David Brooks on Vocations : Finance and Consulting as the choice of the student elite by Political Observer

David Brooks cannot resist the temptation to present himself as public moralist even when discussing the career choices of the 'student elite' as in this essay of of May 24, 2012 obliquely titled The Service Patch. A side note: Mr. Brooks demonstrates a positive mania for 'elites' of all kinds, perhaps he strongly identifies himself with that category?

Earlier this year, Rob Reich, a Stanford political science professor (not the former labor secretary, the other one), held a terrific online discussion on why so many elite students go into finance and consulting and whether this is a good thing.”

Mr. Brooks doesn't quite comprehend that that is where the money is to be made. It seems simplistic but the profit motive could just drive career choices. In the moralist mode, Mr. Brooks seems to lose his romantic attachment to Virtuous Capital.

Further into the essay Mr. Brooks presents these thoughts:

The discussion also reinforced a thought I’ve had in many other contexts: that community service has become a patch for morality. Many people today have not been given vocabularies to talk about what virtue is, what character consists of, and in which way excellence lies, so they just talk about community service, figuring that if you are doing the sort of work that Bono celebrates then you must be a good person.”

If the students that Mr. Brooks discusses, with such glib articulation, can be considered 'elite' where does the lack of moral vocabulary originate. Surly these students took accelerated classes dealing with philosophy, ethics and political economy, or even an elective or two in literature, not to speak of their respective religious/ethical backgrounds. Or,even just indulging their own intellectual curiosity, in personal reading. Mr. Brooks, perhaps, exaggerates the lack of 'vocabularies' in service to his rhetorical/ideological terminus?

Let’s put it differently. Many people today find it easy to use the vocabulary of entrepreneurialism, whether they are in business or social entrepreneurs. This is a utilitarian vocabulary. How can I serve the greatest number? How can I most productively apply my talents to the problems of the world? It’s about resource allocation.”

Mr. Brooks looses himself in his own overly garnished argument, while a student looking for a job just might find the money to be made in Finance and Consulting, as a way forward in terms of career. That presents an opportunity to exploit her/his well earned status as 'elite'. Not an instance of utilitarianism but rather of the purest self-interest.

People are less good at using the vocabulary of moral evaluation, which is less about what sort of career path you choose than what sort of person you are.”

One might think of a student, as here described, as wanting, in this depressed and uncertain economy, a dependable and lucrative career path, rather than indulging in the pseudo-philosophic conjectures of Mr. Brooks. It might be all about practicality, paying off student loans etc. with an eye to making enough money, to, at a later date, change careers. Career pragmatism is the option that Mr. Brooks doesn't even consider.

In whatever field you go into, you will face greed, frustration and failure. You may find your life challenged by depression, alcoholism, infidelity, your own stupidity and self-indulgence. So how should you structure your soul to prepare for this? Simply working at Amnesty International instead of McKinsey is not necessarily going to help you with these primal character tests.”

Mr. Brooks mood turns utterly bleak in fore-seeing the possible future of these elite students. And now, in a moment of contrived crisis, he asks the question of how one structures one's soul. One can only ask: What does this mean?

Furthermore, how do you achieve excellence? Around what ultimate purpose should your life revolve? Are you capable of heroic self-sacrifice or is life just a series of achievement hoops? These, too, are not analytic questions about what to do. They require literary distinctions and moral evaluations.”

Mr. Brooks is anchored in the vocabulary of Reagan through the Financial Crisis of 2008. Excellence was the rallying cry of Emancipatory Capital, as argued by Conservatives and their first cousins the New Democrats, before it descended into economic thuggery and wholesale theft. What follows is a collection of moralizing platitudes,i.e. a vocabulary: heroic self-sacrifice, achievement hoops, analytic questions, literary distinctions,moral evaluations.

When I read the Stanford discussion thread, I saw young people with deep moral yearnings. But they tended to convert moral questions into resource allocation questions; questions about how to be into questions about what to do.”

Mr. Brooks perceives in the young people 'deep moral yearnings' who convert moral questions into 'resource allocation questions', perhaps a pragmatic solution to questions of career choices,simply put. Mr. Brooks does seems to perceives 'deep moral yearnings' at the drop of a hat, without regard to context

It’s worth noting that you can devote your life to community service and be a total schmuck. You can spend your life on Wall Street and be a hero. Understanding heroism and schmuckdom requires fewer Excel spreadsheets, more Dostoyevsky and the Book of Job.”

Mr. Brooks loses his argumentative control and descends into vulgarisms as the end point of his high minded conjectures. Adding the names of a political reactionary Russian Novelist and Christian Mystic and a Book of the Hebrew Bible, that celebrates the state of mankind as subject to both the will of Satan and the will of God, whose only option is a pathetic and unedifying submission to the will of both. Here, Mr. Brooks steers us all into the ethical/political cul-de-sac that is Conservatism.

Political Observer

About stephenkmacksd

Rootless cosmopolitan,down at heels intellectual;would be writer. 'Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.' https://www.lrb.co.uk/v15/n20/perry-anderson/diary
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