“In the United States it is almost never said that virtue is beautiful,” Alexis de Tocqueville observed. “They maintain that it is useful and they prove it every day.”
By “they” he clearly meant “Harvardians.” Many students here treat morality like a get-rich-quick scheme: They practice virtue to advance their careers. True, some standards are better than none, but this ethical foundation is flimsy. If morality is merely useful, then it is expendable.
Consider: Last Thursday, the Leadership Institute at Harvard College, a student group “devoted to fostering the awareness, skills, and values of leadership among Harvard undergraduates,” held an event entitled, “Self Branding: The Art of Making Yourself Memorable.” The event featured an instructor from Dale Carnegie Training who schooled the dozens of students who attended in “interpersonal competence.” I don’t begrudge the club or the instructor for the effort, but their tips revealed the dark side of our culture.
Our careerist culture. To succeed, we need “brands,” the instructor counseled. Think Energizer Bunny or Jared the Subway Guy. Jared found his “niche market”—eating sandwiches—and now speaks professionally. How did he prepare the course? “He had amazing self-branding,” the instructor concluded. How do you “self-brand”? You sell yourself—or, in business-babble, “network.” Network at class reunions, at office hours, at wedding parties. “There could be CEOs there!” the instructor said.
But to sell yourself successfully, a customer has to buy. Before the event, students received packets with advice on “human relationships.” They learned never to “criticize, condemn, or complain.” Rather, you should encourage “others to talk about themselves” and make “the other person feel important.” If you need reminding, “do it sincerely.” Should someone ever err, “never say ‘you’re wrong.’” Instead, call “attention to people’s mistakes indirectly” and praise “the slightest improvement and praise every improvement.”
In business, this advice makes sense. You want to make money, and often that goal requires massaging people’s egos. Unfortunately, some students extend this approach beyond business. Many administrators do, too. For instance, the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning urges teaching fellows to avoid telling students they’re wrong. One handout suggests that they “encourage students who have given wrong answers by praising them for taking the risk of speaking out.”
The problem with this approach is that it makes us hypersensitive. Students are less likely to challenge teachers—potential references—and teachers are less likely to critique students—potential meltdowns. If the “only way to get the best of an argument is to avoid it”—as the packet asserted—we will avoid arguments worth having. And when we inevitably disagree, we will painfully patronize each other.
Watch a teaching fellow critique a student in section, for example. “You can’t just,” he starts, before realizing “can’t” sounds too negative. “Maybe it would be more effective,” he tries again, until recognizing “more effective” implies you are “less effective.” Finally, he capitulates. “Does anyone else have a different view?”
Or read the perfunctorily positive comments on your papers, like “You’ve written an engaging essay” or “You’ve got an interesting thesis.” That said, you wrote a paper on Bob Marley when you were supposed to write about Jacob Marley: B+. When you are “hearty in your approbation and lavish in your praise”—as the packet advised—people soon realize your praise is halfhearted. They also become so used to your praise that when they hear your criticism, they get insulted.
More seriously, careerism dehumanizes us. Friends and relatives become “contacts.” Marital bonds and professional rivalries become “relationships.” We see everything as a chance to get ahead—or at least to get more. Take this event as an example. At the end of the presentation, the instructor asked attendees to share their thoughts with the group. Hands sat grounded. Then, the instructor offered free copies of the book, “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” to the first eight people to volunteer. Hands shot up like firecrackers.
A frivolous example, yes. But it suggests why “business ethics” can be an oxymoron. When morality is just a step to get ahead, people will leave it behind—should the opportunity arise. And it is unnerving to think that each time you meet someone, he is placing your name in a mental Rolodex. So, to this careerism, here’s my message, my pitch, my “brand,” if you will:
Brian J. Bolduc ’10, a Crimson editorial writer, is an economics concentrator in Winthrop House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.