Learning and Labor

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Learning and Labor

John Cheng

Do internships undermine meritocracy?

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2m 33sec

In the Autumn 2008 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, G. Pascal Zachary reviewed a pair of books on Paul Kagame’s iron-fisted reconstruction of post-genocide Rwanda. Struck by the review’s lucid treatment of a decidedly academic subject, I cited Zachary’s article, “The Great African Hope,” for a research paper I was writing at Oberlin College, where I’m a senior majoring in politics. This past summer, eager to gain experience in the world of long-form journalism, and remembering that WQ review, I applied for an internship at the magazine.

For 13 weeks, copy editing, fact checking, and various clerical duties filled my days. The Woodrow Wilson Center regularly hosts high-profile public figures for speeches, panels, and interviews, so I was able to hear people such as Pervez Musharraf speak. The WQ editors gave me short writing projects, and a couple weeks before I left, invited me to write about Ross Perlin’s new book Intern Nation for the blog.

As Perlin observes, internships are “the gateway to all white-collar work.” Like it or not, they are a fact of life for college undergraduates and recent graduates. It wasn’t always so. Instituted in the early 1900s as a practice solely confined to the field of medicine, the use of internships has proliferated the American job landscape in the past several decades. In its model form, an internship serves as a stepping-stone toward rewarding employment. But Perlin’s interviews with serial interns—mid-twenty-somethings long out of college and still struggling to land steady jobs—offer a depressing counterpoint to that ideal.

Though Perlin generally treats internships, paid or unpaid, with skepticism, he reserves his most trenchant criticism for uncompensated internships. Indeed, one simple, animating principle lies at the heart of his book: Nobody should work for free. Working-class students who cannot afford to do so are excluded from entire professions, including journalism, for which internships are a prerequisite for entry. This is the anti-meritocratic essence of the uncompensated internship, he writes, and it violently punctures the myth of the American Dream.

That the WQ’s internship program was unpaid came as no shock when I first applied. However, Perlin’s book forced me to recognize how fortunate I was: I had money at my disposal. Certainly, I was willing to spend my some of my own savings while I worked here, and had earned a modest summer stipend from Oberlin. But what made the difference was that my parents supported me. My parents not only believe in upward mobility but are in a position to help finance my education and career aspirations. Plenty of students without means who were at least as qualified as I was didn’t even apply.

The benign internship—with judicious supervisors and a meaningful educational component—does exist, and even Perlin acknowledges that an internship’s potential rewards remain enormous. In that case, the playing field must somehow be leveled, precisely because the stakes are so high.