Monday, May 26, 2008

Obama serves up Wesleyan Kool-Aid

As a Wesleyan alumnus and strong supporter of Barack Obama, I must confess that I have a problem with Obama's Commencement Address delivered at Wesleyan University yesterday.

Obama explicitly cast himself in the tradition of John F. Kennedy -- and the entire Kennedy family -- in calling on students to serve their country and the world. Well and good. Obama has the standing to issue that call. As a young man, he walked the walk, choosing the hard path of community organizing, making a success of it, shaping a political career that's grounded in his experience of working with ordinary people to influence politicians. That's why I support him.

Still, there's something simplistic, unduly binary, even misleading about advice framed like this:
Now, each of you will have the chance to make your own discovery in the years to come. And I say "chance" because, as President Roth indicated, you won’t have to take it. There's no community service requirement in the outside world; no one's forcing you to care. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy. You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's.

But I hope you don't.
I prefer the advice of a Brown professor -- I'm afraid I can't recover who it was -- who spoke at a small alternative graduation service in 2005 for students who were missing graduation because of athletic tournaments (the women's rowing team and the Ultimate Frisbee team). To paraphrase loosely, he said, I hope you do the work you were meant to do. And by the way, if that means poring over spreadsheets for fourteen hours a day rather than teaching children in Ghana, do that.

To be fair, Obama did not directly suggest that everyone ought to choose a career directly focused on public service. He did speak at length about volunteer activities. But the implication lingers that graduates who choose the professions that lead to "the big house and the nice suits" are selfishly wasting their talents.

Obama of course knows, and often acknowledges in speech passages addressed to competitiveness, that this country and the world depend on private enterprise to generate jobs and wealth. Notwithstanding some recent Wall Street bashing, he would doubtless also acknowledge that even the "malefactors of great wealth," when they're not too busy malefacting, play their part in allocating capital where it is most productive. And that Democratic Party powers such as Richard Rubin and Jon Corzine did well to spend decades doing what they do best before turning their energies to the public sector, and that if they'd become inner city elementary school teachers or even microfinance program developers the world probably wouldn't be better off. And that even corporate tax attorneys and CFOs and mid-level marketing executives do their parts to help job-generating companies survive and thrive (probably, today, without creating as many domestic jobs as we'd wish).

I'm sure Obama would not suggest otherwise. But the way he framed choices implied otherwise. And at Wesleyan in particular, he tapped directly into prejudices embedded this many a decade in the culture of the place.

When I was at Wesleyan, many of my classmates were getting themselves arrested at nuclear power plant demonstrations - and the more power to them for their commitment. My friends were ashamed of the trappings of wealth and favored reverse status symbols -- and better that way than shamelessly flaunting it, I think. I took history and English classes with avowed Marxists, and the more foolish they.

Those teachers did not make me a Marxist -- I was always kind of proud of being the lone and sometimes vocal holdout in "Speculative Philosophy of History" (okay, there were only six other students in the class -- ah, small liberal arts schools). But I did imbibe a distaste for capitalism not all that distant from the scorn of high-minded young gentlewomen in Victorian novels for neighbors who engaged in trade. It took me a decade to get over that prejudice. And I think that Obama -- in casual swipes if not in the direct import of his advice -- tapped right into that prejudice yesterday.

3 comments:

  1. good points. love your blog. go ephs!

    ReplyDelete
  2. You make a good point, but just to be fair, notice the word "only":

    "You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and chase only after the big house and the nice suits and the other things that our money culture says you should buy."

    And furthermore, he's focusing here not on the work that people do but on the reasons (things for which) people do it.

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  3. Andrew,

    You have a great blog, but in my book this is so NOT "Kool-Aid" with it's reference to Jim Jones:

    You can choose to narrow your concerns and live life in a way that tries to keep your story separate from America's.

    But I hope you don't.

    Too many people today live selfish lives, trusting that Adam Smith's unseen hand will justify their pursuit of self interest.

    You're the best judge of the Kool Aid at Wesleyan, but Obama's call to public service was invitation pure and simple.

    Bunker Hill

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