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Could Internships Confront Social Inequality?

Social inequality is not just a problem in America. Income gap weaves cultural divides throughout nations across the globe—but how we deal with such problems reveals much about our national character. In a Wednesday Atlantic story, Michelle Sutherland shares insights from Moroccan private college L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, where students undertake an internship that confronts this social divide:

The summer after the first year, students undergo a month-long internship that endeavors to introduce them to people who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is supposed to teach students about the needs of others as well as give them a fundamental understanding of how leadership is structured in companies. Internships such as this are not unique to L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie, and are common among economics students.

Student Sawsene Nejjar spent her internship at NIKEA (“think French IKEA”), and told Sutherland she felt “foreign” and distant from the other workers. Their religious and cultural tastes were almost completely different. But when writing her mandatory 10-page reflection paper after the internship, Nejjar “said she realized how much she learned.”

In America, the wealthy of prior generations (think Rockefeller) often became a sort of patron class to local communities (Robert Nisbet wrote about this in Quest for Community, an excellent book). Bill Gates often attempts to fulfill this patronage role, albeit on a more global scale. In my home state of Idaho, J.R. Simplot and his family, whose wealth grew from their potato business, supplied money to local arts and philanthropic foundations.

But as income inequality grows more common and schismatic, today’s younger generations do not always share such empathy for outside classes. The children of the elite are implanted with lofty aspirations from a young age—aspirations often fixated on personal advancement and a successful career. Money and attention goes toward such enterprises—an Ivy League education, law degree, Ph.D., and all the material trappings that ought to accompany such titles. These individuals nestle in bubbles of elite culture and community—within the power-driven enclaves of D.C., the career-fixated streets of New York City, the intellectual selectivity of university towns. They mingle with a specific group of friends who share similar taste in philosophy, culture, music, and books.

This picture may be somewhat extreme. But it reflects a large portion of today’s university students. After graduation, young people often procure jobs in the city. Many work in executive, law, and political offices—even while interning. Their interactions with those of a lower class or education grow increasingly rare. This lack of integration results in a sad lack of empathy for the pleasures and pains of other social classes.

Youth who grew up in rural America rarely return home after leaving for college—resulting in a “brain drain” that has greatly affected commerce and culture in Middle America. When rising up the social ladder, few youth continue to mingle with the class they grew up around.

Sutherland’s story strongly illustrates this. “Wealthy college kids” have increasingly become a class of their own. She points to Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart: the State of White America, to illustrate the divide further:

[Murray’s] research, based on the General Social Survey, shows that the upper class has become culturally sealed off from the rest of the country. They buy different kinds of cars, care about the environment and body weight, raise their children differently, want different vacations, and don’t care about professional sports like many other Americans do.

How many wealthy young Americans have ever held a minimum-wage job, or had an internship that placed them amongst America’s poorer classes? Would such involvement change their attitudes toward lower-class families? Would their discrepant cultural tastes rub off on each other, perhaps: the upper class obtaining a greater appreciation for pro sports, the blue-collar worker deciding to give classic literature a try?

L’Ecole de Gouvernance et d’Economie’s internship model, if instituted in the United States, would present interesting opportunities for bridging class divides. The Yale student could work at Chik-fil-A, the Harvard student in a local Wal-Mart. One wonders what application their education might have in daily interactions with customers, fellow employees, and supervisors. One wonders what they might learn of a class people that they’ve rarely encountered—at least not for a long time.

Education is not meant to isolate: rather, knowledge is meant to help us bridge divides of every kind. How should we put our educations to use? Do we use them to distance ourselves from the “unwashed masses,” or do we use them to connect with people unable or unwilling to obtain higher education?

Perhaps the greatest lesson learned through such interactions is how little we really know. Like Nejjar, we are forced to confront biases and stereotypes we weren’t even aware existed. Through everyday conversations, work done alongside each other, we begin to see life through wider eyes.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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