Blog Post

The College Experience: A Modern-Day Paddy West?

In the late eighteenth century, one of the most common occupations was sailing. With a world economy largely dependent on naval trade, the smooth operation of a sailing vessel was of utmost importance. Professional sailors needed a perfect knowledge of how a ship worked and how to peak its performance. To learn the required skills, sailors would often start off early, accompanying ships on their journeys across the globe, learning firsthand. However, those who didn’t get such a head start were at a serious disadvantage. For the abysmally poor of the English port city Liverpool, embodied in many Irish folk songs, it was a disadvantage with a simple solution. In the Irish folk song “Paddy West,” a Liverpool board house keeper teaches greenhorns to be able-bodied seamen in just a few days.

            According to the song, Paddy West prepares his “recruits” for life on the high seas in various ways. He orders them up to the attic to stow away canvas, in preparation for storing the main royal sail; he dresses them in dungarees and douses them in ice-cold water flung from -buckets to mimic the crashing waves. After a day or so, the recruits are deemed ready and given their legal papers, and Paddy signs them on a ship leaving the harbor. Before they leave his care, however, an initiative ceremony is conducted. The recruits are shepherded into the living room over a piece of string and are walked around the table—and on it, a cow horn. The song explains: “There’s one more thing for you to do before you sail away / Just step around the table with the bullocks on display / And if they ask ‘Were you ever at sea?’ You can say ‘Ten times ‘round the horn’ / You can tell ‘em that you were a sailor since the day that you was born.” If their employers question them about their previous sea experience, they can simply state they’ve crossed the Line (the equator) and have been ten times around the Horn (Cape Horn), which will further secure their job.

            College today is remarkably similar to Paddy West’s improvised academy. Fresh graduates often have only a sketchy knowledge of their field, and practically none of what Time Magazine ( calls “soft skills”: the team-player attitude and leading skills that can hold a company together. Could it be that, like Paddy’s sailors, students are only receiving the most basic educations before entering the work force? Are they taught the necessary people skills that most corporations look for? The increase in unemployment in people aged 16 to 24 years suggests not ( Additionally, students must take on crushing amounts of debt in order to attend college. It seems Paddy West’s “students” did too: it was a common agreement that Paddy receive two month’s wages for his services (Paddy West was likely an actual historical figure. Some versions of the song change to accommodate the steamboat, suggesting Paddy adopted his services to keep up with the times). Because most of Paddy’s pupils came to him out of desperation for a job, two month’s wages is a hefty chunk of cash. Today’s students are over encumbered with debt, but so many take it on willingly, knowing they won’t have much chance at all to score a high paying job without a prestigious college degree. The degree is a golden ticket to a job, like Paddy arranging a ship to hire, which is the ultimate goal of enrolled students.

            The problem, like most problems of critical importance, has no single, clear solution. Be it lowered costs, new teaching strategies that develop “soft skills”, economic improvement, or countless others, college should not be a modern day Paddy West.


1 comment

Colleges serve several distinct public purposes - preparing usually young or only modestly experienced adults for professions, careers, or responsible roles in larger organizations. These include some career or occupational skills, but also a kind of cultural literacy that, reflecting 18th, 19th, and 20th century values, includes literacy in writing, math, and cultural experiences ranging from literature to the arts and history. A great deal of this cultural literacy could be captured and demonstrated online - in various settings from blogs like this to MOOCs to ePublications to YouTube music or art. Yet the skills most critical to economic viability are usually less abstract and involve technical or mechanical or more practical experiences ranging from cooking to fixing things. There are a variety of educational opportunities for these "hard skills" ranging from workplace learning to Manchester Bidwell to corporate sponsored to military training. Some of these give credit, but most don't.

A "college" that assessed a student's portfolio for what they can demonstrate, usually through the eight "soft" skills derived from SCANS by Dr. Arnold Packer, and verified those skills, as Packer suggests, with employers, could shorten a Bachelor's degree substantially - by two to three years. If that assessment also included the liberal arts, within those portfolios, and reflecting those issues of literacy noted above, a degree could be quite cost-effective - the college would not have to instruct as much as to assess, which can be lots cheaper, faster, and involve an awful lot less superstructure.

Some of this is shown in College for America, at SNHU. But that covers only the Associate's degree - not bad for about $5,000, but it could be structured further.

In other words, the solution is really not hard to find. Just look around a little before you give it up.