I am an avid reader of college newspapers. Only rarely do I find real wisdom. Today's issue of the Stanford Daily, had a compelling editorial on the idea of service at the university, specifically the growing number of voluntary student organizations. The editors put their finger on one of the difficulties here: that there are many more rewards for starting up an organization than for keeping one going. Here's how they put it:
Students who apply for prestigious postgraduate scholarships or employment know that selection committees look favorably upon individuals who have founded new organizations. As a result, the campus framework for entrepreneurship tends to reify initiatives that are new and revolutionary, fitting neatly into the rhetoric of innovation....
Resolving this issue is difficult, as it means shifting the focus of Stanford culture from one that exalts the founders of new entities to one that gives credit to those who breathe new life into existing organizations – a far less glamorous role....This means having the humility to recognize the value in realizing other people’s ideas, as well as one’s own.
The editors are on to something. Recently I heard Cornell West and Robbie George, both of Princeton, complain about the culture that leads students to believe they need to found a charitable organization to get into an Ivy school. That can be well and good. The cynics would point out that this usually means a nice write up in the local paper, clipped and sent in with the application -- and little follow up attention to see if the organization so founded has continued after its initial launch.
There's something to be said for smart people using their brains to come up with new ways to serve. That said, the incentives can be perverse: Which would you rather have at your campus: The kid who founded some nonprofit to a lot of hoopla, or the kid who served humbly, without any fanfare or personal huzzahs, in a soup kitchen or homeless shelter or some church outreach for years.
Kudos to the editors of the Stanford Daily for at least raising the question.