When I first came to Dartmouth last September, I was ready to change the world. Armed with drive, optimism and now an Ivy League education, no problem felt too daunting. I felt too big to fail.
I am certain that this outlook is not unique to me. Over the course of the past two terms, it has been inspiring to meet so many Dartmouth students who are brimming with passion and concern for societal problems. We discuss current events with friends over a meal at Foco; we probe salient, systemic issues in our classes; we hold protests and vigils on the Green.
Yet, at the same time, we are also part of a generation that craves immediate gratification. We want to pat ourselves on the back and tell ourselves that we’ve accomplished our mission; we want to believe that we are making progress, regardless of whether we actually are. Thus, when it comes to picking our career paths, we often veer away from the slow and iterative work of public institutions — institutions that are established or controlled by the government and backed by public funds. Instead, the private sector suits our palate: Flaunting their productivity, fast-paced work environment and six-figure starting salaries, the giants of the private sector lure us in with the promise of fulfilling our need for speed. It’s no surprise that so many Dartmouth students end up on Wall Street, nor that Dartmouth consistently ranks among the undergraduate institutions whose graduates go on to earn the most money.
The consequences of this pattern are less obvious: It’s easy to become blinded by the appeal of immediacy and lose sight of the real work — often slow, grueling and gradual — that needs to be done to mend our society. When our professional pursuits feed into a system of moneymaking and corporate work — a system of which the American upper class is so fond — we also endorse a system that clouds our concern for societal improvement. If we are all rushing into roles that will earn us six figures, who is going to pass sweeping policies to fix our healthcare system? Who is going to address the racial inequalities of the criminal justice system?
That is not to say that there is something inherently wrong with working for the private sector, and I do not agree with the inherent moral stigma that is often attached to working in the private sector. Wanting a comfortable life, material wealth and even the clout that comes with a coveted position in the private world are all understandable human motives. We cannot blame people for these motivations, nor can we realistically expect them to completely shed such desires. Additionally, the rising popularity of social entrepreneurship, by which startups and entrepreneurs develop business solutions to social problems, provides a promising new avenue of private sector work.
Still, the trend of educated, societally invested citizens regularly accepting high-salary private sector jobs is concerning when it coexists with our diminishing faith in public institutions. Why? Because the pressing issues that we face today are systemic problems that demand the large-scale action of these public institutions.
Therein lies the paradox. On the one hand, young people today are arguably more in tune and concerned with societal issues than any generation before. On the other, our chosen paths often strip power away from the institutions that keep our healthy community running and put it right in the hands of those who undemocratically hoard power through money.
So, how do we begin leveraging our concern for society to actually solve the problems in which we are supposedly so invested? How do we put our passion into practice?
We need to choose positions that truly empower our communities. Even more fundamentally, we can start by re-evaluating the value of our education and what we can use our education to accomplish. For me, the passion and determination with which I entered Dartmouth stemmed from my view that education should be a good with positive externalities; that is, our education should provide some benefit to society as a whole. Four years at Dartmouth equips us with unparalleled knowledge, experiences and social networks; we should think critically about how we can best use these resources to serve our communities.