When intelligent people discuss the problems with the higher education system in the Western world – namely that it costs too much and fails to prepare most of its students and graduates for fulfilling lives – the suggestion to revive the apprenticeship system which existed in bygone times often comes up.
Billionaires like Nassim Taleb and Peter Thiel have both advocated something like a return to the apprenticeship system which was ubiquitous up until the early modern era. These suggestions are also often echoed by bloggers and others who know vaguely about what they want, but aren’t quite clear on what the old apprenticeship system was and why it ultimately faded.
This article will attempt to clear out some of the confusion and obfuscation around the issue.
One company that attempted to revive the apprenticeship concept for high tech companies just shut down earlier this month. In the closing letter, the founders cited some failed matches and high expenses for managing the relationships between ‘apprentices’ and mentors. Their ambition was to create a national apprenticeship network, but the model couldn’t scale.
Some states have also attempted to create larger apprenticeship programs outside the construction trades, where they are still prevalent (albeit in a different way than was traditional).
Despite all these well-intentioned efforts, many if not most of them are likely to fail. To understand why, we have to retrace the history of why compulsory education and labor reforms displaced the old apprenticeship model.
Apprentices were bonded to their masters
Parents who lacked land to give to their sons or means to secure them some other income would often turn to apprenticeship to provide them with a secure future. As soon as they were physically capable of adult labor, they would be eligible for an apprenticeship contract. These contracts would often last for six years or longer.
And they were binding. Young apprentices who found the work obnoxious or who disliked the treatment that he received at the hands of his master who escaped could be caught and returned – much the same as a chattel slave could be.
Ben Franklin famously escaped his apprenticeship to his brother before completing it and set up his own shop. This sort of behavior was more feasible in America where formal guilds were not as well established as they were in Europe.
Further, poor children with no visible means of support could be seized and placed into the employ of a master as an apprentice. Rather than going on welfare rolls, the “poor laws” obligated youths to long, arduous, and often unpaid labor while they lived under their master’s roof.
Instinctively, in the modern era, we tend to rebel against this impingement on individual liberties. Many people today associate indentures and apprenticeships with slavery.
There are also political concerns related to democracy – a man who had known nothing but the workshop for all of his adult life would necessarily lack the liberal education that someone who had been schooled would have. Yet they would both have the same vote. In order to justify the wisdom of universal suffrage, universal education had to be instituted in order to impart enough knowledge for everyone to wisely exercise those votes.
In the industrial era, as larger firms developed, it became more common for apprentices to work for corporations rather than individual masters. The periods of training also began to shorten relative to what was common in older periods.
If you ever find yourself wondering why older homes are so much more beautiful and ornate than homes built after the New Deal, one of the reasons why is because the people who constructed it came from a culture that valued skilled labor and developed formal institutions that cultivated it.
Why did corporations and craftsmen bear the expense of training future laborers in the past, while they tend to be unwilling to do so now?
The reason why is because they could be assured that they would derive future exclusive value from that training. Employers in the contemporary free labor economy rightly fear that their investment in training will be unrecoverable should that laborer find another job not too long after completing their training.
Compulsory education made apprenticeships less feasible
Perhaps the largest change in the way that Americans prepared young people for a lifetime of work came with the spread of compulsory education laws that spread from state to state beginning in the mid-19th century. Elementary school became mandatory by the early 20th century, and high school attendance became common by the end of World War II.
Youths who would be starting their professional training at 12 or 13 years old in previous eras were instead halfway through a time-consuming abstract education in the arts and sciences that would last until they turned 18. This was compounded through the century as the education complex continued to expand and demand more and more years from its students.
Child labor laws which propagated throughout the Progressive era also disrupted the former working lives that adolescents were compelled to live. The teenager – the youth with a lot of free time and few work obligations – is more the consequence of compulsory education than a life stage that has always existed across all societies and time periods.
The National Apprenticeship Act brought everything under Federal control
The National Apprenticeship Act (also called the Fitzgerald Act) of 1937 brought all apprenticeship programs under Federal regulation. This added to the expense of compliance with regulation and made it much more challenging to set up and run apprenticeship programs. As far as the government is concerned, it’s easier to expand spending on education than it is to encourage apprenticeships.
The political impetus for education – it enables the state to mold the thinking of future voters – also makes it more attractive than apprenticeship programs which are just going to train people into being more lucrative sources of tax revenue.
Because of this regulatory apparatus, it makes it risky and impossible to replicate the old apprenticeship system. It has to work within a larger set of legal restrictions and crowding-out effects than our ancestors ever had to deal with.
This is one of the reasons that despite interest in reviving apprenticeship programs in the US, there is little speech about deregulating apprenticeship programs.
The reluctance to do this has ideological and political roots: scaling back on the ambitions of compulsory education also means admitting that universal suffrage is an ill-starred doctrine.
There are also some spiritual reasons as to why it’ll be challenging for modern Americans to pursue this sort of reform. Apprenticeships necessarily put skilled workers in positions of authority over other workers. Their capabilities of those authorities are more important than their credentials. This must undermine the authority of educated managers, teachers, and professors. Those bureaucrats are whom the modern state relies upon to enforce its strictures.
Some closing words on freedom, education, and apprenticeship
The new system of free labor tends to be portrayed as representing an advance in individual liberty. This viewpoint tends to be shared even among ardent critics of the New Deal regulatory regime.
Viewed from a different perspective, all that we did was switch from one form of human bondage to another. Apprentices might have been unfree, but they were at least working in something that was in their long term interests – and often better than the alternatives at the time. Schooling provides difficult-to-define practical benefits – they are more concerned with molding citizens than they are with imparting practical skills.
Students today aren’t free, either. Their parents will be fined or imprisoned if their children go truant. Rather than being bound to a workplace, they’re bound to a government school until they turn 18. And ever-increasingly, they must then attend a university until 21 or graduate school until much older before finding suitable employment.
Rather than employers bearing most of the costs of training, instead the state taxes parents to pay for expensive educations that are unlikely to prepare children for the working world – and are quite likely to introduce those children to the tangle of pathologies dramatized in every movie about high school ever made.
Yes, masters and their wives often whipped and otherwise abused their apprentices. But bullies in schools deliver beatings and humiliations just the same. Such is the way of arbitrary authority. When schoolmasters could issue corporal punishment, violence among children was less of an issue. When they were forbidden from corporal punishment, the children took over in the administration of random violence – often without much of a moral purpose behind it.
Because correcting the errors of the great reformers requires violating countless taboos, those corrections are likely to be furtive, halting, and at small scale. It’s much easier for families and individual companies to pursue small initiatives than it is to attempt to reform the entire system at once. There are too many established interests – and more importantly, powerful ideological blinders – that will impede any serious attempts to enact broad reforms.