An interesting essay recently peaked my attention. In “Typing Alone,” Mark Oppenheimer provides an interesting insight into the social life of college students. Oppenheimer argues that the primary reason for overly aggressive participation in college social activities and clubs does not rest with benevolent deeds that help to engage the campus in community efforts. Instead, participation in these activities are means of enhancing the attractiveness of their resume offers more tangible benefits. This argument is also implied in Ross Douthat’s new book: Privilege, Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class, where he describes how students eagerly attempt to succeed by cutting corners and doing as little work as possible. Oppenheimer claims that the purpose of many of these student-run, community involved activities focuses more on a self-promoting end than a truly altruistic mean.
I agree. I don’t believe that it’s necessarily a bad thing that many of these student activities, especially the ones that benefit the community, are provincial in nature. Ideally, it would be nice if we were all more active in our community; but very rarely do we actively engage in civic duty or participate in community service, unless it is court-ordered. Volunteerism is seen as a chore. It is true that many of us don’t volunteer because we don’t have the time; that is certainly a valid argument. At times, every college student feels overwhelmed at the amount of assigned readings, lab reports or problem-sets that they need to complete. It would be unusual for someone to possess a willingness to participate in community service for the purpose of serving the greater good. For one person to have the desire, compassion and time to make a difference in their community is a rare occurrence, especially for a college student.
What does ‘desire’ mean in the collegiate world? It means different things to different people. To the athletically inclined, it denotes being able to perform on a consistently high basis because they know that it was what they are capable of, and nothing less will suffice. For those whose area of expertise are intellectual pursuits, it means that they want to search beyond the assigned material to answer a question that his deeply imbedded within the purpose of the course in which they are enrolled. For those taking a survey course on American history, maybe it would constitute an in-depth analysis of the meaning of American Exceptionalism. Maybe someone who is taking a course on religion in antebellum America would read more in-depth about the origins and impacts of the Evangelical movement juxtaposed with the true nature of the institution of slavery.
Ultimately, I believe that desire and ambition are the defining factors that determine the level and type of involvement college students will have in their community and academic careers. Ambition would be a better noun to describe the success of the student; desire would have more relevance for a community leader. But in reality, the two terms are synonymous. The key to creating a balance between a successful academic career and a genuine yearning to help those less fortunate is to have both desire and ambition.
Far too often, success is defined by money. To be successful in life, students feel that it is more advantageous to pursue to the option that most students to do – to engage in activities and volunteerism so that it boosts our social prestige or professional marketability. Many of us would agree that pursuing a career in the Peace Corp, the ministry or education would be a dignified profession that would no doubt earn the respect of our family and friends. But those careers don’t pay as much and don’t receive as much recognition as high profile and other, sometimes less ethical, professions. Those who swim in the wealth and prestige of high-paying Wall-Street jobs make up for their perceived lack of compassion by donating money to charitable foundations, rather than donating their time, out of a sense of noblesse oblige. My effort is not to denigrate the generous financial contributions that many corporations make to their communities, but to clarify the significance and impact of personal, one-on-one attention to community affairs.
As Oppenheimer explains, the commitment that students have to public issues, in many cases, are genuine. While social protest was at its peak during the Vietnam era, controversial issues such as gay rights and the Iraq war warrant plenty of vocal opposition from the on college campuses. The social activism that takes place during college is usually rooted in a benign belief in issues. Students are very idealistic people; they are the ones who support counterculture issues such as the legalization of marijuana and anarchism. While their energy and enthusiasm is admired, sometimes their personal beliefs and intellectual failings allow them to advocate somewhat malignant views. Fortunately, we very rarely see KKK rallies on campus. While it would be a great benefit to society for students to continue this enthusiastic spirit of public charity, many people view it as an unfeasible career option. People may argue that charity and public service don’t always guarantee fiscal or tangible returns but this is not always true.
Many people deride politicians as an opportunistic, scandalous group who want only to serve those key campaign contributors and powerful constituents. But I believe that politics are one of the few professions that are able to combine an aggressive social consciousness with capitalistic endeavors that focus on making this country a better place. I would be the first to admit that American politicians can be susceptible to corruption; and many high offices have been victims to, and held by power-hungry, narcissistic people who were ultimately self-defeating to their constituents and the country by their dishonorable deeds. But there are some good, honest politicians who want to genuinely help the country. Policy differences aside, these politicians believe that they can help to make their city, state or country a better place. And, given the fact that many people who enter politics are already wealthy, it would be fair to say that they want to ‘give back’ to their community by pursuing politics, especially when lucrative partnerships in blue-chip law firms or executive positions in successful corporations await.
These people – the successful businessperson who enters government out of a sense of civic duty rather than a thirst for power, the Ivy League graduate who runs a non-profit organization for the area’s homeless, or even the PhD who teaches high school because they feel that they will have a greater impact on the educational system by sharing their wealth of knowledge with younger students even when greater financial rewards and prestige welcome their scholarship at the university level – all are examples of what a combination of social consciousness and strong desire can produce. It takes a rare individual who is willing to use their intellectual capabilities, social connections and cultural influence for the greater good, for a purpose above and beyond their own self-promotion. These people are few and far between, not only because few people possess these gifts, but also because the few that do have strong influences discouraging this type of path.
We, as a society, can sometimes be materialistic and heretical, but we should salute those who have the moral fiber and tangible abilities to make changes for the greater good. Many of us are not able to make this sacrifice. But if we embraced the desire, the energy and activism that we possess as college students and apply them to our lives after graduation, we could help transcend the cynical nature of this country. If we remained transfixed in our willingness to help those less fortunate, we would help to endow others with the same sense of generosity. If we pursued our economic, social and political goals with a level of plurality and selfless desire to help others, then the benefits of our generosity could permeate into future generations and serve the higher purpose of benefiting the greater good.