A New Generation?

ONE of the more interesting statistics the University released yesterday in its study on College life was that interest in attending graduate schools in the arts and sciences is at a high among Harvard undergraduates. According to the poll of 2360 upperclass undergraduates, one out of four students plans to attend graduate school in the arts and sciences.

The flip side is that the number of undergraduates aiming at the more traditional, professional-oriented areas of graduate study--business, law and medicine--is on the decline. In fact, a mere 12 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in going to medical school.

While it may be absurd and naive to extract from a small pool of Harvard students the beginnings of a general nationwide trend, it is quite likely that some genius will do so in order to argue that American college students have emerged from their self-absorbed visions of money and grandeur. Be on the lookout for some "Latest on the Nation's Campuses" feature stories proclaiming a "New Generation of American Students."

Pollsters have been quick to generalize in the past. Students of the 1980s, the media has incessantly told us, are materialistic and narcissistic, politically apathetic and obsessed with power lunches, three-piece suits, luxury cars and six-figure jobs. Such an image became so entrenched in the country's prevailing mindset that Time pronounced 1984 the year of the yuppie.

This mindset leads the national media to characterize in cynical terms everything our generation does. Those high school students who apply to and attend the nation's "elite" colleges are doing so, we are told, not for the intellectual atmosphere such schools can provide us with, but rather for the connections they supposedly offer to the "corridors of power", in Washington and Wall Street. Ours has been the new "lost generation," influenced by the self-indulgence of the Reagan years, hopelessly corrupted by daily corruption in sports, business and politics. And so on.

Perhaps Newsweek or Time will pick up on this and other surveys showing similar trends towards careers in academia and public-service, and suddenly proclaim that our generation has found its way. Having become repulsed by Ivan Boesky and all he represents, our generation would seem to be as socially and politically active as it should be. Future professors of social history may even point to the response to the College survey as indicating that Harvard students were somehow in the "vanguard" of a broader movement towards more socially-productive careers than selling junk bonds.

YET is it really necessary for commentators and budding historians to make such sweeping generalizations about various generations? It's not as if students are a monolithic bloc responding to the same forces.

And it's not as if either portrait of the American student--be it of the self-centered Wall Street wanna-be of the Reagan years or the new civic-minded academicians--is all that valid. Chances are that far less than one-tenth of one percent of college students end up making $80,000 in their first year out in the real world. Likewise, whatever recent surveys may suggest about suddenly altruistic and selfless students, it seems unlikely that future college grads will flock in any great numbers to teaching underprivileged high school students.

To the extent that such "generational trends" towards certain careers do exist, it seems superficial to characterize them in such simplistic terms. Instead of viewing one generation of students as particularly concerned with America's role in the world and the next worrying about how it will make its student loan payments on time, we tend to see such fluctuations reduced to the lowest possible denominator: the former is deemed socially-minded, the latter greedy.

That more students are interested in becoming teachers than brokers may have less to do with high-minded ideals than with a greater intellectual interest in history than in money management. To reduce every college generations' career choices to a question of money versus altruism trivializes student's judgment and motives. It shows contempt for the self-relience that American colleges purport to teach.