Sunday, August 03, 2003

Our students, our servers, ourselves 

One of the things we experience teaching at a state university rather than the private colleges is the greater likelihood that our students hold outside employment. It's not at all unusual for me to have students who are both full-time at study and in the workforce. Many of them work in the stores and coffee shops I frequent. There are some for whom the stress of outside work hinders their studies, but working while a college student is so engrained in American higher education that we have financial aid programs called "work-study" (though we've had a few in the department office in years past who did neither.)

So I was also struck, as was Brian Micklethwait, by an article that shows how different it is in Britain. Janet Daley had decided to go to Britain after completing her undergraduate studies somewhere in the Bay Area, where she had also worked as a movie theater usher. She was told that she would not be permitted to work. To most American students -- and to me as well -- this comes as somewhat of a shock. And Daley thinks she knows why the practice is different between the US and UK. It has to do with class there vs. here:

You do not become a university student in Britain (at least at the ancient institutions) simply to be educated, but to be made into a certain sort of person. And, generally speaking, it is not the sort who waits on tables or carries a torch down the aisle in a cinema.

Because higher education was, well into the 20th century, largely the prerogative of people on private incomes, the lives and expectations of that class were taken as the model for the student condition. To enter academic life was to become a kind of aristocrat manqu�. In a bizarre (and very British) stab at "equality", the grant system was devised to replicate as closely as possible the life of idle dependence that only the children of the rich had once enjoyed.

In America, "equality" is interpreted very differently. Even the children of wealthy parents often work while they are students. That is because working your way through is not seen only as a practical solution to the problem of paying for education, but is also thought to be a social good in itself.

Americans are brought up to believe not only that work and the economic self-sufficiency that it brings are inherently virtuous, but also that lack of work and the absence of independence are morally debilitating.

Perhaps this is one reason why our students tend to be more conservative than our faculty: They still must engage the real world, where they must persuade others to give them income by providing something of value. Faculty, alas, have freed themselves of this "bondage".
That is one of the reasons why relations between the classes, in the shops and on the streets, are so much more relaxed and pleasant in America than they are here. The guy who is slinging hamburgers today will probably be practising law in a few years' time. The waiter who brings your coffee may be a future professor of history.

And everybody knows that. So you don't treat the waiter, or the petrol pump attendant, or the girl in the coffee shop, as if they belonged to another, lesser species. They are just you, 20 or more years ago.