There they go again (superlatives, elitism and failure)

The way the process works around here is this: I read lots of different things in no particular order and follow up on whatever catches my eye. Not a system that I would recommend to anyone else but it serves my short(er) attention span and auto-didactic nature. Typically I run behind.

So I just finished the Nov. 29, (2010) issue of The New Yorker in which appears John Cassidy’s fine piece, What Good Is Wall Street? The sub-head alone–Much of what investment bankers do is socially worthless–is worth the price of the magazine. (You may need a subscription to read the whole article online. If you aren’t afraid of being thought old-fashioned you might also find the issue in a public library.)

I’m not going to spend too much time on the article itself. For many years I had Wall Street clients so I’ve seen the beast close up. It’s pretty obvious that allocating capital is the smaller part of what  they do, enough so that the claim makes a mockery of capital markets as they are outlined in undergraduate economics classes. No, what caught my eye was the following

At Harvard this spring, about a third of the seniors with secure jobs were heading to work in finance. Ben Friedman, a professor of economics at Harvard, recently wrote an article lamenting “the direction of such a large fraction of our most-skilled, best-educated, and most highly motivated young citizens to the financial sector.”

Friedman may be thinking of changing his given name to Jeremiah because he said something very similar on the PBS Newshour.

The startling part of that statement for me, though, wasn’t the intended destination of the latest crew to decamp from Cambridge with their shiny new credentials, it was this string of superlatives–most-skilled, best-educated, most highly motivated. That choice of language strikes me as self-referential and dismissive of non-Harvardians in a most astonishing manner.

There are, most always, only a few explanations for such a worldview and so I went in search of Professor Friedman’s CV. The smoking gun was right there: he bleeds crimson at every degree level. Clearly he was a member of the post-war cohort that had access, for the first time, to the Ivies. So he believes the myth because he lives it.

Good for him. But I, for one, am not ready to accept this best-everything viewpoint. Fifteen years ago I had an Ivy-educated subordinate who didn’t understand the meaning of the phrase “the emperor’s new clothes.” If it’s possible to earn a degree from an elite institution with a complete lack of idiom I think, in some way, those institutions are failing. Or at least alienating themselves and their alumni  from the broader culture.

I will grant that motivation is present. Graduates of these schools have run a 16-year gauntlet to prove themselves worthy of inclusion. In my experience these folks are very good at identifying who they need to please and then pleasing them so they can be rewarded. (And yes, that includes getting good grades. Grades are always subjective and good ones are typically rewarded by parents and teachers.) That makes for a group of people accustomed to achieving their goals and not lacking self-regard.

What they lack is any moral courage. The entire process is so ends-oriented that the faculty ought not be surprised at the outcome. They might, though, want to consider being ashamed of their role in repopulating an elite strata that’s probably not worthy of the self-ascribed status.


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