• Ken Ilgunas

Duke University—an evil institution?

“There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.” –Hannah Arendt

“Goldman Sachs.” “Hedge fund.” “CitiBank.” For the past two years, I’ve eavesdropped many a conversation at Duke, and I’ve heard words like these uttered over and over again. That’s because many students at Duke have, for years, been populating the ranks of highly dubious Wall Street firms.


Duke takes pains to sell itself as a liberal arts school, and while they don’t—like most schools—offer an undergraduate business major, “economics”—a close cousin to business—is the most popular major year after year.


While there are plenty of English and history and philosophy majors at Duke, one could make the case that it’s becoming a business or vocational school (as Duke has instituted loopholes for students to get around gen. ed. requirements like writing). Not only that, but there are another 1,500 MBAs enrolled in the graduate business school, and the undergraduate Markets and Management Studies is the most popular of all certificate programs at Duke.

This is nothing out of the ordinary. Business is, by far, the most popular degree in the country. Nationwide, there were 335,000 business degrees given out in 2007-08 school year, more than double the next most popular degree.


But why are there so many students majoring in business or business-like programs? Perhaps these students mean well. Perhaps they have dreams of starting small businesses or creating jobs for people. Or, maybe they have more selfish reasons.


While I do not have the statistics, I wouldn’t be surprised if—like at Harvard—as many as a third of Duke’s graduates wind up in the financial services industry. Every May, it’s as if Goldman Sachs and companies like them position a giant vacuum at the end of Duke’s commencement stage, sucking up many of Duke’s cap-and-gowned grads to be emptied out on Wall Street.


Our best and brightest are not going out to save the world; they’re going out to make money. (I have a friend who’s a Rhodes Scholar who told me that her fellow scholars, similarly, were flocking to the financial services industry, lured by the high salaries.)


Whenever I come across a student who’s going to Wall Street, I’ve always wanted to ask: “You actually want to work for one of THOSE companies??? Aren’t they largely responsible for a not-so-little economic meltdown? Aren’t they, uh, kinda evil? Don’t you care about any of that?”


One day, last fall, I had my chance. In fact, I got to pose my question to a whole classroom of undergraduate economic students.


“Do economics students major for idealistic reasons?”


For several moments, there was nothing but silence.


“You mean to ask: are we going to out and save the world?” asked one of the students.


“Yeah. I guess,” I said.


“No. Definitely not.”


That was more or less the end of the discussion. My professor, at the end of class, leaned over with a smile and whispered, “You know why they’re all economics majors? Because they’re all going to Wall Street.”


What’s so wrong with going to Wall Street? Aren’t consultants, investment bankers, and Wall Street-types good and useful? Aren’t they necessary for the health of the planet and people alike? I have a hunch, but I’m no expert or insider, so it’s impossible for me to answer such questions in a responsible manner. (Though this person poses and answers the same questions.)


Regardless of whether or not these Wall Street-types provide a useful service, I think there is something very, very wrong when a graduate takes a job without thoughtful introspection. When a graduate goes out into the world without character and principles, and with the sole purpose of making a fortune, he can be a very dangerous human being. And a college degree is no longer a flimsy roll of parchment—it’s a weapon.


I’ve learned that it’s not just economic or business majors eager to sell their souls to Corporate America. I’ve made friends with a few grad students in the Nicholas School of the Environment—a department, I figured, that would be a surefire hotbed for liberal do-gooded-ness. I imagined a group of dread-headed, tie-died hippies who loved scrubbing oil off sea turtles and fornicating in wild, body-painted orgies. But this friend told me—much to her disillusionment—that “about half of the environmental majors are taking environment courses so they can get jobs in the oil and gas industry.” I was shocked. When I asked a Nicholas School professor if her students had “sound ethics,” she said, point-blank, “no.”


Goldman Sachs? The oil and gas industry???? What the hell is going on?


I thought college students were supposed to be ambitious and idealistic, helpful and hopeful? What is the point of Duke if many of its best and brightest are taking jobs that—to borrow the colloquial—fuck shit up?


Hannah Arendt, author of Eichmann in Jerusalem, said “There is a strange interdependence between thoughtlessness and evil.” She noted that the people who committed some of the most shocking atrocities in the Holocaust were not psychopaths or extremists; rather, they were “terribly and terrifyingly normal”—just everyday people who followed orders.


I don’t think Duke is evil. And I certainly don’t think Duke’s students are evil. (My economics classmates were all very likeable, intelligent, and generally—from what I could tell—good people.) But I think many students are morally vacuous—especially those who’ve spent their four years doing little but creating models and punching numbers. Among them, there is a startling unwillingness (or is it an “inability?”) to ask themselves the necessary ethical questions.


A college should be a place to question everything; to dream up radical and revolutionary ideas; to reevaluate our economic and social institutions (especially those that tend to rape the earth and funnel power and money to the super-rich). Yet, the consumer-capitalist model not only goes unchallenged in most curricula; rather, it’s quite literally taught. We’re taught—as Carnegie Mellon professor Jeffrey Williams sardonically puts it—that the “ordering principle of the world is the capitalist market, and that the market is natural, inevitable, and implacable.” Duke is not a place to question the dominant institutions; it’s a place to support them.


Of course Duke produces many great people. Every year, Duke students become innovators, doctors, professors, journalists, and there are probably even a few do-gooding businessmen and women.


But I can’t help but wonder if places like Duke might be doing more harm than good. There’s clearly something wrong when graduates are aiding and abetting criminal institutions. There’s clearly something wrong with the business-heavy, liberal arts-light education a school provides when many of its graduates don’t think about the consequences of the product they produce (if you can even call it a “product”). And there is clearly something wrong when they enroll in classes, not to become better people, but to buy bigger homes and flashier cars.


I once read somewhere that if, hypothetically, we removed all the ants from the world—in one fell swoop—the food chain would be disrupted, there’d be massive extinctions, and the world as we know it would end. But, if we removed human beings, most everything else would thrive. What would happen if we removed the financial services industry? What would happen if we removed parts of Duke and places like it?