Today in writing class, my students conducted a seminar on the article “Serving in Florida,” by Barbara Ehrenreich, in which the author relates the trials and tribulations of waiting tables in an American restaurant. Since the subject content this semester has dealt with the shortcomings of higher education, the article reminded me of the expectation among the Ivy League institutions that applicants engage in service learning–a requirement the hypocrisy of which Steven Pinker has taken issue:

A skilled professional I know had to turn down an important freelance assignment because of a recurring commitment to chauffeur her son to a resumé-building “social action” assignment required by his high school. […] The dubious “lessons” of this forced labor as an overqualified ragpicker are that … the moral worth of an action should be measured by the conspicuousness of the sacrifice rather than the gain to the beneficiary.

Via “The Trouble with Harvard: The Ivy League is Broken and Only Standardized Tests Can Fix It,” by Steven Pinker, The New Republic, September 4th, 2014

It occurred to me that working in the service industry could provide a more genuine evaluation of an applicant’s capacity for understanding and empathy with working-class people. Morever, the soft-skills engendered by such labor, for example the ability to manage simultaneous and conflicting expectations of clients and co-workers, would give students more practical benefit, than say, meretricious displays of goodwill.

If nothing else, the hospitality industry might help Harvard weed out what William Deresiewicz coined its “entitled little shits,” and it would be fun to see 1% mothers try to game the applicant pool at their local Denny’s.

Featured image: By Edward Hopper –, Public Domain,

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