The June 23 New York Times has a great article entitled “Big Paycheck of Service.” (HT: Scot McKnight at Jesus Creed). It describes elite schools like Harvard that are sponsoring “reflection seminars” to “push undergraduates to think more deeply about the connection between their educations and aspirations.” It seems Harvard and its new president, historian Drew Gilpin Faust, are concerned that elite institutions are becoming little more than “selecting mechanisms for Wall Street.” Faust has encouraged students to think about their careers and life vocations in terms of service to others. She and other academic administrators are concerned that some of the brightest and most talented students in the country are pursuing lucrative job opportunities that will make them secure and comfortable rather than pursuing work that will allow them to pursue “something meaningful beyond just accumulating wealth.”
Recently Barack Obama has joined this rising chorus. As the article notes, he told the 2008 graduating class at Wesleyan Uninversity that “the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy … betrays a poverty of ambition.”
“The poverty of ambition.” I think Barack is on to something here.
It was not always like this at the country’s elite colleges. Historians such as James Burtchell and George Marsden have shown the way American colleges and universities have abandoned their links to the religious traditions that they were founded upon. But it is also interesting how the rise of modern capitalism seems to have undermined, at least for some students at elite colleges, a call or vocation to serving others with their lives.
Eighteenth-century college students often understood the danger of ambition. Philip Vickers Fithian and his friends often gossiped about their classmates who opted for careers in business rather than following a path toward the ministry or other forms of public service. Yet Fithian also believed ambition could be a noble passion if it was directed toward the betterment of others and society. As I discuss in The Way of Improvement Leads Home, the presidents of the College of New Jersey at Princeton such as Samuel Davies and John Witherspoon taught their students, usually in “senior capstone” course on moral philosophy, to try to use their skills and talents to make the world a better place. Fithian may have struggled to reconcile his cosmpolitan ambition and his connection to “home,” but he also understood that he lived in a world where a college education always came with public responsibility.
Perhaps Drew Gilpin Faust and other college presidents and administrators are beginning to learn something from their historic missions. I hope so.