My father did consulting for years. Whenever he—or my uncle, also a consultant—began talking about work, I thought about their offices. They were small, poorly-lit rooms with terrible furniture, located in commercial parks off county roads. They were depressing.
My father’s company was named Source Atlantic, and it was a limited-liability corporation, meaning Source Atlantic was, in the eyes of the law, a person, and its decisions could be judged a person’s decisions. My father would travel and have meals with clients, although properly, they weren’t clients, only the people to whom he spoke. He would talk about ‘growing businesses,’ about ‘sales volume’ and ‘quotes’ and ‘those venture guys,’ who sported a uniform.* Blazer and shirt with contrast collar and red tie and khakis. This was the kind of outfit I’d wear to the country club pool party, and I never quite shook the notion that my father and his clients—the people to whom he spoke—were doing their imitation of leisure, of back-room chatting and fat-chewing, during their working hours.
Everyone consults, yet now—and certainly in my hometown—we do it on the clock. My mother teaches. She wants someday to break into educational consulting. Of course the money is better, and there are no children to instruct. There is no physical classroom; there is, however, the virtual classroom, and there are ballrooms at the Sheraton Hotel, for conferences. Educational consultants tell my mother and her fellow first-grade teachers how exactly to do their jobs. They stress efficiency. They stress color coordination.
My mother once had a homework assignment for her ‘course,’ taught by a woman with two Ph.D.s and long, thin, graying hair, wherein she sorted an entire batch of report cards by color. Red for ‘Needs constant supervision,’ Green for ‘Needs occasional guidance,’ and Yellow for ‘Stays mostly on task.’ She was encouraged by the same woman with two Ph.D.s not to mark her students’ worksheets in red pen. Red pen, the woman explained, punishes. Purple pen encourages.
The day after the course ended, one of my mother’s students ran in front of a car; another gave three girls pink-eye; another stabbed a boy in the arm with a pair of safety scissors. It wasn’t a normal day in a Pennsylvania public school, but it wasn’t particularly abnormal. My mother came home and cried and had two drinks. I don’t think the color-coded report cards were distributed.
This week, be-suited young men and women, hair gelled or blown dry, slid about campus. I applied to Bain & Company and to Bridgewater, a hedge fund touting its ‘openness toward change’ and ‘love of dissenting opinions.’ From its corporate literature, Bain sounded the antithesis of my mother’s educational conferences and my father’s long luncheons. ‘Consulting,’ my recruitment email stated, ‘is the art of problem-solving.’ It is a realm of ‘assertive individuals who love a fast-paced work environment.’ No mention of dimly-lit rooms and county roads and color-coding. Those are vestiges of a vanishing paradigm, one in which—to use the legal terminology—consulting arises in the penumbra of stable industry. In the earliest times, when Bethlehem Steel and Nazareth Concrete were Bethlehem and Nazareth, Pennsylvania, you could find steel and concrete consultants. As the service industry became more prevalent, advertising and party and educational consultants became de rigueur, then they became essential, then they became expected.
But Princeton’s consulting culture is timeless and monolithic and proud, tethered to no field and espousing no mindset. It is, quite simply, itself. Consultants consult and are consulted. They are ‘driven by results.’ The firms take German and English and Chemistry and Religion majors, because, as the website says, ‘the best way to fit in is to be yourself.’
My grandfather studied mechanical engineering and became a manager. My father studied management and became a manager. Now the elite can study what-have-you and tell the managers how to manage. Political science is not political theory and literary theory is not political theory. Similarly, consulting is not ‘business’ nor ‘the theory of business’ but a web of ‘deep, enduring relationships’ between co-workers.
“My name is Christian Schlegel, and I am a junior at Princeton University, concentrating in modern German and French literature and literary theory.
Such a discipline might sound removed from the realm of business. But throughout my undergraduate career I have developed strategies applicable to various problem-scenarios. I have managed my own time and resources and established plans for those with whom I work. In the classroom, when tackling a difficult text, I seek to address points of tension as laid out by the author; in my written analyses, then, I tease out possible explanations for and justifications of these tensions. My growth as a critical thinker therefore derives in large part from my academic endeavors.”
That’s my cover letter. It’s true, too. That the Princeton education is not entirely sincere—that undergraduate Germanists do not become adult Germanists and undergraduate Comparatists do not become adult Comparatists—is no great secret. But in speaking with my department today, I realized how easy it might be: a tiny room, a few chairs, and a sign on the wall:
Specializing in course selection, problem-solving
Not hard to do. When all is so clearly right with the world, what more is there to say?
*Didion writes similarly about foreign-policy bureaucratese in The White Album. Oh, Joan.