The Occupy (Wall Street, Boston, Oakland, et al.) movements are putting a spotlight not only on Wall Street but also on those who may not be part of the so-called one percent, but who have profited or hope to profit from the broadly destructive greedy behavior of Wall Street. As Chris Hedges puts it in his new book, Death of the Liberal Class, “The media, the church, the University, the Democratic Party, the arts, and labor unions—the pillars of the liberal class—have been bought off with corporate money and promises of scraps tossed to them by the narrow circles of power.”
Since the Occupy movement shows no signs of going away—quite the contrary—we also may be in the somewhat awkward position of seeking largesse from those entities that have seemed most to contribute to the misery of much of the population, while purporting as a liberal arts college—whatever that is coming to mean—to teach the values of equality, justice and fairness.
In this are we possibly dealing with an updated version of the awkwardness our colleagues at Brown felt a few years ago when President Ruth Simmons set up a commission to examine that institution’s enrichment from the transatlantic slave trade? Are all institutions such as ours now facing a version of that? Does it matter where the scraps come from?
If we feel discomfort about any of this one question immediately arises: How do we behave as educators and mentors, in an institution which sends a large percentage of its students into the financial industry? A recent Crimson article seems to respond by applauding the fact that a higher proportion of our students are now hired by consultancy firms, though still fewer than the numbers that head for Wall St. I confess I had never really known what McKinsey, a frequently mentioned name among consultancy forms, actually does. The Crimson article cleared that up for me: “Even still, students of all concentrations, from Classics to Molecular and Cellular Biology, apply for the opportunity to examine the workings of corporations and improve their profitability.”
Oh, O.K., got it. Maybe they also create Library Affinity Groups (another story). But no enquiry here whether examining the workings of corporations and improving their profitability might involve union-busting, promoting Knowledge Process Outsourcing (which sounds better than pushing jobs offshore), or devising strategies for lobbying in the interests of expanded fossil fuel energy legislation and confounding alternative and greener energy options.
It is remarkable how often our institution’s name seems to be connected with the consultancy and banking industries, many of whose avaricious captains were the most prominent in creating a profit-driven climate that seems inimical to all we should stand for as teachers and students in a liberal arts college. If in reality a large part of what we what we are doing here is supplying new generations of worker-bees for these hives, how do we do so in a way that does not implicate us in what looks like an unending charge towards unfettered capitalism?
Marina Bolotnikova '14 of Eliot House perhaps puts it best, from last week's Crimson, in directing us away from pure vocationalism: “The philosophy of a liberal education maintains that the liberal arts are valuable in and of themselves, that a liberal education necessarily makes us better citizens.
It is high time we actually confronted how precisely we are to become and how we are to produce those better citizens, how we can make sure what we teach and what we value at least has a chance of leading to a more just, fair and humane world than the one we seem to have right now.
Richard F. Thomas is the George Martin Lane Professor of the Classics and Harvard College Professor.