Facing decline, our generation must return to public service

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October 21, 2008

12:35 AM

These are incredibly difficult times. The global financial system is a mess. America’s image abroad is in shambles. More than 12 percent of Americans live below the poverty line. Sarah Palin is on a major party ticket for the presidency, and her would-be superior wants to freeze funding for — you guessed it — pretty much everything but weapons.

The current generation of College of William and Mary students will have to live with and, ultimately, fix these problems. Previous generations have answered the call of duty. From military service to participation in the Peace Corps, from developing scientific capabilities to exploring space and ocean depths, the best and the brightest of the 20th century rose to meet the needs of the nation through a variety of public service ventures.

Our generation’s answer to the current challenges? Investment banking and consulting firms. In a survey of 2007 graduates at the College, conducted by the Career Center, nearly 30 percent of respondents were working at consulting or financial sector firms (it should be noted that this was only a small cross-section of that year’s class, and more concrete figures will be available later this fall). According to a recent Op-Ed in The New York Times and information from The Harvard Crimson, the 2007 figure for Harvard University grads was 47 percent.

It’s important to recognize that a healthy entrepreneurial spirit is undoubtedly a good thing. It has always been the engine that drove the United States and made it the economic powerhouse of our time.
Today, however, things have changed substantially. Entrepreneurialism and the American dream were never exclusively about making money. They were about securing the future of both one’s self and close loved ones, which combined to ensure the security and comfort of as much of the population as possible. Young, talented and motivated students were quick to fill any societal void that arose — knowing that their knowledge or particular expertise would translate both into personal wealth and into an enhanced state of well-being for their neighbors.

Fast-forward to 2008, and there are more voids and vacuums than ever, while the financial and large business sectors have swollen until they have literally burst. Much has been made of how poorly the United States is doing at producing engineers, mathematicians and scientists compared to rising powers like India and China. A new study conducted by a collection of American college professors showed that young and promising students — particularly women — rarely train in math and sciences because, they assert, American culture no longer values these subjects. Math and science are seen as something “only for Asians and nerds,” the authors say. As Bob Herbert of The New York Times pointed out last week, it’s no wonder that our bridges collapse, our levies fail, our children are left behind and our infrastructure is imploding.

The same worrisome trends show themselves when we look at other components of our country’s educational system. Abstinence-only sex education is, inexplicably, still enforced in certain public school systems. The country suffers from a critical dearth of adequate teachers. While programs like Teach for America and City Year address these concerns, they are always in need of more teachers in critical areas where students are most at-risk, such as New Orleans or the Mississippi Delta. This is not to say that they struggle for applicants. The nationwide acceptance rate for TFA is 15 percent, and 23 percent at the College, where TFA was the largest employer of 2007 graduates. But it is certainly reasonable to say that many of the most exceptionally qualified students today ignore TFA and other forms of public service in favor of shipping off to New York City or Northern Virginia to strike it rich at a huge bank or a defense contractor.

In some ways, it’s not their fault. Many students emerge from undergraduate years with piles of debt, making a few years at a consulting firm an attractive and understandable option. There are systemic influences as well. Our political culture has transitioned from one of sacrifice and purpose to one of selfish, quick-track riches. Instead of convincing everybody that they could become millionaires by passing around billions of dollars worth of monopoly money and giving tax breaks to the biggest companies, the Bush Administration could have encouraged research and development in renewable energies, for example, which would have put countless unemployed Americans to work and produced an equal amount of millionaires — bosses whose products helped their country instead of just themselves.

Today’s economy will make it more difficult for college graduates to find jobs, and will make their responsibility to shape public affairs and steer the country through its present and future challenges more necessary than ever. Keeping ambition and obligation on the same track will be essential.

Alexander Ely is a senior at the College.

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