It ain’t about the money
By Eliza Relman, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, July 29, 2011
During her 2008 Harvard Commencement address, J.K. Rowling told the graduating seniors, “Your intelligence, your capacity for hard work, the education you have earned and received give you unique status and unique responsibilities … that is your privilege and your burden.” Because this woman single-handedly rose from poverty to create literature that has changed the way most of us think about books, life and imagination, I think we should give her words a second thought.
Privilege. It’s a relative term that means different things to different people. But what I think Rowling made clear in her speech is that no matter where any of us come from, our education affords us a platform that very few people in the world ever get a chance to stand on. Our education gives us power, influence, status and most of all the ability to change things, granted we have the will.
Fact: Dartmouth alumni have the highest median incomes 10 to 20 years out of college of any alumni body in the country. This means, on average, we rake in almost 4.5 times the amount that the average American does.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with making money. When sending each of your future children to college is going to cost you upwards of $200,000, it would be wrong to say that making money should not be a priority. If getting a lucrative job is necessary to get you through grad school, or pay for your grandmother’s health care, then money should rightfully be a priority. But if the amount of money you make is the difference between driving a Honda and a BMW, you shouldn’t really care.
Rowling talked about a lot of things in her address, but when I watched it on YouTube for the first time as a junior in high school, what remained with me was this: “If you choose to use your status and influence to raise your voice on behalf of those who have no voice, if you choose to identify not only with the powerful, but with the powerless, if you retain the ability to imagine yourself into the lives of those who do not have your advantages, then it will not only be your proud families that celebrate your existence, but thousands and millions of people whose reality you have helped change.”
We are two years into college. Two years ago we arrived here accustomed to judging ourselves and each other by our academic, athletic and artistic success. Now, with corporate recruiting and the wider job frenzy, we’re beginning to judge each other based on our career aspirations, interview call-backs and how much money we plan on making. It’s becoming disturbingly easy to follow the corporate funnel, and ever more difficult to pursue loftier and possibly less glamorous paths.
Why are we spending four years of our lives getting a liberal arts education and barely any practical skills if not to inspire ourselves to change things? The seemingly random variety of specialized knowledge that we gain here is not just to fill our brains with facts — we’re supposed to learn how to think. And thinking often leads to ideas, ideas that can change what we don’t like around us and help those who can’t necessarily help themselves.
In general, we give very little deference to ambitions of changing the world we live in, and instead commend ourselves and each other on succeeding in our own privileged circle. I don’t think an Ivy League education necessarily breeds elitism, but I think education used for the sole purpose of attaining personal gain is the foundation for that frequent criticism.
Where’s the entrepreneurial spirit? Where’s our curiosity and naive, reckless ambition to actually affect the world? I don’t think Dartmouth changes our goals. But this place makes it easier to gear them in a certain direction. Many of us choose to follow the path of least resistance once we get here — which is not to say that path isn’t difficult, but it is the one that makes the most intuitive sense. The culture here makes it easy to forget that making $100,000 straight out of college is not normal. And Dartmouth lays out a straightforward path to attain that monetary goal.
Jim Yong Kim, in the inaugural address most of us heard as newly matriculated freshmen, told us to “aspire to change the world.” He proclaimed that he had left his work tackling the most pressing social problems of our time to come here and help us “achieve far more” than he ever could. While this was meant to be a compliment to the combined talent and intelligence of our student body, it also set an expectation. It should not just be up to a few of us who will become leaders in public health, or who will spend our lives contributing to the public education system. We should all feel some sort of responsibility to alleviate the world’s problems. And having thousands of people celebrate our existence would be a nice perk.
Contrary to what President Kim might say, Dartmouth to some extent fosters a sense that with privilege comes more privilege, rather than with privilege comes responsibility. And although we haven’t graduated yet, or maybe even gotten our QDSes, this privilege and the responsibilities that come with it are already ours.