In Praise Of Personal Interest

One of the many things I dislike about Chicano Studies as a major is its over emphasis on “nonprofit activism” vs “personal interest”. In the status circles of Chicano Studies students, you are admired more for your desire to ‘build a community outreach center for disadvantaged children’ than for say, getting an engineering degree and ‘making the big bucks’. Obama’s recent graduation speech at Wesleyan University reminded me of that. My strong dislike stems from the belief, based on three reasons, that the emphasis is counterproductive and winds up harming more than helping.

First, it is the wrong message to give to the poorest members of society who have very little to fall back on. If an upper middle class white kid decides to go into nonprofits that kid is accepting a lower standard of living than the one she grew up with but it is far different than a kid from a low income background. Even without financial assistance from the parents, the upper-middle class kid knows that if some financial disaster results, her parents can step in and help. Then there is inheritance, vacation assistance, and other perks that come with having upper middle class parents.

On the other hand, a kid from the ghetto is taking an enormous risk by accepting a low salary. They are, in effect, “putting all their eggs in one basket”. And unless they are the lucky ones, they are doomed to rear their next generation of children in the very same environment they were raised in (I was shocked to hear of a Phd in Chicano Studies buying a house in Compton…you have to have a Phd in Chicano Studies to consider that progress). As I tell my family and friends who are entering the college age, “Leave the charity to the rich kids”.

Second, it is inefficient. Minorities in education, in community outreach, and in most other nonprofits are literally “a dime a dozen”. Another minority, because of diminishing returns, is not likely to make much of a difference. Factor in the effectivity of community outreach (very low) and the contributions that minorities in education add, and you are looking at near insignificant levels of added value.

Contrast that to the number of minorities in the for profit fields like engineering, chemistry, and technology. They are a scarcity and companies are thirsty for more. In short, you are likely to do more good for yourself and for the community as one additional engineer than as one additional member of a community outreach program.

Third, and most importantly, the two are not mutually exclusive. Making more money gives you more choices. If charity is your goal, you are likely to do more good by making alot of money than being just another ‘worker bee’. When I explain this to my friends I use the analogy of Warren Buffet. I ask my friends, imagine if someone had convinced Warren Buffet to abandon what his talents are especially good at and pursue a career in nonprofits, or teaching, or politics? Now, billions later, he can do much more for charity organizations by funding the most efficient ones then by simply being another ‘worker bee’.

In other words, again if charity is your goal, with extra money you can provide valuable resources, fund efficient charities, be a stronger role model to the next generation (three people in my family want to be engineers now, just because of my experience), provide a better future for your children, assist your family out, or, just as importantly, be a testament to those around you that hard work and dedication pay off, that there is a way out of the ghetto.

Lastly, unlike nonprofits, even if altruism is not your goal, capitalism works in such a way that when pursuing personal interest “you are led, as if by an invisible hand, to do things that improve the lives of others”. So I say to the next generation of students, please, ignore your Chicano Studies peers, ignore Obama, and ignore anybody who tells you that making money is somehow less respectable. Your children, your family, and maybe even some charity organizations will thank you.

6 Responses to “In Praise Of Personal Interest”


  • It’s funny, because the two “outreach” programs that reached out to me target poor minority students and pushed them into technology related careers. The first was a science program with Texas A&M, the second was a local community program that encouraged students to study engineering. Those who I still keep in touch with from these programs, myself included, were heavily influenced by their efforts. I’m guessing the story is probably different wherever you are from, but in my barrio I think these programs were awesome.

    I’m getting the feeling you are equating “service” as an ultimate choice, as if people can either choose to serve their community or work in private industry. Choice, in this regard, is not binary. Most of the Chicano activists and politicians I knew growing up were also business owners, corporate employees, government workers, etc. Most “outreach programs” don’t have the budget to support full-time staffers and seem to work on a voluntary basis. I feel like your argument is the equivalent of saying “people have to either choose to be priests or nuns, or to be athiests.” I helped a kid write an application essay to a college a few months back. He was an inner-city latino and wanted to study engineering. I was amazed that he not only saw it as a way to build a personal life, but also an opportunity to help his community by providing a valuable service.

    Also, do you really think people need any inspiration to pursue private interests? Every class of person in this country is already subject to market forces and capitalist sirens. Most of us need to pay rent, many of us are attracted to the dizzying array of products. American life is built around the framework of a capitalistic market so it does not need to be reinforced. Even those who wholy commit their life to “outreach” have to make a living somehow, unless their parents subsidze their expenses.

    Charity (money) alone doesn’t change anything. You need a mixture of energy, resources, and wisdom. To borrow words from Isabel Allenda, charity functions to assuage the hearts of the rich.

  • I was only addressing the “binary” charity choices…pursuing private interests and altruistic objectives in some combinatorial manner is perfectly fine and something I encouraged in my post.

    Also, I don’t doubt that some charities, somewhere, have some impact on some childrens lives…my point is not the inefficiencies of charities as a whole (though, admittedly, I think its low), my point is that one additional minority will not have that much of an impact in charities…especially compared to one additional minority in, say, engineering, or chemistry, or science in general. In other words, I am speaking about marginal gains here…arguing that on the margin, the benefit non-monetarily is still greater in the sciences.

  • “a kid from the ghetto is taking an enormous risk by accepting a low salary. They are, in effect, “putting all their eggs in one basket”. And unless they are the lucky ones, they are doomed to rear their next generation of children in the very same environment they were raised in”

    hi hp,
    very well thought out. a few years ago i may have been suspicious of your argument but now i couldn’t agree with you more.

  • One of the many things I dislike about Chicano Studies as a major is its over emphasis on “nonprofit activism” vs “personal interest”.

    Kudos on a well written and constructed arguement. It is hard to miss what your assertion is in the first line and then you go on to present your supporting analysis in a coherent, logical, rational, and linear manner. How refreshing!
    My Dad used to tell me during my college years of idealism, “Deja eso para los ricos.” He knew very well that I couldn’t “afford” such idealistic notions. My Dad had a second grade education and he figured this out without a degree in Chicano Studies.

  • There is definitely some truth to what you write here. :)

    I was never a Chicano studies major, but at the end of the day, we need to focus on wealth building as well so that we can have our own community centers, scholarships, etc. that we control.

    I think that Latino young adults in particular need to learn more about negotiating in the work place, asking for salaries that they should be earning, how to manage money and build wealth, etc. While Chicano studies is informative and historical, it fails to teach some of these basic survival skills in an increasingly competitive American economy.

  • All those “studies” programs are rackets. Students learn nothing of value and end up folding sweaters at the Gap. Meanwhile, the country desperately lacks highly trained technical professionals and has to import them from abroad. What a waste!

Leave a Reply