It was like ice-water-in-the-face when I recently read a hundred, mostly negative responses to Yale student Marina Keegan’s thoughtful New York Times piece called “Another View: the Science and Strategy of College Recruiting.”
Ostensibly, her article was about how sad she felt that her classmates had come to New Haven with dreams about changing the world but, 3 ½ years later, had found themselves with something far less than that, like jobs in “consulting” or the banking sector.
What her article was really about was how difficult it is for Keegan and many of her peers to find their way to work with meaning and purpose.
It was the ostensible part of the article that garnered Keegan most of her negative responses. Comments ran the gamut from how spoiled and naïve she is after prep school and now Yale (so take off your rosy glasses), how many students have no job prospects, let alone high-paying ones (so quit your whining), and what great “real world” skills you can build by working in jobs like banking (so seize the day you’ve been given and stop finding fault with it).
But most of the venting missed the truly provocative question Keegan was asking: for those in her generation who want to make a difference in the world, how can you get a job that will enable you to start doing so?
Keegan had done an informal survey of her fellow students before putting her ideas out there, findings she had reported earlier in the Yale Daily News. Later in the Times piece, she said:
Maybe I’m overly optimistic, but I think most young, ambitious people want to have a positive impact on the world. Whether it’s through art or activism or advances in science, almost every student I spoke to had some kind of larger, altruistic goal in life. But what I heard again and again was that working at J P Morgan or Bain or Morgan Stanley was the best way to prepare oneself for a future doing public good.
Keegan also was effective at describing the basic challenge (how to go about finding a job, any job) and how easy it is to get diverted from finding the right one.
What I found was somewhat surprising: the clichéd pull of high salaries is only part of the problem. Few college seniors have any idea how to “get a job,” let alone what that job would be. Representatives from the consulting and finance industries come to schools early and often – providing us with application timelines and inviting us to information sessions in individualized e-mails. We’re made to feel special and desired and important.
I know what she means because it was much the same when I was finishing law school, and only the big corporate law firms came to recruit. Both the professional success they seemed to embody and the attention they were paying to me triggered a range of reactions: I was flattered, relieved at how simplified my job search had suddenly become, and how approving “the world” would be if I took the high-paying road that was opening up before me. I was attracted, and then hooked.
In 1981, it required deliberation, first to counter the lure of easy choices, and then to find alternative roads, particularly meaningful ones. It is much the same for new workers 30 years later.
Keegan’s hopes for meaningful work belong to many, if not most in her generation. Unlike mine, squarely confronting the challenge may produce more positive results.
This past week, there was an article about two local kids who had been awarded Rhodes scholarships, a high honor conferred on only 32 American college graduates each year. In talking about what he hoped to make of this opportunity, Zachary Crippen, who is in his last year at the Air Force Academy, said he hoped to study the place in our society where ethics, politics and the law come together and use that information to build a career. Nina Cohen, at Bryn Mawr College, said almost the same thing. Her plans are to study political theory, in particular, how ethical beliefs can be reconciled within a liberal democratic framework
After spending a couple of years in England thinking about these issues, will Crippen and Cohen gain for themselves more information than Keegan seems to have now about how to find the work of their lives?
Others at Yale have thought about the quality of the information we need when making the most important choices in our lives. One is Anthony Kronman, who makes a persuasive argument about developments in higher education that contribute to the deep-seated uncertainty graduates feel today, and what needs to be done about it. He presents that argument in Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life (2007).
In the past 50 years, Kronman argues that our institutions of higher learning have largely abandoned their role providing students with “the accumulated wisdom of our civilization.” College students no longer study the West’s great minds who, throughout the centuries, have thought long and hard about lots of things that all educated people should know something about, including how to live a meaningful life. I whole-heartedly agree with his case for the return of a core “humanistic” curriculum, and will talk some more about why in a later post. I also think that our newest Rhodes scholars are on to something by deciding to take a closer look at both their ideals and how they can play themselves out in the rough and tumble of a political culture.
What I’m afraid of is that they may be the lucky few. For the rest: A weak economy. A need to pay the bills and gain some personal independence. An unfocused, scattershot education. Unhelpful college career services. And will more education and better information to base decisions upon be enough, even for them?
How does a generation that wants to make a difference find itself the right kind of work?