August 02, 2003
Why Janet Daley is glad she worked her way through college

One of the better tree consuming enterprises in Britain is a thing called The Week, which is a summary of the output of the rest of the print media. This week's The Week came out today. There's some best articles page, which features some of the best chunks of commentary they can find, and this week's number two British chunk is this, from Janey Daley, in the Telegraph:

When I was a student at Berkeley, says Janet Daley, I spent my evenings in a San Francisco cinema ushering people to their seats. I was not alone. Working your way through college is what most American undergraduates do - even the rich ones. It's not just a way to pay for your studies; it's regarded as a social good in itself. To Americans, economic self-sufficiency is a virtue. Imagine my shock then, when I came to Britain for postgraduate work and was told that my college would be most unlikely to permit me to work. In Britain, I soon realised, having to take a job while at college is regarded as an affront: consider how shocked we were all meant to be this week at the news that one in five Oxford students now find it necessary to do so. Underlying this attitude is an ingrained haughtiness: you don't go to university in Britain just to be educated but to become a certain sort of person. And that person does not wait tables. Small wonder relations between the classes are so much more relaxed in America than they are here: in America, the man who brings you-coffee "may be a future professor of history".

Quite so. That point about how you never know who you might be insulting is one of my favourite arguments in favour of rampant capitalism, USA-style.

Certainly some of the best education I've had has been on the job, and the nastier the job was the more educational it tended to be. I once had a month and a half stuffing plastic bottles two at a time under a machine that spewed photographic chemicals. One mistake, and you spend the rest of the day with your genitals soaked in the stuff.

I never got it wrong, so I was spared the worst of it. Good hands, I guess. Not clumsy. All that keeping wicket at school.

But imagine doing something like that for your whole working life. I had plenty of imagining to do when I was doing it, and that was definitely one of the things I imagined. (Not necessarily ghastly, was my conclusion, if you were really good at it and not good for anything more complicated or difficult.) Maybe I was only pretending to be a worker type worker during the vacation, but the experience surely made me a better person, and a better educated person. A different "certain sort of person", you might say.

Here's the whole piece.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 08:07 PM
Category: Economics of educationLearning by doing