A few months ago, I wrote a pair of columns, “Selling Your Soul, Parts I and II,” lamenting that so many of my classmates were, well, selling their souls. After all, nearly 25 percent of my classmates will likely work for Wall Street or in management consulting.
I got a fair amount of feedback from friends and acquaintances. Some objected to my assertion that these students “have forfeited the right to be proud of what [they] do. [They] are doing harm.” Some applauded such rhetoric. But one narrative came up over and over: the bootstraps narrative, wherein an enterprising young person from a low-income background who, because she must support her struggling family, pulls herself up by her bootstraps by taking the best-paying job she can find — this job is always in finance or consulting.
What about these people, my friends would ask. Do I object to their working in these industries too?
Simply put, yes. They are still working for industries that contribute to poverty and oppression. They are still working for firms that help market cigarettes to children or launder money for narcoterrorists or — I could go on. They are still concretizing brutal, unregulated capitalism.
Besides, the bootstraps narrative is largely a myth. The people entering finance and consulting are disproportionately wealthy, in large part because these industries recruit so heavily from schools like Yale that have far wealthier students than your average college. Furthermore, according to one study, 65 percent of first-year Wall Street analysts are white — blacks and Hispanics comprise just six percent.
Still, I just don’t feel comfortable telling a poor kid trying to help her family what to do. In an abstract sense, the bootstraps kid’s decision is not a good one. It still does real harm. It’s certainly not a decision I would ever make. Yet my ability to willingly take a lower-paying job is indelibly linked to my privilege.
Let’s talk about privilege. By going to Yale, we have been given an extraordinary gift, one that will keep on giving for the rest of our lives. It is a gift none of us fully deserves. The Admissions Office repeatedly stresses that it could fill a Yale class several times over with equally qualified students. We are here because we worked hard, but also because we were lucky. Many of us are here because of incredible support systems back home.
Our time at Yale gives us not so much a superior education as it gives us a superior credential. To be sure, the professors here are among the best in the world, the resources unmatched and the opportunities virtually limitless. But you can find stellar teaching, resources and opportunities at many other colleges.
The Yale diploma, though, is a golden ticket. It provides us with an entrée into virtually any field we want, a leg-up in applying to grad school and access to a network of powerful people that can do amazing things for us.
Because we have been given this gift, without fully deserving it, we have a duty to give back. We have a moral responsibility to do the most good we can reasonably do for the world around us. For many people, this mandate translates to careers in public interest or public service. Yet for others, it might mean a career in research, medicine, education or any number of other fields. Different people are suited for different things. For no one does it mean finance or consulting, at least in their current form.
We must ask ourselves this: By taking a given job, am I doing the most good I can reasonably do? I’ve included the word “reasonably” because circumstances differ. But if the answer to this question is anything but yes, we have a moral responsibility to work somewhere else.
This duty might sound an awful lot like paternalism. But it isn’t. We have a responsibility to give back not because we are better than anyone else, but because of this gift we have been given, which we did not deserve. Our Yale degrees give us untold advantages. The system of elite education that we’re a part of is a terrible one because it perpetuates privilege and excludes so many people. For some of us, then, it is our responsibility to attempt to fundamentally alter this system. For the rest, it is our responsibility to help those without all these undeserved advantages we take for granted.
Far too often, Yalies take jobs because of greed or laziness. This must stop.
Let me expand on what I wrote in a previous column: If you enter finance or consulting, without an absolute financial necessity, you have not merely surrendered the right to be proud of what you do; you have surrendered something of your humanity.
Scott Stern is a senior in Branford College. His column usually runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .