Education and Experience: The Justice Implications of Unpaid Internships

Last month the Shared Justice Editorial Team asked if Americans have lost the tools of learning. Broaching the subject of education by considering what it does or should give us would be an incomplete endeavor if we did not also ask what professional experience gives us. If, as Oscar Wilde suggests, experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes, what then is the converse of this adage? Does experience within a just labor market better one’s education and professional marketability?

Enter the “Black Swan Ruling.” On June 11, 2013, a Federal District Court Judge in New York ruled that the studio that brought us the movie Black Swan did so in violation of federal and local wage laws. Unpaid interns were tasked with the same work as regular employees—but without commensurate compensation. The ruling renews old-yet-important debates over the fair treatment of workers and, in these cases specifically, students. Is it just to gain experience yet receive little to no compensation? Our July editorial considers this question within the broader context of education versus experience by drawing from one of the premier thinkers on education in the U.S., John Dewey, and his 1938 book, Experience and Education.

Dewey’s Philosophy of Education

John Dewey was as influential as he was divisive. His publications on education span half a century from his first in 1884 (The New Psychology) to his last in 1949 (Knowing and the Known). Chided by conservatives as being too cozy with Marxist thinkers and criticized by liberals by his insertion of family and faith values, Dewey and his writings must be read and understood in a tri-part identity: that of a philosopher, a psychologist, and an educator. The editor of Experience and Education gracefully captures Dewey’s complex approach to education in saying he “interprets education as the scientific method by means of which man studies the world, acquires cumulatively knowledge of meanings and values.”

Yet, Dewey shouldn’t be confused with Melvil Dewey, the creator of the Dewey Decimal system. No, John Dewey was far more concerned with the empirical balance of education in presenting opportunities to explore theory and practice in concert with one another. In Dewey’s eyes, the school had similar characteristics as that of a family or a job, making it a social institution that, if carefully organized, could bridge the chasm of education and experience.


Millions of undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate students in the U.S. attempt to cross this chasm each year by partaking in varying forms of internships. The National Association of Colleges and Employers estimates 55 percent of the graduating college class of 2012 had an internship at some point during or after their studies—47 percent of which were unpaid. The U.S. knowledge- and service-based economy has produced demand not only for advanced degrees of knowledge but also for advanced degrees of experience. Internships are meant to provide students with an environment that is situational and dynamic (which may offer an answer to Dewey’s concern that schools are not viewed as social institutions).  These experiences—whether internships, externships, student jobs, or volunteer opportunities—build a solid structure on the foundation provided by theoretical knowledge.

The current debate surrounding paid and unpaid internships is tricky; many employers require interns to receive college credit for their work. These policies (while frustrating to recent graduates who seek real-world experience) help ensure a certain level of justice in the system. An employer who is accountable to a school or a professor for a student’s progress hopefully is less likely to exploit a student worker than an employer who truly offers interns nothing in return for their time. The goal of internships should be to help each student grapple with working-world experience and to provide the hands-on test that helps answer the question, “What am I called to do?”

Nexus of Education and Experience

It is entirely possible that college students graduating each year are very skilled in “doing school.” But how good are Millenials at doing work in the form of identifying real problems and producing practical solutions that align with their callings? As an Editorial Team, we are persuaded that internships—even the unpaid ones—remain a valuable tool for individual learning and productive contribution to society. Universities have always been the curators of knowledge. Now, though, information can be searched and knowledge attained faster than it can be taught. As a result, universities and their faculty must view themselves no longer as the curators of knowledge but the curators of wisdom.  Students need guidance on what to do with the proliferation of knowledge and opportunities.

However, universities cannot answer this problem alone. Numerous co-ops exist in which students pair themselves with employers for academic credit. Yet the trajectory of the American education system has pointed toward a standards-centric approach over the past decade. And, with 50 different varieties of primary education and hundreds of different universities around the country, Dewey’s vision of a system operating at the nexus of theory and practice is too idealistic. Nevertheless his words written in 1938 are as poignant now as they were then:  

“The educational system must move one way or another, either backward to the intellectual and moral standards of a pre-scientific age or forward to ever greater utilization of scientific method in the development of the possibilities of growing, expanding experience.”

Considering this assertion, how can the current education system provide students with the requisite knowledge, skills, and experiences to be competitive contributors to society? If the legality of certain types of unpaid internships will continue to be called into question, what will take the place of these experiences? And what of those not attending university, do they not need the proper mixture of education and experience as well?

We invite readers to thoughtfully and prayerfully consider answers to these questions while acknowledging the fact that most internships are white-collar work. The true threat to justice  is not that some employers subject mostly educated and privileged twenty-somethings to unfair labor environments or pay. Rather, it is the interpretation and encroachment of wage and labor laws on the invaluable tool of job experience.

In 2009, President Obama asked every American to commit to at least one year of training, whether through a community college or four-year school, vocational training or an apprenticeship. The logic here is that individuals with enhanced education and skills will be better suited to adapt and evolve with the demands of a dynamic and interconnected global economy. Thus, it is probable the U.S. needs more investment in vocational schooling or more involvement in apprenticeships, but not more lawsuits. Paid or unpaid, credit or no credit, internships should remain as long as there is business demand, voluntary supply, and legal recourse for labor wrongdoing.

In the end, however, the question may not be how to fill-in the gap between education and experience, but instead, to whom should this work be left?