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January 15, 2010

could a college education prevent Wall Street greed?

At the Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service, we are in the business of civic education (and therefore character education) for college students. At CIRCLE, we study the same topic. Given my role, people frequently ask me how colleges and universities should improve the character of their graduates so that they do not act like the Wall Street barons who recently wrecked our economy in their own selfish interests.

Unfortunately, most research finds that human beings are profoundly influenced by their immediate contexts. It's a bit of a myth that we have stable characters that will determine how we react in various contexts. If you place people in charge of an unregulated hedge fund, it doesn't matter whether they are religious, empathetic, and reflective; their behavior will be determined by immediate opportunities and expectations. Any hedge fund dealer will behave very differently from anyone placed in a seminary. Moreover, we tend to opt for the worst behaviors expected or allowed within a given context--we make the most selfish and short-sighted available choices. That's because we have internal defense attorneys who vigorously advocate our self-interests during our mental deliberations. I have seen no evidence that education can lastingly change those calculations.

But we do choose what contexts we place ourselves in. In 1970, 5 percent of male Harvard graduates worked in the financial sector. In 2007, 58 percent of male Harvard seniors said they were heading for finance jobs. It seems pretty clear to me that the shift of creativity, talent, and ambition from manufacturing and government to banking has deeply damaged us as a nation. And at a personal level, it has put those Harvard graduates in contexts where they are likely to sin (if you'll excuse the theological terminology).

Although I have never seen evidence that education can change people's choices within a given context, I have seen research demonstrating that educational programs and curricula influence career choices. Once someone works on Wall Street, the only way to influence his or her behavior is to change the rules: punish risky and socially damaging decisions. But before our students decide to go to Wall Street, we can open their eyes to alternatives.

January 15, 2010 8:32 AM | category: academia | Comments



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