With increasing clarity, it seems that the image of the ideal university student no longer revolves around high academic achievement. Instead, the conception of success prevalent in higher education today is tempered by activities with such vague descriptors as “energy to use one’s talents to the fullest,” “sympathy for and protection of the weak,” “unselfishness and fellowship,” and “moral force of character and instincts to lead” — all phrases taken from the selection criteria for prominent scholarships.
However glamorous these well-meaning ideals may seem, in reality they have translated into a mass culture of what Andrew Sullivan, in his article “All Rhodes Lead Nowhere in Particular,” caustically calls “hustling apple-polishers” of “bland, eugenic perfection”.
Buoyant with the inspirational ‘you can be anything’ rhetoric of primary and secondary school, students are encouraged to take an active role in or to start initiatives, usually humanitarian, aimed at solving pressing global problems. With a few organizations and student-led calls for social change under their belt, the doors to scholarships and internships swing open. Then, presumably, students’ interest in climate change or Syrian refugees fades.
There is nothing wrong with honing students’ business acumen and civic sensibilities carry on.. When these values become tied to students’ perception of academia, however, universities take on the role of corporate conveyer belts providing degrees — presenting students with keys to better career prospects. It is unsurprising that students with this view often see themselves more as marketable commodities than as individuals with multi-layered emotions, interests, and hobbies.
Campuses are littered with the products of this culture of self-branding. I know someone who, having only finished first year, moved to the US to start a company aimed at solving genetic diseases. Another sought to ‘revolutionize’ education and had started a private school before completing their post-secondary education. Students face stifling pressure to update their Linkedin profiles with long lists of volunteer and work experience in international and domestic spheres. This is done to ensure career advancement, rather than out of a genuine desire to improve the communities around them.
All of these resume achievements fulfil requirements for scholarship committees, but they come at a cost. When students are drawn to community-building iniatives with only their own self-interest in mind, not only are their intentions misguided, but the results are less productive than expected.
This is something that Houmdu Harouni elaborates on in an article for The American Reader, where he makes several worthwhile observations about the detriments of self-branding culture. To illustrate his point, he uses the example of the 2013 TED awards winner Sugata Mitra, whose humanitarian start up placed computer kiosks in slums so children in impoverished areas could teach themselves “math, English, and even molecular biology.”
The impoverished children that Mitra attempted to help are likely in need of basic shelter and bread more than they need access to the mysteries of microbiology. In fact, introducing computer kiosks into slums is about as useful as sending iPads to Aboriginal reserves or fitting solar panels on African schools, without taking their more pressing needs into account. All of these groups face complex, multifaceted problems that require insight and empathy to fully address. Yet in their quest to develop the perfect CV, many students will disregard this, opting instead for a solution that awards them credit without actually getting their hands dirty.
This supposed paragon of humanitarian concern and ‘sympathy for and protection of the weak’ is an example of the type of gross over-simplification found in most student-led humanitarian organizations. It is consonant with the culture of self-branding to simplify complex problems into manageable challenges that can be solved by ‘innovation’; such models place the emphasis on the innovator rather than the problem itself.
Because problems in the social sciences require decades of experience and study, student attempts at ‘solving’ or ‘innovating’ social problems often echo the Mitra model. Our incessant need to prioritize our career advancement means students often end up exploiting marginalized communities for their own benefit.
University offers a unique chance for students: unencumbered with the pressures of the outside world, they can find their own authentic brand of intellectual self-expression. The moment universities become just another line in a polished list of resumé fodder do they lose value as institutions of higher learning.
Jeffery Chen is a third–year student at Trinity College studying English and European studies.