Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

A Generation of Thoughtless Achievers?


Mark Edmundson, a professor of English at the University of Virginia published an op-ed in the New York Times over the weekend. In it, he laments the pressure college graduates face in our culture to strive for high-status careers, and worries that students fail to give adequate thought to what is worth spending one’s life on in the first place.

Edmundson recounts a period in the ’70s that he spent working in a variety of odd jobs  — including a stretch as a stage hand for a series of rock ‘n’ roll bands. (I worked some similarly odd jobs between high school and college, myself.) The point Edmundson makes — that today’s high-achieving young people have an increasingly narrow list of desirable career options (lawyer, i-banker, business consultant, etc) — is something I observed often as my classmates and I approached graduation and faced that nagging question: What’s next?

Many students have lived their whole lives doggedly striving to surpass every external measure of achievement they encounter: perfect grades, endless extracurriculars, leading every club and/or society they ever belonged to. They are smarter and wealthier than previous generations. Yet there is a certain shallowness to all of this success.

In order to find happiness, and in order to add anything of value to the world, students must discover that life is more than a journey toward ever-greater wealth and prestige. Our universities are good at turning students into cogs for the wheels of commerce; but they are not so good at teaching students to ask deeper and more meaningful questions about life.

Mine is a generation of resume builders. We are professional strivers. But do we know what we are striving for? Do we have the moral strength we will need to face the immense challenges that lie ahead?


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