The Service Patch
Ohanian Comment: Who would guess that David Brooks would be making the case for reading more fiction? Note his discussion of utilitarian vocabulary. Utilitarianism is what the Common Core State [sic] Learning Standings are all about.
Brooks talks about "literary distinctions and moral evaluations"--based, not on close reading of the text-stripped of personal opinion a la David Coleman--but involve "structuring your soul."
NOTE: the [sic] is there because the states had nothing to do with the development of these standards--other than the fact the the governors readily signed on, pushed by the bribe of Race to the Top dollars. A state couldn't get the federal money unless they signed on to the CCSS. This is corporate-federal utilitarianism.
Reader Comment: The worship of wealth has become an American obsession. We have turned away from community, friendship, justice, and love. Our university,once places where learning and knowledge were the supreme quest have replaced these quests with the quest for gold.
Reader Comment (which gets at the reason Ohanian rarely reads David Brooks columns):
You are arguing here for a return to the educational values of a liberal arts education. Yet in other columns you have argued for institutional accountability and a "value-added" system of assessment. I would argue that the two are at odds. An education based on reading, writing and discussion is one of discovery and articulation. An education based on "value-added" is one of test-taking, pre-determined knowledge, and low risk-taking based on known expectations.
As you say, entering finance and consulting feels comfortably like applying to college. But what we really need -- and I think you would agree -- is an education model that challenges students to challenge their own assumptions, read widely, and so forth. This kind of liberal education, with, say, an open curriculum and discursive evaluations rather than quantitative ones, is hard to fit into a "value-added" assessment model.
When students who have been steeped in assessment practices from high school (as has been the trend), and they ask, "Where's the grading rubrik?" then you know they haven't yet learned to think for themselves.
You say "people today find it easy to use ... a utilitarian vocabulary ... People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation."
Agreed- to talk about morality, character etc necessitates a classical, or liberal-arts, education. I am a scientist but was raised reading Homer, Antigoni, and studied Dos Passos and Saroyan in world lit. Today there is a very strong counter-drive towards practical skills: in science, medicine, law, and elsewhere, people care a lot less about general education and principles than about practical skills. Education is turning into less education and into more professional training.
This drive is commensurate with an increased emphasis in business-ladden jargon. I "add value" when I can produce more data in a shorter period of time, bring in more grants, etc. This increased dependency, of course, on practical criteria is partly the result of direct economic pressures facing today's academic institutions, but also partly the result of a wider shift in mentality into business-talk and business-thought.
And Republicans have a major role in this: Banking became the craze because deregulation led to crazy money-making for many people. You bemoan lack of interest in government service and in civic service, but such ideals of service are being ridiculed and dismissed by today's Ayn Randian conservatives who only see self-interest as a virtue, and who are more interested in vocational training than in Dostoyevsky, Homer, or Chekov.
I graduated with a degree in finance in 2006 from a big private university in Boston, but my “world of opportunities”are limited to an $9.85 an hour bank teller job or a Full Commission Sales job, so I am living my worst fear of being an educated waiter. I didn’t expect my dream job right out of school, but I did expect to earning a reasonable salary to support myself and pay off my student loan. As for right now, I live with my parents for 3 years and I haven’t paid one cents of my $68.000 student loan. Vast majority of my classmates work in malls, call centers and restaurants. This is the reality on the ground in America.
Reader Comment: I'm willing to wager there are more s-----ks on Wall Street than among those who do community service.
By David Brooks
Several years ago, the investment banks and consulting firms decided it was better to hire a supremely gifted 22-year-old than a moderately gifted 40-year-old who wanted to go home to his family. To attract these young superstars, the firms set up training programs that offered recent college graduates great salaries, practical skills and interesting life experiences.
Top students at elite universities are now showered with these opportunities. Before the financial crisis, nearly half the graduates at some colleges went to work at investment banks, consultancies, hedge funds and the like.
But students are now looking at these programs more skeptically. Earlier this year, Rob Reich, a Stanford political science professor (not the former labor secretary, the other one), held a terrific online discussion on why so many elite students go into finance and consulting and whether this is a good thing.
Many recent Stanford grads ardently defended the finance path. One new investment banker wrote that he’s learning how the crude oil market works, meaning he now knows about Iran’s relationship to Russia, the cultural dynamics in Nigeria and many other things.
A Ph.D. student argued that these private sector firms do a lot more to alleviate poverty than nongovernmental organizations. Look at how global investment has reduced poverty in China.
An undergrad argued that these firms serve as great signaling devices. An altruistic nongovernmental organization is more likely to hire you if you did a stint at Goldman Sachs. You’ll be better at ending hunger later because you learned to be an analyst today.
Other students argued that the flood of talent into finance and consulting is a giant waste. Too many students slide into the finance job application process by default because it feels comfortably like applying to college. There’s a certain automatic prestige to it. It’s competitive, so it must be good.
These critics lament the brain drain into finance and consulting. The smartest people should be fighting poverty, ending disease and serving others, not themselves.
The student discussion was smart, civil and illuminating. But I was struck by the unspoken assumptions. Many of these students seem to have a blinkered view of their options. There's crass but affluent investment banking. There's the poor but noble nonprofit world. And then there is the world of high-tech start-ups, which magically provides money and coolness simultaneously. But there was little interest in or awareness of the ministry, the military, the academy, government service or the zillion other sectors.
Furthermore, few students showed any interest in working for a company that actually makes products. It sometimes seems that good students at schools in blue states go into service capitalism (consulting and finance) while good students in red states go into production capitalism (Procter & Gamble, John Deere, AutoZone).
The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.
Let's put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It's about resource allocation.
People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.
In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.
Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.
When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.
It's worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job. [emphasis added]
New York Times
May 24, 2012
Index of Common Core [sic] Standards