Why are we good?

The Boston Globe jumps on the theme we discussed the other night (and was broadcast on Midday on MPR on Friday): the job outlook for graduating college seniors.

It found the same thing I picked up (and wrote about) during the News Cut on Campus tour: that more students are turning toward working for the social good.


Fourteen percent of this year’s senior class at Harvard applied to Teach for America, a nonprofit organization that sends graduates to work in low-income urban and rural public schools. The proportion was 9 percent last year.

“There’s always that push to make money and be comfortable, but the financial crisis made me think that there’s a lot more in life than going to get that corporate job,” said Matthew Clair, a Harvard government major who will spend the next two years teaching at an Atlanta primary school. “It gave me a good excuse to take some more time off to do what I’m really passionate about.”

But the situation brings up another question: To what extent are graduating seniors heading off in this direction out of a sense of altruism, and to what extent are they heading in that direction because that’s where the jobs are?

All of which brings me today to this week’s News Cut pick of the week of all the offerings that came out of your radio. It’s Thursday morning’s Midmorning appearance by Dacher Keltner, the professor of psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, and the author of “Born to be Good.” Pay no attention to the misnamed headline on the page (“The science of emotional survival”) because the heart of the show (zip ahead about halfway through the audio), was the discussion of altruism, and why we’re good (mostly).

It even took on last week’s appearance by Richard Dawkins.

  • J.A.

    This altruism you describe manifested itself long before the recession hit. In 2004, for instance, 8% of Harvard grads applied to Teach For America, along with 12% at Yale, 11% at Dartmouth, and 8% at Princeton. The program was hugely popular in 2007, when I joined it, as well.

    I’ve heard the current generation criticized as feeling itself entitled to wealth and happiness, in direct opposition to the old mantra of rugged individualism. This is a fair summary, and one that, as a 24-year old American, causes me to blush. But to our credit, we extend that feeling of entitlement to everyone else in the world, too, and we are willing to fight vigorously against what we perceive as gross social injustices.

    So the altruism is genuine. But to be fair, so is the fear of finding jobs capable of paying off our respective mountains of student debt in the midst of a global recession. I’m sure that plays a role in the decision to go into civil service, too. It’s possible to have dual motives, you know.

  • Jim!!!

    He says that regarding religion and Dawkins, “perhaps a more nuanced view is warranted”. To support this he speaks about research showing that meditation can have a positive effect on our emotional and immune system health. I can buy that. It doesn’t speak at all to whether or not any religious belief is actually true or not.

  • sm

    This reminds me of the Mae West classic line about “goodness, what lovely diamonds” and she replies: “goodness had nothing to do with it”. People do what’s expedient and in their interest.

    The number of college graduates shot up during the Vietnam War due to people (men) seeking 2S deferments. Hippies could afford to be all “peace and love” because they didn’t have to work, thanks to affluent parents and plentiful student loans. Those that went to live on communes found it wasn’t the ideal life after all.

    Now how many of them have become The Man they hated, with suburban lifestyles, kids to get through college, and their retirement savings in the septic tank? Life doesn’t change unless you unplug from the technosphere (like the Amish) and live in a pre-industrial society.