This month hundreds of thousands of young men and women will celebrate four years of college achievement at some form of graduation ceremony. A diverse group of commencement speakers will send them off into the world with a message very similar, I suspect, to the one that was ringing in my ears as I left college a little more than two decades ago. It was a message filled with noble thoughts and high ideals -- and included absolutely no mention of the benefits of wealth creation, either to the graduates or to society. That's a major omission, argued Robert A. Heineman in the December 7 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education. We thought his message was worth sharing. An abridged version of his article appears to the right.* * *
Redefining Public Service
By Robert A. Heineman
As we begin the . . . graduation season, I want to urge people scheduled to give commencement addresses not to make the mistake that I've heard others make in the past -- urging graduates to remain powerless and ineffective in American society.
I'm referring specifically to commencement speakers who list the social ills facing our nation or the world -- and then exhort graduates to forsake the crass pursuit of wealth to dedicate themselves to the service of humankind. The speakers are usually well-meaning liberals who simply haven't a clue about the self-defeating effect of their messages. . . . what [they] plainly seem to ignore or to misunderstand is that the ability to have a substantial impact on society by acting with moral purpose depends directly on dollars and cents, in the form of the accumulation of individual wealth. For example, many of the great philanthropic foundations are the products of extensive personal fortunes. The Rockefeller Foundation, established in 1913 by John D. Rockefeller, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, established in 1936 by the founders of Johnson & Johnson, are two prominent examples of how such wealth can be utilized for social improvement.
Would the world be a better place if Rockefeller and Johnson had instead dedicated their lives to working among the inner-city poor or to serving as missionaries abroad? Some of our commencement speakers seem to think so. Indeed, they appear to find it distasteful to urge graduates to become wealthy and powerful. The most candid speaker that I've come across who voiced such distaste was Cornel West, professor of Afro-American studies and of the philosophy of religion at Harvard University. He told graduates at Haverford College a few months ago that in his "own humble opinion" one of the "major forms of idolatry of our day" is "the market way of life." . . .
. . . The speakers who make such appeals misunderstand the essence of morality in society. They seem to equate wealth with avarice and narrow self-interest; in their view, wealth implies immorality. They may even quote the biblical admonition: "The love of money is the root of all evil" (I Timothy 6:10). But note that it is not money that is the root of all evil; it is the love of it. Money itself may be the source of tremendous moral good if used properly.
For example, the Carnegie libraries that dot the American landscape reflect Andrew Carnegie's childhood values of hard work and self-improvement. They were one way in which he shared his vast personal wealth (along with $350 million in charitable donations over his lifetime). A more recent example is the New York businessman Eugene Lang's "I Have a Dream" Foundation, which he began in 1981 after spontaneously promising college scholarships to a sixth-grade class at his former elementary school in East Harlem. With the support of other wealthy benefactors, the program has expanded to 40 cities and 26 states and has sponsors committed to providing financial support and professional guidance to some 10,000 disadvantaged students.
Both those examples illustrate the willingness of individuals, drawing on their fundamental moral beliefs, to turn their good fortune to the benefit of others. And, in varying forms and scope, such generosity is replicated daily in communities throughout America.
A man's or woman's personal morality has never been determined by money. It always has been, and still is, determined by the relationships and values that a person learns while growing up and then relies on to guide his or her activities as an adult. Personal goodness and the willingness to help humanity stem largely from a person's early upbringing and can, if he or she accumulates great wealth later on, be the source of tremendous good.
Thus calls . . . for today's graduates to devote themselves to serving humanity are seriously misconceived. They overestimate the appeal of such entreaties, ignore the source of power in American politics, and unfairly label the wealthy morally suspect. . . . If commencement speakers really want to help make the world a better place, they will show their confidence in the moral fiber of their audiences by urging them to become as wealthy and as powerful as possible.* * *
Robert A. Heineman is a political-science professor at Alfred University, in Alfred, N.Y.