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Selling oneself to the highest bidder

| Thursday, January 15, 2015

Am I an intellectual prostitute? As a professional student in contemporary America, what else could I be? Former Cornell Law School dean Roger Crampton, once said law school tends to present the “hired gun” as one of the main “models of professional conduct to law students.” I suspect this is the implicit model of most professional and technical schools. As a hired gun, the professional functions as an “intellectual prostitute,” who hires out his intellectual talents to the highest bidder.

Even at Notre Dame, our graduates largely outsource their talents and capabilities to employers who dictate to them the expectations and requirements of professional life. The highest-paying jobs are usually those in which recent graduates have the least control, in terms of the ends and means of their work. Yet, these are the jobs most respected and sought-after. Many of our graduates are taught to desire prestigious positions in large multi-national corporations or the organizations that serve such companies. And the more money that is offered, the more our graduates are willing to give employers control over their lives and work.

At Notre Dame, we can contrast the prostitute-employee’s work with our students’ commitment to service. At least 10 percent of each class spends a year or more in volunteer service. Students serve in Appalachia and other impoverished areas. ACE and other programs transform communities for the better. But such service “opportunities” are often partitioned off from the rest of our lives and can thus obscure a truly Catholic — that is, universal — vision of service.

Consider, for example, Wal-Mart Corporation. As one of its hallmark business strategies, Wal-Mart stores sell certain products below cost. Local consumers, who previously bought from smaller locally-owned businesses, would begin buying the lower-cost items at Wal-Mart. Eventually, local shops that sold these products would go out of business and, after these businesses closed, Wal-Mart would raise the prices of these items. This practice of “predatory pricing” not only took advantage of consumers but also destroyed local businesses and communities, aiding and creating the very poverties that Notre Dame students can engage in with their “service opportunities.”

The irony is that many of our graduates wish to serve communities harmed or destroyed by common corporate practices, while also serving and promoting these practices by buying from and working for these corporations. We are prostitutes in our careers and our shopping carts, selling our minds for a profit and our communities for a temporary discount. We can only see the dollar in front of us.

Dean Crampton suggests one source of this problem: “There was a time when the deficiencies of legal education could be compensated for by the breadth and depth of liberal education. I fear, however, that the deficiencies of legal education are now increasingly characteristic of university education generally.” Crampton suggests that contemporary students have minds that are limited, compared to their counterparts of previous decades. Indeed, most students’ prioritization of professions and salaries over persons, communities and practices shows the lack of depth with which students often see their lives. Students would rather impoverish than be poor. And they view their professional lives with such narrowness that they would be unable to even see how their work aids in the impoverishment of others. Their prostitution is completed, not only by disinterest in the broader consequences of their work, but also by their general inability to pursue such an interest. They can understand methods and numbers but not communities and persons.

Graduating students whose lives are imbibed with a Catholic commitment to service would involve creating within each student a habitual reflectiveness that most college majors cannot provide on their own. We can easily teach students technical competencies and the workings of natural science and mathematics, but a another kind of teaching will be required if we wish for our students to ask why they might want to pay four dollars for a carton of eggs or what their salaries have to do with their neighbors.

The goal of a Notre Dame education should be, in part, to make every industry a service industry, to imbibe within each career, profession and calling a commitment to transform, as Dr. Michael Naughton has written, “collections of individuals” into “communities of persons.” This would involve graduates who recognize much more than the current political and economic climate. It would involve valuing more than analytical competency and technical skill. It would involve forming accountants, engineers, doctors and lawyers to also be philosophers, theologians, missionaries, neighbors and, most especially, saints.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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