how the world sees america

Ivy League Workaholism

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Problem sets, quizzes, quarterly exams -- that is the U.S. to Daniel Goodkin, a Brit who studied at Harvard University. The work ethic of the place nearly drove him to a shrink.

Harvard is known to be a relatively hands-off university, but compared to what he was used to -- a UK system of year-long study followed by one month of intensive testing -- it was overbearing. So when deciding where to attend law school, he chose home.

From the gates of Middle Temple, where barristers train themselves to don wigs and annunciate eloquently on minutiae, we compared notes on our learning experiences in America. Daniel argued that because of burdensome pedagogy and hyper-testing in the U.S., kids don’t learn to think for themselves.

He took another leap, a la American philosopher John Dewey. Because of this stressed learning style, democracy suffers. Americans love to ally themselves with set ideologies, he said, whether Constitutionalists or Christians, and refuse to budge from the doctrines they’ve been taught, overvaluing loyalty and consistency as virtues and underestimating pragmatism and compromise.

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Comments (16)


Mr. Darcey:

Thanks for explaining the Oxbridge system in fuller detail. I found your focus on Oxford fascinating, given that only a small percentage of British students attend that university. I'm sure this wasn't your intent, but it does sound as though Oxbridge somehow counts so much more than other British univs in a discussion of UK higher education, simply by virtue of being THE Oxbridge.

When I first read Mr. Goodkin's article, I experienced a similar feeling of unease when I saw that he referred only to Harvard. However, the article often sounded as though the Harvard experience was true for every American college/university. I just want to caution readers of this post that that is not the case--a lot of variety exists among American colleges/universities (I don't know enough about the British university system to say for sure, but I'm guessing the same is true). Harvard is an exceptional case among American universities, similar to Oxbridge being exceptional among British universities.

I also wanted to address your comment about Oxford students gaining more insight and in-depth analysis from the tutoring system. Most classes at American universities require several shorter writing pieces and one large research paper in one term. These assignments provide the opportunity to pursue our interests in greater depth, besides the tests and assigned readings. Additionally, the research paper usually requires students to find sources outside of the class readings.

Lastly, the comment about study-abroad students being treated as "second-class" students at British universities--are you sure that this does not refer to study-abroad students being outsiders, rather than their actual academic abilities? (I have heard many Britons express the opinion that Oxbridge is snobby and elitist. Since I don't know the schools or anyone who attended either, I don't have an opinion on this matter.)I'm asking because my British university gives study-abroad students the same treatment as its full-time students in terms of grading and opportunities to participate in university life. Could you please clarify what you meant by "second-class"?

Amar C. Bakshi:

MrDarcey, Rest assured I'm reading this far down the page! This weekend I'm going to go through and pull out some of the most insightful comments I've received so far on this blog, and feature them in a post, and I'll make sure your exchange with Ellen is highlighted so people see it and engage. Daniel Goodkin has also promised me he'd rekindle this thread once he finishes exams. I just saw him today for 15 minutes in London. He had only moments to spare because he's hard at work memorizing for his law boards that go on until the 20th. "These are not representative of UK education" he tells me! I sure hope not.



Not that anyone is reading this far down anymore, but there is a split between the Oxbridge pedagogy and that of the rest of the UK system. On the macro level, you read from one to two and a half "papers" during an eight week term (you are also expected to do reading during the six week breaks "outside of term". These papers give you the means to prepare for specific exam questions during finals. The method of delivery of those papers is done in tutorials and lectures, though there is a growing movement to introduce a class scheme. Tutorials, at least in the humanities, are centred around a weekly essay. At the begining of the week you are given a reading list, usually several dozen books or articles long, and recommendations, along with an essay title. Usually you are expected to write 6 essays, per paper, per term. In "revising" for exams, you are usually recommended to look at four of those essays to prepare for a specific question. Thus, in any given week, you are reading for and writing between 1 and 3 5000 word essays, which you then have to defend to your tutor.

While some very small liberal arts colleges (Marlboro, Hampshire, Reed, St. Johns, and Simon's Rock) and the University of Chicago derive some pedagogical structures from the Oxbridge system, no American university I am aware of comes any near that expectation of output. Perhaps there are some universities which require as much work, but it is simultaneously across four or five subjects. The depth of an Oxbridge paper requires students to develop a deeper and more insightful understanding of the subject. To which Mr Goodkin refers.

Institutionally, Oxford also tends to have a very low opinion of American undergraduates (I could actually see many Oxford students' opinion of me change when I told them I was actually reading for a degree). As a result many of the study abroad schemes are a pale comparison to the actual tutorial experience. They spend a lot of money to be second class citizens.

Finally, I'm not sure I follow Mr Goodkin's analysis of democratic failings, but I can say that Oxford expects a certain independent responsibility out of its students, and does not treat them as wards like many American institutions do. Every member of an Oxford college has certain minimum rights. Students are even part of each college's governing body, and often get an equal vote in college affairs. There are no RAs, no rules against toasters or halogen lamps. The only sort of rule students are mandated to follow is not to kindle fires in the Bodelian Library. And really... As a result the place certainly feels more idyllically democratic.


I found Mr. Goodkin's article quite interesting--I'm from the States, and I'm spending my junior year abroad at a London university this year.

I had come to the university expecting a more vigorous curriculum than my home university's. The classes, however, did not live up to my expectations.

We had very little writing--often no more than two essays per term, and in some classes a few pages of bullet points passed for "essays." This makes me wonder how well UK students write compared to students in US liberal arts colleges, who are often required to take courses specifically geared towards writing strong essays. I bring this concern up because, personally, I find that writing helps me process important concepts and sharpen my critical thinking skills. I understand that Oxford and Cambridge require students to work one-on-one with tutors on essays, but are those essays really separate from the class material?

During the first term, I initially had trouble with essays. It seems that at UK universities essays are more like tests at US universities: a means of seeing how well the student understands the important concepts. Essays at my home university tend to be more focused on displaying critical thinking skills, and applying those skills beyond the limits of the class discussion. In my London school, critical thinking doesn't play much of a part beyond agreeing or disagreeing with authors.

In his article Mr. Goodkin claims that British universities are better at fostering students' abilities to think for themselves and an enthusiasm for learning. However, my classmates rarely read more than what was required for their essays/presentations, and often relied on those presentations in lieu of reading the material themselves (I also fell into this pattern quickly enough). Though we theoretically had an entire term to prepare essays in some of our classes, we usually procrastinated until the week before (this is true for both the US and UK classes I've taken). Additionally, we spent a lot of time worrying about which topics would appear on the exams!

Lastly, I would be interested in what Mr. Goodkin has to say about the specialization in UK undergrad programs. I've talked with British friends who didn't like specializing in only one area. Specialization makes sense for grad school, but does it really for undergrads?


"Americans love to ally themselves with set ideologies, he said, whether Constitutionalists or Christians, and refuse to budge from the doctrines they’ve been taught, overvaluing loyalty and consistency as virtues and underestimating pragmatism and compromise."

That Constitution has kept us free, from tyranny of all kinds, for over two centuries. Neither fascists nor socialists have been able to enslave us (and for you Europeans, yes, both ideologies are equally bad). Furthermore, Christianity has had the side benefit of drawing most Americans together more tightly without all of those nasty pogroms Europeans are frequently treated to (never mind that minor detail of, oh, saving our souls...such a quaint notion to enlightened Europeans that don't believe in such nonsense). We ended slavery and the Indian wars ourselves. We didn't need a foreign force to invade and stop them. Even when we commit wrongs, we set them right ourselves.

So criticize our devotion to our Constitution and our faith if it makes you feel better. We'll keep what we have here. We love it, thanks. And if you don't, well, no one is making you visit.

Amar C. Bakshi:

Hi Diana,

I got in touch with Daniel, and I believe he'll come online soon to respond to the text you've posted. He says it's ironic because he's currently memorizing material for finals coming up in early June!



I just returned from a semester abroad in the UK. A friend of mine attended Oxford for university, and she said the British system gets criticized for producing students who do not think for themselves. Students also study for the sake of exams. Furthermore, exam questions remain the same year after year, and students pass around information on answering these questions in a manner that impresses the grader. Also, from watching "The History Boys," I inferred that the British system struggles between education for its own sake, and education for the sake of getting high marks so students can get into Oxford or Cambridge (Irwin's method of "false pretences" for the sake of engaging the exam grader's interest; although it produces "novel" ideas, I suspect that is not the type of independent thinking you believe an education system should be fostering).

I only understand the British education system in broad brush strokes, but it doesn't seem more conducive to producing independent thinkers. Rather, it merely suffers from different vulnerabilities. I'd be interested in your perspectve on other contrasts between the two systems, aside from the workload.

Amar C. Bakshi:


It's always great to see your posts - very encouraging. I love the connection to Erasmus. If you can pull that quote and post it some time online, I'd be most grateful.

Amar C. Bakshi:

MH Lee,

Great point about the capacity to learn for the test rather than learn for the substance. I've always found the discrepancy between the two capacities to be rather disconcerting at times. It's a very important debate - what are exams unable to accomplish? To what extent are they meritocratic? To what extent not?


It seems to be an interesting trade-off, between all-or-nothing finals and a "low-grade", continuous anxiety regarding frequent testing. Interesting to reflect upon the balance, or alternative modes of assessment.

Amar C. Bakshi:


Thanks for writing such a thoughtful reply to the posts below. You do an excellent job expanding upon the connection you see between a test-heavy pedagogy and an impoverished political debate; I'd love to hear Tamara's response.

Daniel Goodkin:

I would like to thank Tamara for her thoughtful comments and, for the sake of furthering an interesting dialogue, to offer a few words by way of response.

First, I agree that a liberal arts education, in which undergraduates study a broad range of academic subjects ought to encourage multidisciplinary and independent thought. It was precisely the appeal of this diverse and open course of study which brought me to the US, rather than confine myself to a single discipline at the age of 18 as one must in the UK. The problem, however, is that the methods of assessment employed by elite American Universities are often at odds with the natural freedom of thought that a truly liberal education encourages and requires. When every piece of work is assessed, all of one’s energy is directed towards creating output that will be awarded a high grade. It is a simple matter of incentives: good grades mean success, so you do what you must to get good grades, even if that means sacrificing more in depth or simply speculative reading and discussions. When it comes to exams, you know the optimal way to study is to produce a bullet point summary of ideas: On this issue, Foucault says A, Nietzsche says B, Adam Smith say C. Arguments against are X, Y, Z. Throw two sentences for each onto the page, link with clear opening sentences in the active voice and then pray you’ve done enough for the grad student marking your paper to give you an A. And if possible find someone else to produce the summary for you so that you have more time to study other topics. Yes, you have to understand the material, but no it is not necessary and indeed not possible in the limited time you have available to do more than merely understand and regurgitate your bullet points or highlighted passages like a semi-conscious automaton, a fleshy version of Wikipedia.

Of course, this is not true of every institution or of every class. And needless to say “A, B and C” often amount to pages of fascinating and complex debate. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to study with some brilliant academics, such as the economist Professor Ben Friedman, who authored ‘The Morality of Economic Growth’, and German Historian Eric Rentschler, who is the world’s leading authority on Nazi filmic propaganda. These men and others I found to be true standard bearers for the ideals of a liberal education and no doubt there are countless more across other universities around the world. My plea therefore is not for a total revolution of the American system of higher education, but rather a return to the true roots of its focus. Harry Lewis recently observed in “Excellence Without a Soul” that Harvard moved from grading system scored out of something like 20,000 points to a system of letter grades specifically to avoid the neurotic obsession with comparing GPAs. Yet now, ironically, those 32 letter grades are converted to a numerical GPA - one calculated to five digits.

Much could be said about the effects of higher education on the lives of those who experience it in the US, about the nature it engenders, the society of winners and losers it creates, or whether a system is really a meritocracy that can require those from a middle class background to spend over $300,000 to become a lawyer or doctor or legally trained public servant. I agree with Tamara that the pursuit of knowledge should be challenging, and that the desire of all families and individuals to work hard and succeed is an unqualified good to be both lauded and encouraged. But I would also say it is absurd that US law schools allocate places almost exclusively with regard to GPA and LSAT scores. Are there not some extraordinary advocates in the world with no particular talent for French or mathematics or who are simply poor test takers? Should candidates not be interviewed to see how they handle problem solving tasks that they have not be tutored to answer?

But most importantly, the wider point I was attempting to make is that America has a general aversion to independent and purely analytical thought. Certain ideologies are so firmly entrenched in the American Zeitgeist that real debate and cultural evolution are almost impossible without the aid of inspired leaders and million man marches. Conversation in America seems not to be about assessing ideas or policies for their merits: the question is rarely will this work, or what should be our goal? Rather it’s how closely do you as a person and your bag of ideas match one of my labels. Liberal, radical liberal, soft on terror, anti-life, flip-flopper. Debate, so essential to a living democracy, is subsumed within a politics of labelling. We can sit back and laugh at Bill O’Reilley, but after a while it stops being funny. You come to realise that this impoverished discussion, this glorified banner waving shouting match has disastrous consequences. Wars are justified by mere equivocation, by mentioning one head of state in the same breath as known and notorious terrorists. Civil liberties are taken away not by proving the necessity of their abeyance but by labelling its purpose as according with a noble aim. The highest offices of executive government are open to anyone who is able to project the right public image and litter their speeches with the right labels. And some of those people, at least some of those people are simply not qualified to fulfil the jobs we have entrusted to them. Some of those people have proven themselves incapable of governing at home, or succeeding abroad, or of admitting or even knowing when they have failed.

When I say the American system of higher education harms democracy, I mean that America’s fundamental modes of discourse and debate are harmful to democracy: its system of higher education is merely one manifestation of its proclivity for uncomplicated, inflexible, ideologically driven analysis. My modest proposal is that tomorrow’s leaders should be trained to consider arguments and beliefs not only by reference to the divine trinity of Constitution, Christianity and the American Creed, but also by the kind of analysis that looks to the root of an issue, questions every assumption, and demands justifications for every assertion. Just as As should not be awarded for stringing together a list of prefabricated bullet points, political debates should not be won by the guy with the better slogan.


Youz guys are wicked smaht


At Oxbridge, legend has it that the ideal is to get a (double?) First after spending all one's time (punting?) on the River. Such legends give the snobs a higher opinion of themselves; they also make those who observe them smile.

In France, students have learned what "bosser" means before even entering any of the "Grandes Écoles".

"Une tête bien pleine" (Rabelais)? "Une tête bien faite" (Montaigne)? Does that distinction apply? Does it even make sense? Is it not for each and everyone to determine who one wishes to become, through the most congenial education one can find?

As this journey continues, comes to mind that Erasmus, for one, held that the young learnt the most by traveling extensively and becoming acquainted with the world of their time.

MH Lee:

I just graduated fom university and I have to say it is very stressfull and the constant exams and quizzes and grades make it difficult to actually sit there and soak in the material and get a true understanding. there is no time. . .we only study enough to get us through one exam and then there is another and then another all in the same day or consecutively. I don't know if people know that some people are actually poor test takers. When it comes to tests people freak out. Everything is so test based that every test makes or breaks you.

brian smith:

Even in British universities, over the last thirty/forty years, there has been a move to much more "continuous assessment" whereby not everything is riding on the results of the final exams in the final year to determine what class of degree is awarded. Now there is testing at least once a year in UK colleges. Students used to face breakdowns when facing the last set of all-or-nothing exams but that was the price for a much more relaxed passage through the earlier years.

Having gone back to school myself after a break of three decades, this time in the USA, I see the pluses and minuses under both approaches. There is always a low-grade anxiety about the current semester but not the senior year meltdown.

The worst drawback of the frequent grading here is the terror of not getting an A if the student wants to go on to a prestigious graduate or professional school. That's already a curse in the most academically oriented high schools.The most frequently asked question -- will this be on the final? -- is a total buzz-killer as regards genuine education.

Tamara Palenque:

As Mr. Goodkin I also had the opportunity to attend undergraduate studies in the United States and graduate school in the United Kingdom. However, my experiences with both are quite different to his. I attended a private Jesuit Universiy in Cincinnati, Ohio. The University prides itself on a liberal arts education that adheres to an ideology of having its graduating students prepared for professional and personal life issues that arise daily. A liberal arts education is thought to provide the skills needed to think for oneself and to be able to know how to access resources. As a testament to this ideology some of our greatest minds and philosophers have had a Jesuit education, such as Rene Descarte. In my four years at Xavier University I never felt that my education was ever compromised by 'hyper-testing' or 'burdensome pedagogy.' The tests and exams that I took (and there were many) were there to test my knowledge and my ability to comprehend the subject and material taught while being able to be critical of the doctrines that Mr. Goodwin has said Americans are 'overly' loyal to. From my experience I found that higher education in the United States still encourages and promotes the Socratic method of teaching. Which is a very different perspective from the opinion Mr. Goodwin had expressed that the 'stressed learning' in U.S. colleges is un-democratic. My experience with my graduate studies at the University of Nottingham was very different and appeared less democratic than in the U.S. The students would attend a lecture and quietly sit and accept the lessons and never question a lecturer or the material being taught. It's as if the lecturer is at the head of the class patting the students on the head (as if they were pre-school children) whilst the students sit politely listening and attentively taking notes.

I agree with Mr. Goodkin that in the U.S. there is a very competitive and at times exhausting expectation to perform at near perfect levels if not to exceed them. And yes 'workaholism' is partly due to cultural issues long engrained in the country. The U.S. is a country largely consisting of immigrant families. Both of my parents immigrated to the United States to achieve thier dreams of providing for themselves and their children - a better standard of living and a freedom that they did not have in their home countries. In fact, I believe that many have come to the U.S. had to be competitive since there are limited resources. And with a global market economy the U.S. has to perform above and beyond in order to maintain its dominance on the world circuit. Therefore, higher education in the U.S. will be very intense and stressful at times. But isn't that life and work nowadays?

I can empathize with Mr. Goodkin's european perspective at America's different approach to work and higher education. However, I do not agree with his statement that the workaholic attitude of the U.S. and American's are static in their doctrines and ideologies lead to it being un-democratic. Mr. Goodkin needs to remember the U.S. has and is continually evolving. For example, the U.S. gave women the right to vote and had the civil rights movement decades before Great Britain.

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