From Hope to Action

April 23, 2015
President, Campus Compact|

I’ve been traveling quite a bit lately, so I haven’t had a chance to turn many of my recent thoughts into posts. I hope I will be forgiven for a response to a piece from nearly two weeks ago. I’ll try to compensate for untimeliness with brevity.

In a short opinion piece published on The Upshot, the data-informed section of the New York Times, the Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan expresses ambivalence that so many of this spring’s Harvard economics graduates will pursue careers in finance that focus on making money without producing social value. Mullainathan points out that financial expertise can be used to create public goods, for example by finding ways to reduce the vulnerability of poor people to the vagaries of markets. But most graduates who head to Wall Street will not be seeking to achieve such outcomes.

What struck me is that after acknowledging that the students he teaches can use their newfound skills either to enrich themselves or to solve public problems (while also making a living), Mullainathan says this: “I hope they realize that they have the potential to do great good and not simply make money.“ 

I couldn’t help but wonder whether Mullainathan and his Harvard economics colleagues have discussed how they might move beyond hope and actually increase the probability that their students will recognize their potential to do great good. After all, Mullainathan is himself an expert in behavioral economics. He knows that if you want people to have particular thoughts or take particular actions, you have to do more than hope: You have to structure their experience to produce the desired outcomes.

As it happens, we know a lot about how to prompt students to think about their capacity for creating public goods. An extensive body of evidence shows that engaging students in civic and service experiences connected to their academic learning increases students’ belief in their ability to make positive change and their desire to do so.

It would not be odd for Harvard professors to think about how to cultivate in their students the habit of considering the public good. The mission of their undergraduate college “is to educate the citizens and citizen-leaders for our society.” Merely hoping students realize their potential to do good constitutes a failure to carry out the Harvard College mission. 

I should note that Mullainathan himself does much to contribute to the public good, so I hope he will take up this friendly challenge to think about how to amend the Harvard economics curriculum so that it lives up to Harvard College’s ideals—and his own. If he does, Campus Compact will be glad to help.