Wednesday, April 2, 2008

WSJ's Anjali Athavaley: Claremont McKenna's Best Friend in the Media

Anjali Athavaley of The Wall Street Journal writes on Claremont McKenna for the second time in a month.

She first wrote about students that create their own jobs in the non-profit sector featuring none other than Claremont McKenna's own Ritika Puri. I was pretty critical of the article and though I admired some of the ingenuity of the students described, but couldn't relate to spending a summer working on something as nebulous as the "public good."

I'm generally skeptical of charitable efforts to save the world. If only people would spend more time saving themselves, maybe we could be a better world.

In general, I think that those charitable efforts to provide sustainable changes end up robbing the entrepreneurial spirit of the people.

In any event, I digress.

Now Anjali Athavey's written about Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a senior at Bellaire High School in Houston who won't make a decision on his college without first looking at his finances.

That's something I can relate to. Counting up the money your family has is one of the hardest things you can do.

Which is why this blog has fought to talk about the real costs of college.

We've fought to bring transparency to the school's budget and to reduce unnecessary costs. And we'll continue to do that even if it's unpopular.


Ritika said...

Charles, I worked for an organization that supplements education with vocational training/additional educational training required for people in the slums to find jobs. Without this organization, people in this slum would be limited to the same jobs (that limit entrepreneurial mobility) as iron-press workers, factory workers, and security guards.

I found that their tutoring program was not enough and redeveloped it in order to enhance the entrepreneurial spirit of the people in this particular slum.

Furthermore, I collaborated with slum residents to create the health center. The slum residents had full say in planning and rejecting ideas. IMO, this is pretty entrepreneurial in thought and practice since most impoverished Indians don't have this opportunity.

The organization works in partnership with the slum in efforts of creating a self-sustaining and community with objectives as entrepreneurs.

For example—in many of these slum communities, women do not work. According to one 16 year old high school drop out named Pooja, “A lot of girls in the slum want to work, but we can’t find worthwhile opportunities anywhere. We really want to be creative and become something.”

So what did we do? We created a crafts/sewing program (as suggested by the girls).

Before you insult nonprofit work/insult individuals’ endeavors, you should know what you’re talking about. It is not the case that all philanthropic work inspires economic apathy among target groups.

In response to your critique of “public good.” Yes the concept is nebulous, and that’s what makes it interesting to explore.

And in response to this quote:
“I'm generally skeptical of charitable efforts to save the world. If only people would spend more time saving themselves, maybe we could be a better world.”

I’m going to respond to your generalization with a personal anecdote. In my sophomore year, I was diagnosed with cancer in my central nervous system. In that year, I dropped out of school, lost money, was unsure if I would be able to walk, and underwent radiation during the spring semester. Because of my illness, I could not study abroad—an experience that I found integral to my academic experience.

Something that I find valuable to “saving [ones]self” is the ability to communicate and relate with a spectrum of people—something that I thought study abroad would give me.

Instead, even though I felt terrible from 33 rounds of radiation, I decided to go abroad and spend time in a slum for the sole purpose of trying to understand the community on their terms.

Charles, I sometimes find that you jump to hasty assumptions and conclusions. Perhaps you should “spend more time saving [your]self” from these weaknesses to create a “better world” or journalistic and social integrity.

Ritika said...

that "or" in the last sentence should be an "of" (small keyboards).

And also Charles, don't you blog for some political/social objective? Would you not argue that this effort is also an exploration of the nebulous concept of "public good?"

Jonathan said...

I'm not a huge fan of the article you linked to Charles because Ms. Athavaley neglects on crucial fact when talking about the "record low admissions" at places like Harvard and Yale. Those schools are only at record lows because their number of undergrads HAS ACTUALLY GONE DOWN. FALLEN. not just not kept pace with graduate students (which have gone up 10% at most ivies) but actually fallen by 1.5% the last decade. Imagine if CMC's student population fell 1.5% - we'd be proclaiming the end of CMC! The Ivies obviously dont care because grad students bring in the research grants and make many more contributions to the school than undergrads, but to have those numbers actually go down is really a disserve to the 1000s of bright students who apply to those schools and cant get in. Or maybe it's a good thing, since that sends more people to better schools like CMC where the college actually cares more about undergrads and gives them a better education in smaller classrooms, not taught by grad students. (You can tell I'm a fan of small liberal arts colleges maybe just a little?)

Charles Johnson said...

Hi Ritika,

Thanks for giving us the history of your organization. I have several questions, but before we get started let me say a few things. I hope your cancer is in remission and please know that I'm going to try to treat your post with the utmost respect given that one of my self-sustaining and community with objectives as entrepreneurs." How is that entrepreneurial? Doesn't that sound a bit like top-down managed?

As for the crafts and sewing program, how do you feel that program will serve the women in the increasingly globalized world
when there's a world decrease in textiles?

Forgive me for being frank, but I've been studying this issue of NGOs and their effects on indigenous people in Guatemala and I can find very little evidence that non-profit work does any long-term good. I'd be more than happy to share my results and the papers I've been reading on this subject with you.

Thanks for trying to keep me honest, Ritika. Whenever I write something I've always planned out what I mean to say. I try not to be hasty. Given the high volume of emails I receive and the number of page views on this blog - 23,000 and counting -- I'd say I'm doing okay. Of course, this is just a hobby, but I eventually hope to make it a profitable enterprise.

I've also been using the blog to help along my own career and the career of my contributors. Viewed this way, it's our self-interests that end up producing a product, which you are free to read or not read. As we're having this comment chain, I'm glad to see you've been reading.

Take care,

Charles Johnson said...


As one of those students who thought that Harvard was the be all and end all of the known universe and my purpose on this earth, I'm definitely glad I chose Claremont McKenna, which I consider, despite all the silliness, to be the greatest liberal arts college in America.

Ritika said...

" self-sustaining and community with objectives as entrepreneurs." How is that entrepreneurial? Doesn't that sound a bit like top-down managed?"

-Doesn't what seem top-down managed? You mean the organization? I think that you're really biased by American standards. I don't know if you realize, but India's history of social inequality governs the present. Because of institutional corruption/cultural norms/affiliations, impoverished populations lack a strong political voice. India doesn't have things like college loans, work-study, etc. You get what you pay for, and the amt. of money you have determines how much social power you have.

That being said, the fact that we involve slum residents in all decisions gives entrepreneurship because most other people (governments/citizens/other NGOs) don't want to listen to them. The slum residents decide what they need and what they want to become (and they have expressed that they want more entrepreneurial opportunities). In terms of actually getting things done, things might need to be top down, but but the slum residents work in partnership with the trustees. I consider this entrepreneurial in light of how many Indian elites tend to stigmatize and isolate the poor.

As for the crafts and sewing program, how do you feel that program will serve the women in the increasingly globalized world
when there's a world decrease in textiles?

-The answer to this question asks that you be sensitive to India's economic, social, and cultural setting.

-The Indian economy (from the elite) sees high demand for labor and personal service. The women in this slum (about 40 of them undergo various vocational training programs), in developing sewing and crafts skills, start businesses in the realm of personal service (rather than manufacturing for export, etc). Let me give an example. India is a huge fabric hub. Rather than purchase ready-made clothes, a majority of the population buys fabrics and has tailors create ready made clothes. As people become more talented, they charge higher prices. The slum women can offer these services, and furthermore, create their own clothes for their families (rather than paying a tailor). There are multiple ways to look at economies. You can generalize a worldwide trend, look at a specific country, or even a local area.

The hope is that as families boost household income, they can provide higher quality education for their children. In India, you get what you pay for in terms of education.

In many of these homes, male children and adolescents need to quit school to supplement the household income because for these people, the worth of child labor outweighs the worth of an education. With adult women working, adolescents and children are able to pursue their education (something that the adults of this particular slum want for their children but cannot necessarily afford to provide)

We're not trying to create generations of seamstresses, but we are trying to find ways that families can advance their economic circumstances over time by inadvertently funding educational pursuits.

To help facilitate these entrepreneurial initiatives, the NGO provides business training to women can develop a sense of what it means to innovate.

Forgive me for being frank, butyour research on Guatemala-- well, that's Guatemala; sure there are similarities abroad, but you look at all international NGOs through the same lens. Both India & Guatemala have their unique socio-economic-political contexts.

Granted, a lot of international NGOs are inefficient and terrible (probably because of poor organization and that people pursue efforts without remaining sensitive to socio-political-cultural-economic contexts, but that does not mean that all endeavors are worthless and futile-- which seems to be an idea that you frequently allude to.

Furthermore, I don't see how self interest and philanthropy are mutually exclusive. I'm developing my own skills, doing something that I care about, understanding an issue beyond statistics (by getting to know slum residents), and providing a service to someone else. (Might I add, I also have a health center to put on my resume.) I too plan to make myself a profitable enterprise but in doing so, I remain socially conscious. I care about people, and no matter what I do, I plan to keep caring about people (and doing what I do with a conscience and understanding of who I am in light of where I am. I think that this understanding is important for any type of long- term success).

" it's our self-interests that end up producing a product"

- I think that the whole point to the WSJ article is that the students create these internships out of their own self interest to find meaningful & substantial work in a world where quality internships are competitive and rare (especially for liberal arts students... and no need to tell me that CMCers receive lots of i-banking/consulting/meaningful internships-- because they aren't always right for everyone)