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September 29, 2003

Real 'Ole Time Liberal Guilt, front and center at the Chronicle of Higher Education

I shouldn't smirk too much.   The kid's heart is in the right place.   Its just that he has no idea what he's talking about.   Here's an excerpt:

There is a deliberate aura of wealth and power at Harvard, and it is tended to by more than a thousand workers. They dust the portraits, polish the oak panels, and prune the trees. They cook the food and guard the campus; they work in every room of every building, day and night, and yet one of their frequent complaints is that the nation's most perceptive students and scholars simply do not see them.

I was embarrassed when someone had to explain to me that the reason the lights were on all night in Harvard's buildings was that crews of custodians were in those buildings, working all night to clean up the mess of the day before. Then, during my junior year, I read Studs Terkel's Working, and I was shocked that no teacher had ever assigned me that book -- or any other workers' histories, for that matter.

Later that year -- 1998 -- I went to a meeting that my childhood friend Aaron Bartley had called about starting a living-wage campaign on the campus. At the meeting, I learned that while Harvard recently had broken all records for university fund raising -- the endowment had nearly tripled, from $7-billion to $20-billion between 1994 and 2001 -- the university had, at the same time, been cutting the wages and benefits of its lowest-paid employees through outsourcing. Amazed, I presented an outline of what would become Harvard Works Because We Do, consisting of interviews with and photographs of campus service workers, to the history-and-literature program as my proposed senior-thesis topic. It was rejected, on the grounds that it was not adequately academically rigorous. The rejection only made me more stubborn. I started the project anyway, and after graduating I spent the next three years working on it.

As an undergraduate, I always worked. I inspected bags in a library, I tended to a research greenhouse, I cleaned dorm rooms and bathrooms, I shelved books in Widener Library, and, after graduating, I worked as a carpenter's assistant on the campus...

Well, I went to Harvard too.   Though since I did not qualify for financial aid (my dysfunctional family had too much income, though they weren't sharing it with me), I could not get the high-paying work/study jobs like cleaning dorm rooms and bathrooms.   Instead I worked 10 to 15 hour per week during term time setting up slide projectors and sound systems for classes, which had the useful fringe benefit of allowing me to audit all sorts of interesting classes.   During summer vacations, I worked 80 to 90 hour weeks as a limo driver to save enough to pay the following year's tuition.

My senior year at Harvard, I won a Marshall scholarship from the British Government that provided me with two or three years of all-expense-paid study at the UK university of my choice.   For various reasons which aren't worth going into, I chose Magdalen College, Oxford for my graduate experience as well as my introduction to feudalism, welfare state style.

Magdalen is one of the older, larger and wealthier colleges at Oxford.   (Oxford University is comprised of 39 semi-autonomous Colleges, each with their own faculty, endowment, etc.)   When I arrived in Oxford, I was surprised to learn that while my room did not have central heating, I would enjoy the services of a fifty-something year old servant (called a "scout") who would be responsible for cleaning my room as well as those of the other half dozen or so students living in our entryway.   My scout, a very sweet, working class grandmotherly type, would change the sheets, empty wastebins, clean the toilets, wash dishes, and generally tidy up.   The College also had an extensive staff of gardeners, porters, and other domestic servants, and employed virtually no students to perform any of these menial tasks.   In fact, it was unheard of for any student to work part-time when school was in session, and relatively unusual for students to seek paid employment during the generous vacations.   (At that time, in the early days of the Thatcher revolution, the custom was to "sign on" for the dole when school was out.)

At that time, virtually all students from the UK attending Oxford (or the other British universities) had 100% of their school expenses paid by the state, regardless of their family's financial need.   Since this was a very expensive proposition, a much smaller percentage of the university-age population were allowed into post-secondary education.   (This was also a very regressive policy, since most of the aid went to upper and middle class families who's children made up the large majority of university students.)

By comparison, Harvard was (and I believe still is) a paragon of equality and meritocracy.   Sure, there were the WASPy, prep school types, some even from wealthy and/or famous families.   Some of them even joined elitist clubs like the Porcellian or the less-exclusive Fly.   But it was more common to find that most students worked for money part-time during the school year and nearly all had real (if often menial) jobs during the summer vacation.   In my experience, it would have struck most Harvard students as decidedly odd if one of their friends "looked down" on another classmate because he or she had a job cleaning dorm bathrooms.

Harvard is also one of the few universities in the world that offer truly "needs blind" admissions; meaning that an applicant's ability to pay full fees is not considered as part of the admissions process.   Furthermore, there is a virtual guarantee that all admitted students will receive the necessary financial aid (though it may be in the form of loans rather than outright grants).   Of course, this is only possible because of Harvard's "record-breaking" fund raising and substantial endowment.

The sub-text of Greg Halpern's article, support for the "living-wage" movement, reflects the distressing reality that it is possible to graduate from a top-tier American university while remaining appallingly ignorant of basic economic principles.   Artificially raising wage levels to above-market levels may benefit workers who have (and can keep) these high wage jobs.   But overall employment will decline as capital is substituted for labor, and higher labor costs prompt the elimination of lower priority tasks (dusting those portraits, for example).   Were that it were so easy to legislate away poverty and low-wage jobs.   But as Europe's persistently high levels of unemployment and anemic rates of new job creation demonstrate, keeping wage levels artificially high is no recipe for economic success.

(Hat tip to the charming Antic Muse, who first stumbled across this silliness.)

September 29, 2003 at 07:57 PM | Permalink


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Here we go again...More Brit bashing.

It's lucky the Brits have a much higher opinion of the former colonies.

Here's a little gem recently posted on a news server:

This was a quote posted by a Kiwi:

The largest ice shelf in the Arctic has fractured, releasing all the water from the freshwater lake it dammed. The Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is located on the north coast of Ellesmere Island in Canada’s Nunavut territory.

The huge mass of floating ice, which has been in place for at least 3,000 years, is now in two major pieces.

Now this is the response posted by one of your fellow 'Merkins:

How do they know that this huge mass of floating ice has been in place for 3,000 years? Where is the proof of this stated “fact?”

And to think these people are trusted with the vote. Oh, I see there's been no repsonse from you to those two other threads. I'm amazed, you invite others to comment (which they very rarely do) and then you cop out when the going gets tough.

Pip, pip!

The Real Kirk Douglas

Posted by: I'm Spartacus | Sep 30, 2003 5:09:45 AM

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