A while ago, Ezra Klein posted an interview with an anonymous Harvard graduate who works for Goldman Sachs (“Why do Harvard kids head to Wall Street?“). Before I get to the interview, I’ll answer the question–and it might not be what you think it is.
Ultimately, students from elite colleges have been trained (and, yes, I’m using the same word one uses for a dog) to jump through hoops that authority figures set for them. These are not “the road less travelled” types. Their entire lives, from kindergarten on, are focused on getting to the next round, the next level. Throughout childhood, their incentive structure, not to mention sense of self-worth, is built around success in the academic labyrinth. Do well in middle school, so you can get into the advanced courses or exclusive high school (whether it be public or private). Do well in high school so you can get into a great college: ace the exams and coursework, and, while you’re at it, why don’t you volunteer to tutor blind Tibetan orphans–it will look great on your resume!
Then midway through junior year at Exclusive College, you have to, for the first time in your life, cut your own groove. Some students are lucky because they’ve developed a passion, such as art, history, or even on occasion, biology. The next steps, in those instances, are pretty straightforward. But for a lot of students, they are suddenly cut adrift from the central organizing theme of their lives–and Goldman Sachs offers an easy way out* (italics mine):
Investment banking was never something I thought I wanted to do. But the recruiting culture at Harvard is extremely powerful. In the midst of anxiety and trying to find a job at the end of college, the recruiters are really in your face, and they make it very easy. One thing is the internship program. It’s your junior year, it’s January or February, and you interview for internships. If all goes well, it’s sort of a summer-long interview. And if that goes well, you have an offer by September of your senior year, and that’s very appealing. It makes your senior year more relaxed, you can focus on your thesis, you can drink more. You just don’t have to worry about getting a job.
And separate from that, I think it’s about squelching anxiety in general. It checks the job box. And it’s a low-risk opportunity. It’s a two-year program with a great salary and the promise to get these skills that should be able to transfer to a variety of other areas. The idea is that once you pass the test at Goldman, you can do anything. You learn Excel, you learn valuation, you learn how to survive intense hours and a high-pressure environment. So it seems like a good way to launch your career. That’s very appealing for those of us at Harvard who were not in pre-professional majors.
(Aside: I don’t know the age of the interviewee, but I’m assuming he or she is under forty, possibly under thirty. Is it really possible to graduate from an elite college and not know how to use Excel? Hell, I was using Excel at college back in the days when you constantly had to swap the different floppies in and out–one contained the system software, one the software program, and one the data).
Anyway, the first failing of elite college education is that we beat curiosity and risk taking out of some very smart people. A related failing is the misperceived loss of moral agency: don’t blame me, I’m just following the system. Back to the interview (italics mine):
As you said, when people leave law school with a lot of debt, they figure they’ll get some good skills and good money at a top-tier firm before going to save the world. But then you have a great apartment, more responsibilities, kids….
…things happen very quickly. Private equity firms were trying to recruit us in the first year of my two-year training program. There’s this notion of the accidental banker, people who get caught up in that world and get more and more pay and find it harder to justify leaving. But the cultural effect of all of this — and even with regulatory reform, we need to think about that — is that a lot of people decide to sacrifice much more time than they normally would because the money is so good, and then they believe they deserve extremely high pay because they’re giving up so much time. It’s not malicious. But there are a lot of unhappy people who end up in that situation….
People on Wall Street work very hard and they feel they chose this path because there was a reward promised to them. And now, when it’s being taken away from them, they get very angry. If the reward hadn’t been offered to them, they feel they would’ve followed their passion and become a journalist or something.
Yes, graduating from Harvard is exactly like being kidnapped by a clan of evil ninjas at birth and being forced to kill people even though all you ever wanted to do is raise tulips.
Oh my, I just got a little too autobiographical. Here, let me help the interview subject:
YOU GRADUATED FROM FUCKING HARVARD.
IF ANYBODY HAD OPTIONS, YOU DID, YOU FUCKING MORON.
The second failing of our elite educational institutions is that they don’t challenge their students, except in the most superficial ways, to possess agency, to pursue what they think is right for others and for themselves, to do what ought to be done, not what is easy to do.
I don’t know if our current system is evil, but it is very banal. And it explains a lot of our current messes.
An aside: Some longtime readers might wonder if I’m describing myself, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I’m a Brown graduate. Actually, I’m not. While my parents wanted to me to do well, they realized early on that I have a quiet, stubborn independent streak, and they encouraged that streak–they simply wanted me to have the best options to take advantage of my passions.
*This is differs from military recruiters who target reasonably smart kids with no clear plans only in the social class of those targeted. Personally, I would rather see Goldman Sachs banned from college campuses over ROTC.