Last Saturday the 2010 Rhodes scholars were announced and a full five Harvard students were among them (along with two Yale students and one Princeton student…but, really, who’s counting?)
On the same day, Elliot Gerson, the American secretary of the Rhodes Trust, published an op-ed in the Washington Post, pointing out that more and more Rhodes scholars are pursuing careers in business, specifically in finance. He writes:
Only three American Rhodes scholars in the 1970s (out of 320) went directly into business from Oxford; by the late 1980s the number grew to that many in a year. Recently, more than twice as many went into business in just one year than did in the entire 1970s.
While scholars used to overwhelmingly choose to go into “scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law” and so on, now, with increasing frequency, they are choosing to get rich. His theory: financial sector jobs in the past thirty years have become so well-paying that their monetary advantages begins to outweigh the prestige-based rewards that come from being a top professor or doctor or scientist.
Yes, all true. Yet if we zoom out a bit we see that the problem clearly isn’t the Rhodes scholars or the pay gap, as such. The problem here is the massive shift in the distribution of talent in this country – a shift away from everything else and towards Wall Street. Consider Harvard. According to a study published by economists Claudia Gloria and Lawrence Katz, the number of Harvard graduates pursing MBAs has expanded threefold from 1970 to 1990 (from 5% to 15%). And according to the Crimson, last year, a full 39% of Harvard students reported that they were entering to the financial service sector upon graduation, as bankers or consultants — down from a full 47% of graduate before the crash.
We can speculate about the effects of this talent redistribution all we want: it means more talent going into fields that contribute relatively less social good to the world; it means rapidly rising economic inequality that’s underwritten (rather than resolved) by our higher-education system; and it means — in an odd twist — a less stable, more bubble-prone financial industry.
Yet it’s the universities themselves that are subject to lose the most. It means that elite education is increasingly regarded instrumentally, as a means to an economic ends, rather than a good unto itself. In a editorial she published in the Times in September, Present Drew Faust called this “The University’s Crisis of Purpose.” Faust writes:
As the world indulged in a bubble of false prosperity and excessive materialism, should universities — in their research, teaching and writing — have made greater efforts to expose the patterns of risk and denial? Should universities have presented a firmer counterweight to economic irresponsibility? Have universities become too captive to the immediate and worldly purposes they serve? Has the market model become the fundamental and defining identity of higher education?
Since the 1970s there has been a steep decline in the percentage of students majoring in the liberal arts and sciences, and an accompanying increase in preprofessional undergraduate degrees. Business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify.
As a nation, we need to ask more than this from our universities. Higher learning can offer individuals and societies a depth and breadth of vision absent from the inevitably myopic present. Human beings need meaning, understanding and perspective as well as jobs. The question should not be whether we can afford to believe in such purposes in these times, but whether we can afford not to.
I’m with President Faust — my concern here is for the soul of the university. If the main job of the university becomes selecting for and training future bankers — and I’ll reiterate: almost one in two Harvard students went into the financial service sector in 2007 — then what happens to the the university’s other roles as (say) a bastion of dissents and/or a guardian of art and culture and/or as a training grounds for future world leaders? Do the demands and temptations of one sector crowd out the needs and hopes of all the others?
I’ll just say to the 2010 Rhodes scholars: best of luck. But then again, you’ll probably need a whole lot more than that!
Photo Credit: Flickr Stream of Say.Fromage