What are you doing next year?
A funny thing happened this Thanksgiving, Columbia. That three-year-old Standard Issue question of “How’s school?”—asked so often by friends, relatives, and kids you’re happy you haven’t seen since 12th grade— suddenly changed. It turns out that I’m a senior now, a fact which I’m more willing to blame on some kind of portal* in my McBain double than on the normal passage of time. But whatever the reason, the thing my relatives, friends, and former acquaintances wanted to know most (or pretended to want to know most) over this break was, “What are you doing next year?”
I’ve already written about my plans for graduate school, but I wanted to take this opportunity to write about what seemed to be the most common answers to that question this Thanksgiving—finance and consulting.
I would say that of my friends attending so-called “elite” universities, half of them have jobs, job-offers, or interviews in at least one of those two fields, and maybe two out of all those people sound genuinely excited about it. Now I’m not saying that my plans to get an MFA are any more noble or important than these more business-oriented jobs (I have plenty of anxiety about failure, self-indulgence, and general uselessness to keep such thoughts at bay), but I will say this: There is absolutely nothing I would rather be doing next year.
I realize, too, that this kind of certainty is rare. But my point is that there’s a huge gap between my perhaps ill-advised certainty and the kind of “well, I guess I’ll do it because it’s the next thing I’m supposed to do” attitude that appears to be the root of many of my friends’ decisions to go into finance and consulting. And maybe that sounds harsh, but there have also been anxiety-filled moments when I look around at my peers and feel like I’m missing out on the action, on what I should be doing.
Of course when asked their reasons for pursuing these fields, my friends would never say “it’s the expected next step,” but the money and business experience that they would use as justification are just stand-ins for something else. The fact is that the high salary and inroad into the upper echelons of business afforded by that job at McKinsey can feel at times like the things we’re all “owed” after four years at Columbia. The logic goes something like this: We’ve all been working our asses off since (at least) ninth grade—isn’t it about time we started to reap the benefits of all that hard work?
It’s an understandable feeling, but it’s also one that can get in the way of a lot of good things. It can deprive other American industries of huge amounts of human resources, and can deprive us of a shot at happiness. It’s also indicative of a problematic sense of entitlement, but I won’t get into that now.
Anyway, I’d like to stop at this point (before I get even more carried away) and just point to an article by William Deresiewicz, a literary critic who used to teach at Columbia. The article is called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” and it does a terrific job of discussing these issues and related pitfalls of top universities. Here’s a quote to give you a taste:
“Students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed … but if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual.”
I hope I haven’t given the impression in this post that I think I have any of the answers. I don’t. I only hope to get a few people thinking about these things the way I’ve gotten to thinking about them. So for now, Happy belated Thanksgiving and happy reading.
*(RIP, Clarence Clemons)
Leave a Comment
Be nice. Don't use HTML tags. And consider reading our full comment policy.