“You do not deserve to be here. Not yet.” This is what Kevin Carey would have said to this year’s incoming first-year class at Stanford University. What the actual dean of admissions said to them was worlds away: “We have made no mistakes about your admission. […] You all deserve to be here!”
Carey’s argument is thought-provoking, relatively brief, and (since it applies not only to Stanford), worth the full read. Basically, it boils down to this: You don’t deserve an elite education when you arrive at school, but you can one day. You will be tempted to learn about things that will earn you money (science, technology). Human life is richer than just these pursuits, so study things like ethics and history, too. In the end, the measure of whether you deserve your education is the extent to which you use it in “the service of others.”
First things first. I’m a fan of serving others, and I think we all (myself included) should do more of it. I also studied the liberal arts, and am a graduate student in the humanities, so…yeah, there’s more to life than science and technology.
Here’s what I think: Carey is right that no one “deserves” to be at an elite institution. He’s also wrong – spectacularly, mind-blowingly wrong – that any amount of service can make an elite education somehow owed to someone. (This is, after all, exactly what we mean when we say someone “deserves” something.) Here’s why:
He’s right because it’s undeniably true that success (academic, financial, etc.) is not just determined by our efforts. These are the result of gifts we have been given by “fate” (his words!), such that the ability to get into Stanford – or any number of Jesuit schools, for that matter – is tied to factors entirely outside of our control. In addition to natural aptitude, family structure, income, and parental education level all come to mind. We should note that this correlates broadly with race and ethnicity. Put simply, there are a lot of things that are “given” to us through no merit of our own, and these affect who we are and who we become.
And it’s this idea of gift that points out why Carey is all screwed up about what we can “earn.”
Set to one side the fact that you cannot speak of “gift” without saying something about a “Giver.” More importantly, you cannot earn a gift. If you can, it is compensation – not a gift. No amount of “service,” however defined, can make you worthy of a superior intellect, a strong family background, or your seat in your freshman class. Come to think of it, this is kind of like how no amount of good works can earn your salvation. (Thank you very much, Pelagius. Old ideas die hard.)
The question is not whether we can earn the gifts we have received. (We can’t.) The question is whether we develop the gifts received, whether we use them for the good of others – and which others. We do this not because we’re trying to earn the gift or settle a debt. We do it because our gifts are public property, not private; they are unearned and freely given so that we might freely give.
Image courtesy Flickr user asenat29.