Wall Street? Or a public interest summer job?

I went to my fiftieth reunion at Harvard last week — the undergrad “college,” not the business school.   There were 1200 men in the Class of 1966, and 400 women at Radcliffe, the single-sex college a few blocks away.  The institutions are now fully merged. About 450 alumni/ae and 250 partners came the reunion, which lasted four days and included Commencement, at which Steven Spielberg became a Doctor of Art.

For me the most interesting experience was a dialogue with four women in my class who are concerned that 30% of recent graduates want to work on Wall Street or in one of the top consulting firms.  They organised a panel of current students and recent graduates who have chosen what they call “public interest jobs.”  One of their issues is that students on scholarship need to make as much money as they can over the summer.

This is my take on the topic.  I’d be interested in people’s comments.

 The Case for Public Interest Summer Jobs

Working in organisations should be part of every education.  Someone who has only struggled to master academic subjects will have an incomplete understanding of how the world works.  One argument for sports has always been that they teach teamwork.  Prior to 1966 or so, when the Vietnam War ramped up, military service was regarded as a desirable complement to a bachelor’s degree.  Public opinion may be returning to that view.  Meanwhile, the right summer jobs can do a lot.

It would be going too far to impose a “group experience” requirement – like the swimming test? – but explicit guidance would be appropriate.  I assume there is a document or briefing session in which the University tells its youngest members that they have primary responsibility for their own education.  The importance of shared endeavor should be mentioned there.

Among organisations, those that serve the public interest can offer college students a particularly rich experience because they tend to be smaller, the group dynamics are more transparent and there is a better chance of having the sort of confronting experiences that force a person to grow up.  This in itself is a reason for Harvard to help undergraduates find their way to summer jobs in not-for-profits – and to make acceptance of such jobs financially feasible.  But service to society teaches more than that.

What should we expect young people to learn at a good university – aside from the subject matter of their courses?  Some become proficient at solving problems.  Some learn to write.  Most learn what excellence looks like.  If they’re lucky, they learn to work hard.  And by studying a mixture of history, science and beauty under wise professors, they become aware that reality has layers.

One of those layers has to do with moral responsibility.  Attending Harvard is a great privilege.  The sense that privilege creates obligations should be part of every graduate’s mental furniture.  It would be a mistake to tell Harvard students what to think about ethical issues, but the University might reasonably express the view that someone who lacks a sense of obligation must be regarded as uneducated.

The best way to inculcate a sense of obligation is to start amortizing the debt right away.  Once a person has regularly volunteered at a shelter for the homeless, or worked in a political campaign, or spent time in the Peace Corps, she has made an investment in her own citizenship, and will want to nurture it.  A single summer is sufficient to start the process.  Graduates who elect to get rich first and give back later may deliver a lot of dollars to Harvard in the end, but as an educational institution, Harvard should not be happy with that life plan.  It should encourage students to invest in public service as early as possible.

Students who get to Harvard are good at climbing ladders and winning contests.  Certain banks and consulting firms are adept at making their job offers look like prizes – with the result that a startling percentage of undergraduates pursue them.  The careers to which these jobs can lead are not for everyone.  Competition within the best firms is fierce.  They pay a lot but ask a lot in terms of time and stress.  Some find that earning a lot makes money more important than they want it to be.  Harvard probably owes undergraduates a clearer understanding of these realities than the firms themselves provide.  There are bound to be alumni/ae who can help.

It would be unfair to characterize banking or consulting as unethical professions, but anyone who sells advice has conflicts of interest to manage.  The need to make difficult moral choices is part of what makes the work strenuous.  The same could also be said of medicine, law and politics, but thanks to the Global Financial Crisis, banking is at present particularly suspect.  In reaction to the moral failure and astonishing compensation that preceded the crisis in New York and London, alternative career paths are being presented that pay very little and can require exceptional fortitude.  These jobs are not for everyone any more than working at Goldman or McKinsey is.  The rewards and   difficulties of every path should be made clear.

Those who wish to engender enthusiasm for public interest careers sometimes make a tactical mistake by having that as their stated objective, and glorifying the sacrifice such careers can involve.  Examples of dedication, intended to inspire, can make students skittish.  Spending a summer as an aid worker does not entail a permanent vow of poverty, any more than rowing for Harvard means being on the river before dawn for the rest of your life.  Students are entitled to try out challenging roles – and if the experience results in a vocation, that’s terrific – but it should be clear that the commitment being sought is limited.  If it isn’t, students may be reluctant to get involved at all.

In summary then, Harvard’s purpose is education, not politics.  That education should include an understanding of group membership and a sense of obligation.   The University should encourage and enable students to take summer jobs in public interest organisations, because such engagement will help them attain those benefits.  It should ensure that job options of all kinds are represented accurately.  Recruitment to public interest careers is best done with a light touch.

Love to know what you think?


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