Yesterday I mentioned Elliott Gerson's op-ed in the Washington Post, which said that a shift in career choices for Rhodes scholars -- before, mainly politics/academics/writing; now, increasingly Wall Street -- was one more illustration of how outlandish pay in the financial world was distorting American incentives. For a Chinese perspective on this same point, see the thoughts of Gao Xiqing in my article last year, here.
A current Rhodes scholar at Oxford writes in defense of today's students:
"Although I'm [from a country other than the US] and so outside of Mr Gerson's jurisdiction, I'm friends with many American Rhodies and I think it's worth noting one or two things about his article. It was an interesting and thought-provoking piece, but...
"First, it should not be assumed that Rhodes Scholars are leaving Oxford for business in overwhelming numbers. The most convincing evidence Mr Gerson cites is that 6 (presumably 6 out of 32 American Scholars) went into business "recently". While 6/32 is a lot more than the 3/320 in the 1970s, it hardly signals that there has been a fundamental change in the nature of the organisation or the Scholars involved. The road from Oxford High Street to Wall Street is far less well travelled than the road from Oxford to law school in New Haven or med school in Cambridge, MA.
"Second, it should not go unsaid that there is a lively debate in Oxford among Rhodes Scholars (of all nationalities) as to what is an 'appropriate' career path for those who have been fortunate to be given this tremendous opportunity. There is ongoing heated debate over the 'appropriateness' of professional work, non-profit work, academic work, and, yes, business work. To the extent that Mr Gerson's piece implies that we are all unquestioningly interested in, or tempted by, obscene earning differentials, this is unfair, inaccurate and offensive.
"Third, it was a curious decision indeed for Mr Gerson to focus on this aspect of the Rhodes program. Why, on the day that 32 new [U.S.] Scholars were elected, should we focus on the minority who go into business? Why not focus on the overwhelming majority who work in higher education, medicine, law or public service? Mr Gerson opened his piece by noting that "For much of this time, they have overwhelmingly chosen paths in scholarship, teaching, writing, medicine, scientific research, law, the military and public service." Mr Gerson's own statistics, and my own experience, confirm that Rhodes Scholars continue to overwhelmingly choose these paths.
"Fourth, it should not be forgotten that while the scholarships are important in the United States, they are overwhelmingly an international scholarship. More than two-thirds of each class come from outside the 50 states. Mr Gerson's data sample is limited.
"Mr Gerson may well have an interesting point to make about earning differentials and the undoubtedly obscene levels of pay in many businesses today. He struggles to make the point convincingly by using the data relating to Rhodes Scholars."
For what it's worth. The point of the article really was about today's grotesque pay differentials rather than this select group of American youth, but it's fair to hear pushback at their being used as data points this way. That's the end of this discussion, for my purposes. Consistent with my ongoing points about coverage of American diplomacy in Asia, we'll wait to see in a generation or so how this crop of students decides to spend its time.