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Bonfire of the Vanitas

By Isabel H. Evans

I am sick and tired of banking bores at Harvard. I try not to complain when the Office of Career Services announces a “career in finance” event for the thousandth time. While I wish they had more diverse options, it is understandably a lot harder to bring other types of career representatives to campus.  I make a conscious effort not to roll my eyes when friends disappear for weeks because they’re preparing for their consulting interviews (which sound cultish and bizarre). I even keep my mouth shut when classmates who are passionate about public service suddenly decide to work at a hedge-fund for the summer. I can appreciate that it’s good, supportive money and a clear path that can lead to many rewards.

But, I feel I finally need to draw the line with one specific aspect about Harvard’s finance culture: the pervasive atmosphere around campus that upon graduation, banking and consulting are the only “real jobs” and everything else is a failure. Whether in the dining halls, classes, or dorm rooms, many Harvard students make it all too clear they look down on job paths after college that don’t lead to the Emerald City of Wall Street.

There are a few generic examples of this that will probably sound familiar to many people. There are the students who adore mentoring and teaching at Mission Hill, yet when you ask them if they’ll do that post college, they reply, “That would be cool, but I could never have a real job doing that.” Or, for seniors, the conversation often goes something like this:

Senior with a “finance job” to a senior who has a job in a different profession: Do you know what your hours will be yet?

Senior with a different job: Probably eight to six or something like that.

Senior in finance: (sigh) Oh, that is not bad! You are so lucky! I wish my job was that relaxed. You’ll have so much more free time.

Such comments may seem innocuous but they veil a contemptible disdain: the belief that finance jobs are much harder (and therefore respectable) than other jobs in the “real world.” Yes, they tend to have much longer hours and perhaps more grueling business trips. But we seem to forget that the time sheet is not the only measure of success or indeed of value.  And, it is unfair to assume other jobs are easy because they have different standards. Setting the alarm for four a.m. is not itself proof that one job is more demanding or rigorous than others. While it would be hard for me to prove, I would guess a shorter day as a teacher in a middle school classroom is maybe ten times more exhausting than a longer day in a consulting firm.

By making these sorts of comments (and they are frequent on this campus, whether you are personally hearing them or not), graduating students are entering into the “real world” with an inherent bias towards other professions and a built-in pattern of patronizing that will not be appreciated or rewarded. By insinuating that someone’s job is less legitimate or respectable because it has fewer hours (and perhaps, many secretly think, less money) finance-seekers are putting themselves on a pedestal that is both unattractive and unfair. Plus, people from Harvard already have extremely large egos. By adding the cocky “finance rules the world” attitude into the mix, you will become an unbearable human being. Maybe people won’t tell you, but they will be thinking it.

I probably sound to many of you like the classic cranky English concentrator right now. But I have no desire to bear the cross of “Oh, why can’t the humanities be appreciated? Woe is me!” I understand full well that in this time of economic crisis, finance jobs offer a lure of stability that does not exist in many “humanities” jobs or public service positions. I understand too that work in the financial sector is attractive because many just enjoy it. But while I can handle the constant trashing of the humanities and I appreciate the draw of the financial sector, I can no longer take the innate condescension that exists in Harvard’s daily culture towards jobs that don’t fit the Wall Street mainstream. There is such a plethora of exciting career paths that are just as strenuous and rewarding. Just because some employees don’t have to walk around with a BlackBerry attached to their hand does not mean that their paths don’t deserve respect too.

I imagine it is very easy to fall into the trap that investment banker Sherman McCoy of Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities” falls into when he thinks of himself on the way to work as a “master of the universe.” And yet, when this temptation gets too great, it is also valuable to imagine how Sherman’s story ends—broke, divorced, and in jail. I wouldn’t wish this on anyone, of course.

Isabel H. Evans ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, is an English concentrator in Adams House.

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