The president of Harvard recently observed of her graduating seniors that the first question they asked of one another was, “Why are so many of us going to Wall Street?” According to an article by Sara Rimer in yesterday’s New York Times, something like 20 percent of the Harvard graduating class plans to work next year in the financial-services industry. Even Columbia graduate Barack Obama is concerned. In his Wesleyan University commencement address he warned the graduates that “the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy . . . betrays a poverty of ambition.”
I don’t know what the numbers are, but my impression is that Princeton graduates are just as interested in i-banking or consulting as their contemporaries up in Cambridge. Interestingly, I think that many of them are embarrassed to admit that they are headed to Goldman or McKinsey, although it may be that this is particularly true when speaking to faculty (like me) who have urged them to think more broadly about employment opportunities. Some of them discover quickly, either on the job or in a summer internship (like one student who called me last week) that i-banking is not what they want in life.
Rimer’s article (well, the headline) opposes “Big Paycheck or Service.” The implication is of course that the alternative to Goldman is something like the community organizing that Senator Obama engaged in. I would love to see more students go into community-service jobs immediately after graduation (more on this shortly), but the fact of the matter is that it is not so easy to find the right sort of service job. It is not just that students need to earn enough to pay off their debts (and most of them do), as that it is not clear that enough service employment is available.
And it is also the case that not all non-service (if I may) jobs are created equal. Is it wrong for our students to go to work for AT&T, Procter & Gamble, or Sara Lee? I don’t think so, any more than I think it is wrong for them to go to work for consulting firms. What counts, I think, is that their liberal education causes them to reflect on what it is they are doing for a living, how they are doing it, and what more they can do to live a fully examined life. One of my favorite Princeton graduates this year somewhat sheepishly informed me that he was going into consulting next year, but then he smiled and said he was going to work for Bridgespan, a nonprofit consulting firm. Doing well by doing good — and why not?
I think that those of us in the universities who worry about the “Big Paycheck” need to be talking to our students about work, throughout their college years. The question here (not an easy obvious one) is the relationship between individual and social good. Adam Smith thought they were interrelated, and I think he was right.
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