December 10, 2002
An immigration official who keeps on learning

I am gradually tuning in to which Brit-blogs are good sources on British educational matters. Thanks to a very acute comment on this piece by me at Samizdata, I learned of Junius. Properly I mean. I'd heard the name. Now I'll be reading the blog. He's a University lecturer of some sort, and in due course I'll learn what sort. Recommended. See this for example.

I followed Junius to BritishSpin, who has stopped blogging, it seems. And at BritishSpin I found this, a story about the sublimely predictable "Individual Learning Accounts" screw-up, a story which, BritishSpin tells us, is told at greater length by Iain Coleman. Indeed it is. Also recommendeed, as are BritishSpin's comments on it.

I go to the Iain Coleman home page to find out who and what he is, and there I find this, a truly charming education story or to be more exact, self-education story.

Going to big international conferences, it's quite common to end up getting the same plane flight as a lot of other people going to the same place, many of them identifiable by the long poster tubes in their carry-on luggage. This trip was no exception: the aircraft was full of geophysics bods of every stripe, from space physicists to oceanographers.

Now it's been a few years since my last US trip, and I'd forgotten how desperately slow and bureaucratic the immigration system is. We spent ages going through passport control, mainly because the officials felt the need to have a little personal chat with every single person. That's not what you need after ten hours on a 747, no matter how pleasant the flight (and it must be said that BA were excellent).

When it was my turn, the customs chap asked me why I was visiting the US. "Attending a scientific conference," I replied. He then proceeded to ask me all about my field (space plasma physics), how we gather data (in situ from spacecraft measurements, no samples brought to Earth), or ground-based remote sensing) and so on. Then he waved me through.

Talking to my colleagues afterwards, it transpired that every one of them had been asked a series of detailed questions about their own fields, and nothing at all about anything else that an immigration official might reasonably take a professional interest in. In the time it took us to be admitted to America, this guy had effectively got a mini-tutorial in every single branch of geophysics. He's probably not really supposed to take advantage of his position to further his own scientific education, but I approve nonetheless.

Inevitably, one of the commenters says that this was more likely to be something to do with US national security, rather than self-education. Yes. And the guy was probably not listening at all, just studying Coleman's upper lip for sweat or stalling while some spooky machine searched his luggage or his bodily orifices. But I prefer Coleman's interpretation. And even if he's wrong, I find it charming that, educator that he is, education is what he saw going on.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:53 PM
Category: Examinations and qualifications