Many students at my institution arrive with a general sense that they ought to be, or are, devoted to the welfare of others. Now, there are many things that can be said of this, some positive and some negative. However, what I'd like to focus on are the challenges of teaching a student like this, who is earnest and ardent. So allow me to use the pretense of a particular student, though my story is not of a particular student.
Jane is a bright, diligent student who comes from a middle class background and who has such an overriding interest in helping others that she speaks in specifics rather than abstractions - she does not speak of "helping others," but wonders whether helping others is more effective when dealing with individuals or with structures. So Jane is thoughtful and on her own has discovered one of the great controversies of our age.
So where is the problem? Well, Jane has a hard time seeing how doing the work of college 1) doesn't immediately take away from her ability to do work for others and 2) actually leads her to the goal of doing work for others.
Here is my response, and I am curious as to how my fellow colleagues - most of them ethicists - would deal with this situation.
My response was that the people who make a difference, on average, on a wide scale, are people who are highly educated, usually in a specialized field. You can't major in good intentions. Biologists, economists, engineers, historians, writers, etc. make an enormous difference. And so while Jane's intentions are so good, and as good as to be kept, hopefully, her best bet for changing the world is just to do the work. It's a hard lesson to learn and a hard lesson to teach - what we do does not always, in fact rarely, make sense in the larger scheme of things. But there is nothing we can merely "say" to make it make sense. The making sense is done by what we do, not a precondition of what we do.
Or, to be more political, we should be accountable, but the fact of the value of U.S. higher education is testified by its actual success.
To bring it back down to teaching, many of my students spend an enormous amount of genuine and earnest energy thinking about how they can make the world right by their lights (again, much can be said about this, but on that later). I have nothing but admiration and awe for this. But at least in Jane's case, it distracts and prevents her from getting the very education that could make her dream possible.
At least on the teaching, how do you focus your students on the very thing that it takes to realize their goals when their goals make college look like a dentist's waiting room? To put it lightly...