end with a majority of students choosing the same path: “crass but affluent investment banking.”