Thoroughly Modern Do-Gooders

March 2008

When I read David Brooks I generally agree with what he has to say - and every once in a while I come across an article that leads me to believe that he either has mind-reading abilities or very candid informants in many of the circles that I pay attention to.

His most recent column is one such piece. The person he describes in the opening paragraphs is, in short, what I want to be when I grow up:

“…typically went to some fancy school and then did a stint with Teach for America or AmeriCorps before graduate school. Then, they worked for a software firm before deciding to use what they’d learned in business to help the less fortunate.

Now they work 80 hours a week, fighting bureaucracies and funding restrictions in order to build, say, mentoring programs for single moms.

I’m not quite following the formula exactly in chronological order, but most, if not all, of those pieces are in place (especially if doing Americorps over a summer during undergrad counts). It’s really quite scary how well Brooks can peg a persona and then write about it. Maybe it says more about the persona than Brooks, i.e. maybe it’s a predictable one or one that lends itself to self-promotion and that any ear (such as Brooks’) that is willing to turn towards such a person is bound to get an earful.

One reason why this persona appeals to me is its stark contrast with, to quote another Times article, the much-maligned investment banker:

“[M]uch of the wealth at the top is derived from financial instruments that merely move money around.

“It’s one thing if people are adding value to society,” Professor Frank said. “But there is skepticism that this is all a shell game and these guys are not adding value, at least to the extent that justifies their salaries.”” (Emphasis mine)

Even if someone goes into that business of ‘moving money around’ with the intention of making a lot of that money for themself and then using what they reap to help fund the very institutions started by Brooks’ “modern do-gooder,” why not just cut out the middleman? Life’s too short, and the problems are too great, to postpone this value adding or to do it in any sort of roundabout way. Get in there and get dirty, dammit!

The one concern with this sort of thing is that there is always the lurking motivation to do good so you can have a good story to tell over cocktails or to prove to yourself beyond a reasonable doubt that you are doing good. Many people motivated by the second (and to some extent the first) have already been siphoned off to start their “stint with Teach for America or AmeriCorps,” or the Princeton equivalents, Princeton in X and P55. It will be interesting to see how many of my classmates continue on the David Brooks route afterwards.