Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Life paths

If there is such a thing as an American creed and if you had to pick one statement that comes closest to encapsulating it, the most likely candidate would be Jefferson's assertion that all persons ("men" in the original) are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...."

Although the pursuit of happiness is an old notion, its translation into the idea of personal fulfillment is arguably more recent. The material precondition for this is the existence of a group of people whose (relative) affluence allows them enough leisure to worry about being 'fulfilled'. Needless to say, this observation is far from original. It was made, to take only one example, by Andrew Hacker some forty years ago in a book called (rather presciently) The End of the American Era.

In a chapter titled "The Illusion of Individuality," Hacker cast a skeptical eye on the notion that most people have hidden capacities and potentials waiting to be unleashed, if only given the right setting and opportunity. On the contrary, he wrote, "most people are ordinary...regardless of the time or society or setting in which they live." Most people, he continued, lack "any special qualities of talent or creativity" and "prefer the paths of security." They are "not terribly clever or creative or venturesome."

That may sound harsh, but what Hacker went on to say about education is, I think, still apt, more than forty years after it was written. "Middle-class Americans," he observed,

remain persuaded that with just a little more effort and some added insight they may discover their true selves. Thus the growing commitment to education, and the conviction that with schooling can come not only worldly success but also an awareness of one's own potentialities.... Yet, on the whole, the educational process has surprisingly little effect in determining how people will finally shape their lives.... [T]he overwhelming majority of college graduates...despite their exposure to higher education and their heightened awareness of life's options...nevertheless take paths of least resistance when faced with critical decisions throughout their lives.
While this was and remains a considerable overgeneralization (like virtually all such social criticism), it does bring to mind the large numbers of graduates of elite colleges and universities who have gone into investment banking, fancy consulting firms, hedge funds, private equity firms, etc., in recent years. Lately the numbers have started to decline, but for many it is still the preferred option. Of course today the majority of young people, including no doubt the majority of college graduates, face economic uncertainty, high levels of student debt, and a job market in which getting any kind of reasonably remunerative employment is a challenge. In that respect the picture is different from what it was when Hacker wrote the above-quoted passage. But it is interesting that in the late 60s and early 70s, a period one thinks of as full of experimentation and rebellion by the young (especially the 'privileged' young), at least one observer found more evidence of conformity and rationalization. Also interesting is that Hacker's The End of the American Era was published in the same year, 1970, as Charles Reich's The Greening of America, which took a quite different view of the rising generation.

P.s. (anecdotal): Back in December the NYT ran a piece about a 30-year-old American with an MBA who had decided to make a career in the slums of Rio singing hard-edged Brazilian funk. No 'path of least resistance' there.

No comments: