Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 18, 2013

renewing the Wanderjahre

The original Tour de France had nothing to do with bicycles: it was a medieval guild system which still has a residual existence today: it directed young craftsmen-in-training to travel from place to place in France, practicing their trade and learning the different ways it was done in different parts of the country. The same practice in Germany is called the Wanderjahre. You would think that this is where the English word "journeyman" comes from, but that's probably not the case.

The proposal I'm about to make runs against the grain of modern and American notions of freedom and independence, but for that very reason, among others, I'm going to make it: I think this practice should be brought back, reinvigorated, and extended to a wide range of professions. In place of the current residency model, which I suppose is the closest thing any American profession has to a Wanderjahre, we should ask our newly-minted physicians to spend a year working in a series of widely different situations: a hospital in inner-city Detroit, a tiny clinic in rural Mississippi, a gleaming health center in the suburbs of San Diego.

Similarly, lawyers should have to spend a few months in a public defender's office in Chicago, followed by a few more in a K Street lobbying firm in D.C. Academics who've just received their Ph.D. should spend a semester teaching at a community college, followed by one at a private university. Super-smart programmers from Stanford would get to pursue their own VC-funded startup — but only after they had spent some time writing code for J. C. Penney's website and the payroll system of a bank in Charlotte.

In short, the guild system needs renewal and expansion. If it's handled well, some people will experience a calling to work they never would have thought they could stand — until they were forced to do it. Perhaps some rough patches in uncomfortable situations will make them more thankful for the permanent positions they end up taking; and in any case will give many of them more empathy for their colleagues who spend large chunks (or the whole) of their careers in those "uncomfortable situations."

The guild-based Wanderjahre would not just be good for people newly arrived in a profession: it would promote among senior members of that profession, who would need to observe and evaluate the "journeymen," a sense of responsibility for the long-term health of their calling. At first, of course, we old sods would bitch and moan about the time it takes, time that (we tell ourselves) we'd otherwise be devoting to really important research, but after a generation or two those attitudes would fade: those who had experienced the Wanderjahre would know its value and would want to extend that value to others.

Would the system be subject to abuse, from younger and older members of the profession alike? Of course it would. All human systems are subject to abuse. But would be it better than the current system, or lack thereof? I bet it would.


  • Why have a system in the first place? What currently prevents a newly minted physician, lawyer, programmer, or plumber from seeking out the sorts of opportunities you suggest, or prevents the old sods from providing them?

  • Anybody can do these things who wants to, I suppose. But it would only work to build up the quality of a given profession if it were widely practiced and if certain standards were followed.

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