The Guilds

If you were a European of six or seven hundred years ago, your personal possessions would have been few, mostly limited to the things you or your family members made for yourselves. If you were more prosperous or lucky, you might own a few things that were made by master craftsmen, members of the guilds.

In the infancy of the guild system there were a few scores of guilds; at its zenith the guilds had become increasingly specialized and there were hundreds of them. Not only were there guilds for weaving, metal-working, barrel-making, and so on, but there were distinct guilds for weaving particular kinds of cloth, making certain sorts of objects from metal. Beginners learned the craft from master craftsmen to whom they were apprenticed, tied in a kind of indentured servitude. It took as long as seven years before an apprentice learned the rudiments of a craft and became a journeyman, able to ply the craft on his own, and another seven years before the journeyman became a master, empowered to have apprentices of his own (where the real money was).

It has been suggested that the guilds produced quality control. This is nonsense. There are written records documenting the prevailing fees that a prospective apprentice was to pay a master: four livres plus four years of service, three livres plus five years of service, or no up-front fee but the full seven years of service. Masters were rarely disciplined by their guilds. The guilds were primarily devices for extracting rents. Patents were exploited to prevent upstart competition, prices were raised beyond what they otherwise would have been.

As late as the 18th century only the wealthy could afford personal dishes and cutlery. Josiah Wedgwood was a visionary: he envisioned a world in which every person might eat from his or her own dish, a revolution in sanitation. Employing methods of mechanization, assembly lines, and mass production he turned that vision into a great fortune and contributed a good part of that fortune to the cause of opposition to slavery. It’s hard to say which was his greater accomplishment. He was, by the way, the grandfather of Charles Darwin.

Mechanization was the downfall of the guilds. The guildmasters were very skilled craftsmen, a highly selective group, and their products were beautiful. However, their methods limited production and, consequently, raised the price so that only the well-to-do could afford them and they targeted their products towards the well-to-do. Machine looms could produce more cloth than even the most skilled weaver and they could be operated by people with substantially less skill and ability than the master weavers possessed. The meticulous craftsmanship of the masters was lost but ordinary people could now afford clothes, dishes, cutlery, possessions.

Over the weekend David Leonhardt, writing at the New York Times, argues for more higher education on the grounds that higher wages follow increased education, even for restaurant cashiers or other jobs that wouldn’t seem to require a college educatoin. I think there are other prospective explanations for the phenomenon cited including deferred income and college degrees as signalling mechanisms.

However, if higher education does, indeed, increase wages, wouldn’t it make sense to drag higher education into the 21st century, dramatically reduce its cost via automation, improve its quality through standardization, and make it more effective by using methods that have empirical support? The retort to this typically takes the lines that higher education is intrinsically labor intensive, that it takes years of study and substantial investment for a college professor to achieve mastery of his field, and that higher education will always be expensive.

These are precisely the arguments made by the guilds centuries ago. Whenever I hear a skilled craftsman arguing that his or her field is intrinsically labor intensive, requires years (or decades) of study, individuals of great ability, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment to pursue in defense of the artisanal approach being used in the field, I recall the guilds. Scarcity may be by design. If we had believed the weaver’s guild, each of us might have a single pair of trousers, shirt, and suit of underwear. Instead, clothing is available for a pittance, in enormous variety, and at a quality that the masters of years gone by would have been hard put to achieve.

6 comments… add one
  • michael reynolds

    Wonderfully written. Guild-worthy.

    I am in complete and enthusiastic agreement. And not only as relates to university level. All of education from middle school onward can be transformed by using already-available technology. It can cost dramatically less. We can purge the worst teachers and reward the very best beyond their dreams. We can stop constructing and maintaining buildings. We can stop college kids having to commute or high school kids being bused. We can individualize education by interest and aptitude rather than insisting on one-size-fits-all. We can put special needs kids together with resources, and we can let the little geniuses advance at their own pace.

    Obviously there will be painful adjustments. But none of this requires new breakthroughs. We already have the internet, it’s just a matter of learning to use it.

  • Brett

    It has been suggested that the guilds produced quality control. This is nonsense. There are written records documenting the prevailing fees that a prospective apprentice was to pay a master: four livres plus four years of service, three livres plus five years of service, or no up-front fee but the full seven years of service. Masters were rarely disciplined by their guilds. The guilds were primarily devices for extracting rents. Patents were exploited to prevent upstart competition, prices were raised beyond what they otherwise would have been.

    That was a big part of it, but I also wonder if they were also a means of preserving and pooling institutional knowledge related to skilled professions in a period when the literacy rate was extremely low. We tend to under-estimate the difficulties of transmitting and recording information in such a situation.

  • That was a big part of it, but I also wonder if they were also a means of preserving and pooling institutional knowledge related to skilled professions in a period when the literacy rate was extremely low.

    I think it was much the opposite. Masters guarded their secrets jealously from other masters and apprentices were prohibited from revealing their masters’ secrets.

  • Icepick

    Michael Reynolds has already voiced his agreement above, but it should be noted he has been behind such ideas for some time now.

    Overall, I think the idea has merit, especially for grades 4 through the first two years of college. (That’s a rough estimate.) Before grade four I think many parents could do it themselves if they would take the time, and schools can be maintained for those who can’t for whatever reason.

    After the first two years of college and for some courses of study I don’t think remote learning would work that well. For example, any lab is better done in the presence of someone who knows what they’re doing. That is especially true just for the experience of doing labs incorrectly. One can learn a lot about how science works by screwing up even basic experiments, and that is best done when someone can point out what went wrong. That’s more effectively done in person than remotely. (Similarly, if the experiment is set up so well that it is impossible to screw it up save with dynamite, then it isn’t much of a learning experience.)

    Higher level college science courses should probably still have some personal contact. In areas with much calculation (physics springs to mind immediately) there are often many ways to solve a given problem. Cookie cutter grading by a machine looking for the “correct” way to solve a problem will just kill any creative impulse AND piss students off when they get a correct answer but not in the “correct” manner. (I know many people who have had exactly that problem in mathematics classes in grade school, and it has turned them against the subject. Ironically, it is such creative thinking that would make it possible for them to do higher mathematics.) In areas without that much calculation it may be even more imperative. Some things just require that nebulous concept of expertise that can be hard to quantify save by personal monkey-to-monkey contact.

    For some areas, though, it might actually be a return to the past. For a substantial period of time a lot of mathematics was done via correspondence between aficionados. I see no reason why the internet could not be used to speed up the process of passing along knowledge, both the cutting-edge kind and the stuff that has been known since before Euclid wrote his books.

    But there are problems with remote learning as well.

    (1) Enforcing academic honesty becomes even more problematic than it is presently. Within five years of putting a college mathematics degree into an online forum pretty much every problem for that major will have been saved online, easily available to be copied. (That’s assuming they aren’t already.) Figuring out who actually knew their stuff and who was simply faking it would be the major obstacle.

    (2) Sometimes monkey-to-monkey contact for students is invaluable. I’m thinking of times in grad school when two or three of us might get together in the grad student lounge to work on something or another. Yes, that could be done online, but I really don’t see how it could be done as well, or as profitably, as it was with the bunch of us working at a chalk board.

    (3) Camaraderie would be lost. Point (2) talked about working together in person, but I mean something a little different. Shared experience creates bonds that shouldn’t be completely shrugged off. I’m thinking of some specifics about which I shouldn’t elaborate, but I really mean that sense of community that comes from shared suffering. (Graduate school is Hell. If it wasn’t Hell for you, then either (a) you were a super genius in your field, or (b) your field is junk.)

    (4) Loss of the personal satisfaction of the teachers. Reynolds mentions rewarding the good teachers beyond their dreams. Maybe. But I imagine a lot of the joy of teaching will be lost, and that an increase in the administrative crap will be increased. Doing stuff via the internet will allow one teacher to work with more students, and they will thus have less time for each. They may NEED less time for each, but between that and remote work job satisfaction will suffer.

    I will digress on this last one a little by recounting tales of some of the students I dealt with through the years.

    A fair number never registered on me at all. They came to class, did their work with whatever level of ability they had, took their tests, passed the course (or not) and were never heard from again. These students ran the gamut from poor to excellent. I remember being surprised in a calculus class towards the end of one semester when I realized one of the two or three best students had never spoken a word. She did exactly what I wrote above, did it efficiently and well, and never needed any assistance of any kind. A perfect candidate for the kind of stuff Reynolds advocates.

    Some register with my memory only for bad reasons. Every graduate TA has had them, and will continue to have them until graduate TAs are no more. My two favorite were a pair of PYTs who had come to college apparently with the goal of getting their MRS degrees. As such they were attempting to rush one of the best sororities for such things. So they came to me one day after college algebra class to ask if they could be given a pass for an exam that was coming up in a few days – they wanted to reschedule.

    This requires some elaboration. The way these kinds of courses are taught at UF (and similarly gargantuan schools) is that a main lecture class is held two or three times a week. In such classes students sit in some large room with several hundred of their closest classmates and listen as a lecturer goes over the main topics with the use of AV gear. (Teaching via the internet will be a vast improvement over such classes.) On other days the students are then corralled into smaller sections of 25 to 30 students in which material is reviewed (and sometimes re-taught) by a graduate assistant. When a test is scheduled for these monster classes we have a logistical problem. We might have 2,000 students taking that same course, and they all need to be tested at the same time. That means enough rooms around campus to handle all those students at once. (Typically there will be two to four of the large lecture sections taught at different times, and the GTA sessions can happen at any time.) And this is just one of several such courses that may be looking for rooms at that same time. So the testing schedule is actually done (or was done, my info is more than a decade out of date) over two years in advance. Because of this no one is allowed to reschedule a test for any reason. To account for emergencies and such, the lowest test score of the class will be dropped.

    Now the woman who had been running the college algebra course for (I think) over 20 years at that point TOLD the students that no one would be allowed to schedule a make-up exam. Of all the tens of thousands (probably over one hundred thousand at that point) of students she had had through the years, she had allowed exactly ONE make-up test to be scheduled. That student got that privilege because he had been dead when the test took place. No, seriously! He had been riding his bike from the student ghetto to his test site during a storm, and had been struck by lightning. His heart actually stopped for a while and he was somewhat dead when the paramedics found him and revived him. THAT is what it took get a test rescheduled.

    So when the PYTs asked me to do it, and I told them no, they started whining about how they would miss the rush party if they took the test. I told them they had one drop they could use, and they could use it for this one if they so choose. They were not happy about that! When the student evaluation forms came back in the next semester theirs were easy to spot. Very simple stuff: lowest marks in every category and the comment “worst person ever” appended to the end. I was actually kind of proud of them.

    But there were students I would have missed. This Army guy who had come to college to get his Bachelor’s degree so that he could go back in as an officer. It was fun to work with him because he worked so hard. (Much harder than he needed to, in fact, but he was very disciplined.) Others too, including the guy that didn’t really want to be there, who proclaimed that “Mathematics equals the square root of all Evil.” (Yes, he wrote it in equation form.) Working with him was more life counseling, if you can believe it. One of the other grad students in my (our) office also kind of adopted him.

    But my favorite student was a guy that I tutored in junior college. I worked in the tutoring lab doing scheduled one-on-one tutoring with whoever wanted to show up – not very lucrative, but satisfying, and when no one showed up the other tutors made for great company. Anyhow, early one semester this guy shows up for college algebra tutoring. It was obvious that (a) his schooling prior to CC had been rather lacking, and (b) he had no confidence in his ability to actually understand the topic. So I worked with him. Teaching has been described as (in essence) two people sitting on opposite ends of a log talking. But I prefer to think of it as midwifery. You can HELP someone to learn something, just as you can HELP someone give birth, but you can’t actually do it for them. And so it was here.

    At the start I did two things – taught him the material (for the class was too quick for him), and encouraged him to keep working and keep coming around. So two or three times a week he would show up and we would work. He slowly started to get it at first, and then started progressing a little more quickly. His confidence grew, as did my satisfaction. Then one day a light bulb went off in his head. We were going over some topic (I forgot what it was) and I just saw him light up with understanding. All of a sudden he just got it. The stuff we had been covering and many other things just coalesced for him. The best part was seeing him realize that he got it, and seeing him (perhaps for the first time) realize that he had the ability to do the work. He never said it, but I had the feeling no one had ever bothered to tell him, or more importantly, show him, what he was capable of. But on that day, he got it, he knew.

    After that, he was like a different person, at least when he was around me. He still came to the sessions, but he didn’t really need them. He missed a couple and I got worried. He came back after that and explained what had happened – someone had broken into his truck and stolen his textbooks. He didn’t have the money to replace them, so instead he came to the tutoring lab and borrowed our copy to do his work.

    I tell you that nothing I have ever done professionally was a satisfying as tutoring that student. The big accomplishment was his, but I did get to help. And mind, this was all professional. He didn’t talk too much about himself, we didn’t become friends, and I don’t know what happened to him after that. (I stopped tutoring for a while after that, in favor of more lucrative endeavors like bagging groceries.) But that satisfaction has stayed with me for almost twenty years now. I had some similar teaching experiences before and after that, but nothing else quite that joyful. I’ve spoken to other teachers/tutors who have experienced the same thing. That kind of thing counts for a LOT, and I imagine the better the teacher the more it counts. Remote learning will likely kill a lot of that joy.

    Incidentally, that last student I discussed is an interesting example of what might or might not work. By the time he got to me, none of that remote learning would have done him any good. On the other hand, if he had had a better educational experience before that, it might not have been so bad for him. And the “personal touch” had done him no favors prior to that.

  • Icepick

    Scarcity may be by design.

    Scarcity of what? Graduate schools pump out more PhDs than needed year after year, in pretty much every subject. And frequently master’s degrees too. For that matter how many more psychology bachelor degrees need to be handed out before we have enough?

    The jobs for PhDs in the academy are kept scarce by other means entirely. CREATING PhDs is a method of maintaining funding and of keeping score.

  • michael reynolds


    Thanks for the shout-out.

    Two experiences I would add to the pile. First, my son (14) has spent the last year doing a learn-at-home course of study called K12 that has been largely a joke. It’s poorly-designed, the interaction with the teacher is extremely sketchy, and he can game a lot of it. For example he immediately realized he could log in ex post facto. We’d get an email from the teacher complaining he hadn’t logged in in 9 days, and 5 minutes later he’d have done it.

    But I don’t think one badly-designed (it’s Bill Bennett’s company, so. . .) curriculum proves anything much. It’s still a crude, last-gen, one-size-fits-all program.

    I also had a fascinating conversation with two anthropology profs who are going more and more online for their students who are a mix of grad and undergrad. They say they see improved compliance on things like reading of assignments because the text is online, sufficiently obscure as to not be widely available, and they can easily monitor how much time a student spends actually reading (or at least signed-onto) the material. They say it also helps with lectures — they can put more supplementary media online — and even with testing.

    Of course gaming the system will be a problem, but it already is.

    Also, as we move to pad-based or web-based enhanced books, all textbooks can be turned into a more-or-less complete lesson with video, outlinks, discussion boards, spoken word options and so on.

    I agree something would be lost. And I think there are kids (my daughter is one) who need that physical, human contact desperately. But we should be able to design a flexible sort of learning environment where a kid can go remote for some things, be one-on-one online for another, and in a classroom for a third.

    The biggest problem is probably that we use schools as babysitters. Most working parents don’t have the flexibility that I or my wife do. But I hope school and work will evolve in tandem, adapting to each other.

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