Class Day speaker Terri Sewell ’86 deserves our respect for the messages and advice she gave on Class Day this past June, as described in the July/August issue. She is devoting herself unselfishly and wisely to truly worthwhile pursuits in her current position as a congressperson from Selma and its environs. One should hope that recent graduates will follow in her footsteps.

However, I wonder how many PAW readers noticed the tragic detail obscured within the short article on her virtuous life. It is a detail that captures all by itself just how badly broken the structure is of our nation’s education and economic systems in combination. I’m referring to the sentence that reads, “After completing Harvard Law School, she joined a prestigious New York City firm (she had student loans to repay), but eventually returned home … .” This sentence should horrify us all. 

The horror is in how many — countless — young university graduates go into fields that not only interest them not one whit but also do tremendous harm to society, such as tech, law, and finance. In the first of those three, as former Silicon Valley data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher infamously lamented, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” and now we know it has made huge, documented contributions to an epidemic of mental illness in young people. The second has been an enabler of the third, and both, through their greed, predation, and unethical conduct, have done little more in the last 40 years than destroy jobs, destroy lives, and in 2008 practically destroy the entire economy while they got away scot-free. Imagine how much of value Ms. Sewell or others could have done already in work that served the common good, instead of postponing it to pursue the almighty dollar, even if the pursuit was for the understandable purpose of paying off huge loans. Even if she did not work in service of her community, she could at least have pursued a genuine passion instead taking a job she didn’t really want in her heart to join the high-end rat race, wherein even if one wins the race, one is still just a rat.

A system that makes young people feel as though they have no choice but to serve dark forces just to avoid massive debt is a diseased system. For a better way, we can look to the example of most of Europe, for instance, where university education is either free or extremely inexpensive — the U.S. government always has plenty of money available to enrich weapons manufacturers so that they can bomb Black and brown people around the world — and where well developed social safety nets mean that fewer people have to sell out to survive. Ms. Sewell’s life is now admirable, indeed, and she deserves to be held in esteem, but the passing reference to the oppressive student loans she was forced to incur should raise among the rest of us not only eyebrows but also alarm.

Peter J. Greenhill ’81
Honolulu, Hawaii