Even before the economic crisis turned “I-banking” into an expletive, public service had been taking on an increasingly prominent place in the public eye.
Harvard Law School announced last spring that it will grant a year’s free tuition to all students who choose to work in the public sector for at least five years after graduation. A few months earlier, Tufts instituted a similar policy, offering to help pay off student loans for all students who work for a non-profit after graduation. Such efforts are well-meaning and would undoubtedly ease the burden on many cash-strapped alumni who won’t be able to pay off their student loans any time soon. Although Harvard and Tufts probably see their programs as leveling the playing field for those interested in public service careers, such incentives actually make an implicit value judgment about the career choices of their graduates—something the U of C should steer clear from.
To a certain extent, ivory-tower enthusiasm for public service reflects changing attitudes on the quads. College graduates are flocking to Teach for America, the Peace Corps, and AmeriCorps in record numbers. President Obama’s inaugural call to national service has given it a heightened popularity and imperative.
Public service, however, is a nebulous term. For example, a career in early childhood education is laudable, but so too are any number of private sector opportunities that graduates choose to pursue. Teaching a child to read is great; so is writing the book he can learn to read, or designing the laptop that will connect him to the world. Moreover, many fields that pay poorly but provide a clear public benefit—journalism and academia, say—don’t fall under the public-service umbrella. Even a career path that might be classified as “selfish” can serve the greater good—it was a robber-baron oil kingpin, after all, who brought higher learning to Hyde Park. The University should not arbitrarily provide incentives that favor one line of work over another.
More broadly, efforts by universities to push students toward certain careers compromise the mission of a liberal arts education. The U of C prepares students with the critical-thinking skills needed to succeed in any line of work they choose. The goal comes across most clearly through the Core, which peppers students with Marx and Smith, Hobbes and Locke, giving credence to opposing viewpoints without picking sides. At its heart, the U of C aims to get students to think for themselves. Sending the message that a career in the public sector benefits society more than a career in the private sector would undermine this ideal.
CAPS and the University have provided resources to students with interest in public service jobs; today’s Public and Social Service Fair is one example. Indeed, the University should accommodate the swelling interest in public service jobs. As the job market shifts dramatically, the University must meet the demand and educate students about what opportunities are out there. But through it all, CAPS and the University must remain reactive to student desires, rather than attempt to shape them.
CORRECTION: On April 17, 2009, this editorial incorrectly referenced the article “A Time to Serve” in TIME magazine as recently published. The article was published in 2007.
The Maroon Editorial Board consists of the Editor-in-Chief, Viewpoints Editors, and two additional Editorial Board members.