A Parting Shot
EVERY DAY during reading period. I trudged through Dexter Gate on my way into the Yard and to Lamont. One morning I glanced up at the inscription--"Enter to Grow in Wisdom"--and laughed at the irony as I crammed for my finals. Late that night when I left the library I tried to get out to Mass. Ave. by the same gate but it was locked shut "Depart to Serve Better Thy Country and Thy Kind" was the statement above the padlock, and that too struck me as an appropriate coincidence.
When I and my 1600 contemporaries in the Class of 1984 depart from Harvard, this June we will take our elite education out into a nation that badly needs our service. While the problems touching this country are less serious than those afflicting others, they are also less excusable because the United States has the means to solve them. With millions of Americans malnourished. The government stores enough food to give every family two tons of grain and 40 pounds of dairy products. With countless homeless citizens, contractors level old apartment buildings for office and parking spaces. With rural and inner urban regions completely void of health care facilities, a national medical association projected a 13 percent doctor glut for the 1990s.
The litany goes on and it is now chehe-a popular refrain in almost any campaign song. But the most aggravating paradox of plenty receives little attention this country's impressive wealth of highly educated citizens. Properly applied, that brainpower could funnel America's surplus of supplies into its equally abundant stockpile of needs. But each year, few who graduate from Harvard and similar institutions play such a catalyzing role, and most merely contribute to the gap.
The annual report of the Office of Career Services and Off-Campus Learning (OSC-OCL) provides the best evidence for this claim. When surveyed about their eventual career plans, 42 percent of the members of the Class of 1982 said they hoped to enter business, law, of communications. In contrast, 6 percent declared aspirations in politics, government, or "helping professions" technical psychology and social work). It is unfair, of course, to draw too rigid a conclusion from these broad categories. A lawyer handling small claims cases in Roxbury and a businessman bringing jobs to Detroit do more for society than a bureaucrat hiding cost overruns in the Defense Department. But the unfortunate fact is that most of us heading for the white collar service sector will work mainly to help ourselves and our socioeconomic kind.
THE MOST distressing example is the annual flock to law school, which lures some of the country's best young minds and sends them out into one of the economy's least efficient and least productive sectors. President Bok best described the brain drain in his most recent annual report, which noted that law schools "attract an unusually large proportion of the exceptionally gifted. The average college Board scores of the top 2,000 to 3,000 law student easily exceed those of their counterparts entering other graduate schools and occupations, with the possible exception of medicine. The share of all Rhodes scholars who go on to law school has approximated 40 percent in recent years, dwarfing the figures for any other occupational group."
Law is one area which magnifies the gap between classes. It is a burden on the rich for whom "rules proliferate, law suits abound, and the cost of legal services grows much faster than the cost of living," Bok observed. The rest of the population have "their legal rights severely compromised by the cost of legal services, the baffling complications of existing rules and procedures and the long, frustrating delays involved in bringing procedures to a conclusion." In essence, Bok concluded "there is far too much law for those who can afford it and far too little for those who can't."
Most Ivy alums will reinforce this system. The Harvard Law Placement Information booklet reports that a year after graduating, 13 of the 510 members of the Class of 1982 went to the federal government, five to legal services, five to public interest law. Three hundred and forty nine signed on with law firms.
Why the well beaten path to the wealthy with only a few small side trails to public service? Two popular explanations prevail. One hypothesis is that today's college graduate is less idealistic, more selfish than his predecessor of a generation ago. He lacks a social conscience and cannot be counted on to change the world. The other theory accepts this view but embraces it So what if the sharpest mind makes the best living warding off anti-trust complaints? Society, through the market, has decided it values this the most. In the circular logic of pure capitalism, "utility has been optimized" in the status quo because it is, well, the status quo. Both views unfairly denigrate the ideals of our generation and wrongly reject the possibility of change.
Is the student of the '80s more preprofessional, more career-oriented than the undergraduate from the '60s? From my perch. I have been asked that question a thousand times by pop analysts and chic social journalists trying to observe or confirm a trend. My honest answer is that I don't know. I was in a kindergarten classroom the day of the University Hall takeover, and got glimpses of the anti-Vietnam protests only in the newsbreaks that interrupted the cartoons.
FURTHERMORE, I really don't care. The vast majority of current Harvard undergraduates espouse what can be considered a "progressive" slate of ideals, and should not be condemned simply because they don't chant them or sport them on banners and lapels. The more important question is whether our predecessors have created a more idealistic world. In the past 15 years the arms race has spiraled sharply while the war on poverty has stalled. According to OCS-OCL statistics, as many graduates a decade ago planned to go into law as now, and as few looked to public service. They are the junior partners today fueling Bok's vicious cycle.
Again, to generalize is unfair, and to foster intergenerational competition is silly. The point is that now, as before, students are pretty good on their social instincts, but not so successful in social change. Handwringing about "selling out" does not help explain this. Adam Smith does.
Those who reject capitalism often err in discarding insights of its theory, and in this case social critics mistakenly ignore the simple fact that people act largely out of self-interest. It is not more true today than 20 years ago. It is not too surprisingly, the guiding principle for almost every individual in almost everything he does. One can disdainfully declare this sinful, but that won't change human nature. Or one can apply this economic calculus to understand why so many of us want to work for Ropes and Gray, and so few of us will consider Boston's Project Bread to feed the homeless.
Most of us do not demand the excessive income necessary for annual European cruises, summer homes along the sea, yachts, and two Mercedes. We do, however, want to support comfortably a family in a decent neighborhood. Perhaps we will want to send our kids to Harvard. I admire those who are willing to sacrifice the basic middle class conveniences to help their fellow citizens. But I also know that I will probably never have the guts to give up the family car so that an unwed mother with five kids in the South Bronx can eat better, and I don't expect my colleagues to do so either.
FOR A LARGE number of Harvard graduates, that means law school or its moral equivalent. In the current job market, a 22 year-old with a Bachelor's degree in a social science does not have a lot of options. Law, business, and public relations pay a lot for these people--few other careers will. In 1982, the average Harvard Law School graduate starting with a law firm received roughly $40,000 for his first year. Harvard students with Bachelor's Degrees entering the private sector that year took about $20,000. Those heading to government or public service were paid between $10,000 and $14,000, according to Martha P. Leape, director of OCS-OCL. That is why a third of the government, history, and social studies concentrators go into law, and one-tenth go into government. That is why a friend five years out of school just this fall took the LSATs, and why he urged me to do so now, because I would "end up taking them anyway."
To some, this is a just distribution of resources in response to society's demands for certain skills. But does society really value more the Harvard graduate who does market consulting than the one who helps with food distribution? I would hope it does not. An enlightened government does not merely respond to the priorities spit out by the free market, but also dictates the principles to guide it. The low pay in public service sectors is a market failure, and the federal government needs to intervene directly.
This of course assumes that students would prefer public service if the payoff were somewhat higher (though not necessarily equivalent to the private sector) and I am optimistic most would. It is quite noble to expect the American people not to ask what their country can do for them, but what they can do for their country. Given the tradeoff, however, most would choose the former. Nevertheless, it is unclear why the two must be mutually exclusive. If the option existed to do something for our country while our country did something for us, more people would clearly help out. Instead of slashing the Legal Services Corporation and scrapping the Volunteers In Service To America program, the government should have vastly expanded their budgets. Staffing such agencies is as much a public good as staffing the military, and college scholarships programs similar to ROTC should be set up where students commit themselves to community work the same way they now pledge themselves to the armed services.
THAT RAISES the question of the role of the university. Both the College and the Law School have taken encouraging measures in the past couple of years to show students an alternative direction. The fledgling Public Service Program and the 68-year old Phillips Brooks House combined this fall to channel one-sixth of the undergraduate population into volunteer projects. In December, Law School Dean James Vorenberg '49 unveiled a subsidized loan plan for those foregoing the lucrative summer internships for lower paying jobs. But these programs are by themselves insufficient, because they ignore the fundamental problem of making a living for oneself while helping others.
It seems that a more general reconsideration of the College's responsibilities is in order. Over the years, the institution has taken pride in providing a pure liberal arts education, shunning anything in the curriculum that might appear to be career preparation. That philosophy worked fine in 1960, when only 10 percent of the graduating class sought immediate employment, or even in 1970, when one-fourth did. But 57 percent of the Class of 1982 went straight into the job market after securing their diplomas. A Harvard A.B. is no longer one of many pauses on the long road toward the real world. It is the last stop.
A student who is told to ignore the connection between his education and his career, and who then jumps directly into the job market, is bound to be in an awkward position. He is more likely to sell his limited marketable skills to the first bidder rather than trying creatively to apply his training in innovative ways. No one has apparently tried to gauge the implications of this tread. OCS-OCL has expanded and enhanced its services in response to the growing impulse for immediate employment, but this alone is insufficient--it is a salve, not a cure. The College now does a better job of plugging seniors into set slots; it has not yet examined whether shaping freshmen, sophomores, and juniors differently is in order.
ICONFESS that I have no solution. Replacing the Core with Voc Ed certainly is not it. Yet it seems odd that when the fundamental role of higher education is changing, institutions of higher education do not adapt. It is unfortunate that with an economist as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science, this market response did not take place. It is hoped the next one will do better. My friends and I are not averse to serving the public--we just need our country and our kind to show us how.