Thursday, July 16, 2009

how i spent my summer vacation

Owing to the summer season and multiple deaths in our extended family, I've been involved in more small talk than usual lately. One of the questions that often comes up at my age is what are your kids doing for the summer, or (if they're out of college) what are they doing altogether? The answers are often ideologically inspiring and yet vaguely predictable. My daughter is in Central America building housing for the poor. My son works for an environmental group in New York. My daughter did volunteer work for Obama and is now doing Teach for America.

There's nothing bad about any of this, and a lot of it is downright admirable. But it's hard to avoid a few difficult questions.

First, who is supporting all of these people? While some live modestly, it's hard to believe that all of these middle class kids have suddenly given up restaurants, decent clothing, and health care. Either parents (directly or indirectly), or charitable donors (supported by tax deductions) are likely helping out: hardly a great evil, but difficult to sustain indefinitely.

Second, how much good can be accomplished by people armed at most with liberal arts degrees? When I did volunteer work--and talked to people who did more--the pressing need was always for specialists (doctors, engineers, speech therapists) who could help with the technical and (yes) boring problems that real people have in the real world. The fantasy of an idealistic Yale student teaching Third World women about health and birth control is an appealing one: but it usually remains a fantasy.

Third is a more philosophical problem: what happened to growing up? When I was in college I worked at Burger King, as a camp counselor, and as a clerk/typist at the Public Health Service. I wasn't very good at any of these jobs, and they did little or nothing for my resume. But I learned an awful lot about the real world: what is was like to have a job with low pay and few if any real legal rights; what sexual harassment was, although no one yet used the term; most important, that people who looked and sounded different from me, and had little or no formal education, could be much smarter and more effective than I was in real-world situations. I also learned the simple joy of earning part of one's own support and spending it, wisely or not, on the things that kids spend money on. It's possible, even likely, that people learn similar lessons on more idealistic jobs. But people who do homeless volunteer work don't actually become homeless, don't share the experience of the "other" in the informal, totally un-self conscious way I shared the experience of others at Burger King or the PHS. Instead they are there to "help" people: an honorable goal but one fraught with danger on so many levels.

I worry also where these kids will be in 10 or 15 years. I remember a lot of my own colleagues who said they would never work for law firms and devoted their 20s to various kinds of public interest work. After a few years--seeing the world more or less the same as it was when they started out--they decided they would "change the world from the inside" and started down the corporate path. So here are I am, thirty years later, teaching law school and with a spouse who works for a charitable foundation while they pile up money on Wall Street or what's left of it. I'm not saying this will happen to all of them or even that I will take much satisfaction if it does. But I think we are setting a lot of people up for a lot of disappointment that a dollop of realism, and a chance to be kids, might go a long way toward correcting.


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