As the latest crop of college graduates enters the workforce, many are coming fully loaded with grandiose plans for “social transformation,” “giving back to their communities,” and “making a difference.” Unfortunately, such phrases have become slippery slogans based on a cultural imagination that is far too narrow in its basic assumptions.
Whether spurred along by the idealism of college professors, the hurrahs of syrupy commencement speeches, or the hedonistic calls of cultural tropes (“follow your passion!”), today’s youth are often clouded with a dim vision of what it really means to “change the world.” In our minds, the realm of “social transformation” has become far too tiny in its aims and opportunities, confining young people to serving at soup kitchens, protesting in the streets, and traveling with the Peace Corps.
Those can all be meaningful endeavors, of course, but they are hardly the only paths to battling injustice, fighting global poverty, or serving our communities. In a letter to college graduates, Andy Kessler reminds us of this, offering a hearty challenge to the social-activism status quo.
“You want to reduce inequality, end poverty, comfort the homeless, expand human dignity. Guess what? Me too!” he writes. “But you’re going about it the wrong way.”
For Kessler, there are two missing ingredients: a simple embrace of boring, mundane work and a healthy respect for the glories of economic scale:
There’s a word that was probably never mentioned by your professors: Scale. No, not the stuff on the bottom of your bong or bathtub. It’s the concept of taking a small idea and finding ways to implement it for thousands, or millions, or even billions. Without scale, ideas are no more than hot air. Stop doing the one-off two-step. It’s time to scale up.
I hear you talking about food deserts and the need for urban eco-farms to enable food justice. You certainly have the jargon down. You can hoe and sickle and grow rutabagas to feed a few hungry folks, but then it’s really all about you. A better option: Find a way to revamp food distribution to lower prices. Or reinvent how food is grown and enriched to enable healthier diets. Call it a Neo-Green Revolution.
Don’t spend all your time caring for the sick. Prevent disease. Gene therapy, early detection and immunotherapy can change the trajectory of disease because they scale. Don’t build temporary shelters. Figure out how to 3-D print real homes quickly and cheaply. Why tutor a few students when you can capture lessons from best-of-breed teachers and deliver them electronically to millions? That’s scale.
Kessler is absolutely correct to confront our lopsided frameworks for justice and charity, but he is also needlessly provocative and dichotomous in his prescription.
Scale and systems are important and underappreciated, but also need individual people doing individual acts of love and mercy in particular places across the globe. In expanding our social and economic imaginations, we should be careful not to needlessly decry or dismiss the power of the up-close-and-personal. This is a both-and thing.
But unless we pair those personal sacrifices with a framework for right relationship and an appreciation for systemic transformation, we limit the fruits of our service to spur-of-the-moment deeds.
“Scale is about doing more with less,” he writes. “From just an idea, you really do get something for nothing. It’s about the productivity increases that create wealth. There is too much talk of sustainability, the fight over slices of a pie, zero-sum games. That’s the wrong framework. You need sustainability only if you stick to one-off moves.”
Today’s college graduates are entering a disruptive economic world, but it’s one with unprecedented avenues for trade and exchange, creativity and connection. If our heartbeat is truly to “make a change” and “give back to our communities,” let’s not neglect the range of avenues for doing so.
Image: COD Newsroom, College of DuPage Commencement 2018 (CC BY 2.0)