One of the suggestions given by distributist thinkers is to reintroduce the guild system into modern economics. This suggestion is often met with fierce resistance. We are often told we are crazy. But are we really? I will argue that the guild system is not simply logical, but may actually be the very thing our nation needs to address one of our major economic problems: education.
Higher education in America is quickly becoming a major economic problem and has long been a major cultural problem. The economic problem begins with enrollment. Enrollment in universities increased by 11 percent between 1990 and 2000 and by 37 percent between 2000 and 2010.1 The skyrocketing enrollment has contributed to the ballooning costs for higher education. “Between 2000–01 and 2010–11, prices for undergraduate tuition, room, and board at public institutions rose 42 percent, and prices at private not-for-profit institutions rose 31 percent, after adjustment for inflation.”2 This increase in prices actually outpaces the rate of increase in the cost of health care. In that same time real household income has been relatively stagnant. Despite this massive rise in costs, demand continues to rise as our culture continues to put more and more emphasis on college degrees. The rising costs and stagnant real wages naturally has led to increased usage of the American cure-all: debt. Debt is the real heart of the issue. In 2011, 67 percent of graduates held student debt with an average of $26,600 per student. This was up from an average of $24,000 in 2009.3 Needless to say this is a major problem, especially when young graduate unemployment remains around 8% (and let us not forget underemployment). Graduating from college with a degree but with a mountain of debt only hurts economic growth as our young workers and their parents must practice austerity to cope with the debt. With crushing debt rising, unemployment and underemployment high, stagnant wages, and no sign of relief, it is hard to not see the economic bubble expanding right before our eyes. The response from the government is of course to spend more federal funds to band-aid the debt by lowering rates and giving grants, only shifting the debt from the students to the working tax payer (or really shifting it off to their children who will get the bill when we cannot keep borrowing as a nation). The government response not only kicks the can down the road, it also makes the problem worse. By simply giving away money for more education through grants and debt forgiveness, the government artificially raises demand for higher education and tells the universities that they can keep raising prices without worrying about deterring students (because the government will eventually pick up the tab). The result is even higher prices and more debt. The situation is made worse when graduates find that as soon as they actually acquire a job, they either have to undergo new, on the job training to learn the skill of their new job or the graduate does not even use the degree they earned anyways.
The other end of the crisis is the cultural and moral one. We have harbored such an emphasis on higher education that parents now ship their kids off to school even though these young students often have no idea what they want to do or study. Young students find that the culture of college is as much, if not more, about partying and having wild fun than it is about seriously getting an education and preparing for the future. On a moral level, our children are sent into the lion’s den of near occasion of sin at most if not all universities. They are constantly bombarded with an aggressive liberal secular culture that openly promotes serious evils and too many young men and woman are poorly prepared for it. Not only that, most university faculties are dominated by anti-religious professors, many of whom target students of all faiths with atheist evangelism.
The current state of higher education is nothing short of a crisis, especially for Catholics facing not only the debt but the evil culture. However, the solution may not be as far away as we think nor as crazy as we are told that it is. The solution may lie in the ancient guild system.
Briefly, the guild system is a form of business cooperation and education. A guild is a collection of masters of a particular trade that band together to regulate their industry and share the market for a particular product. The masters also take on interested youth and train them in the trade. The youth are first called apprentices, then as they get more advanced they become journeymen, and finally, once they have mastered their trade, they become masters.
A return to a guild system is a strong potential solution to our education problem because it was in the context of a guild-based economy that the university originated and most appropriately operates. In High Medieval Europe, the guild system dominated economic activity in the new and growing towns and cities of the Europe. The masters from many trades formed guilds to defend the secrets of their trade and to share the market for their products. In these same cities there were new Cathedral schools built on the command of the Vatican. At this time in Europe (late 11th and early 12th centuries), the scholastic method was growing and there was a new emphasis and rigor in education. This emphasis on education began to create a new class of masters, masters of education and knowledge. These masters began to cooperate with each other and the Church, under the Church’s protection, to form an education guild after the model of the guilds of their time. The educated elites first taught a well-rounded curriculum aimed at developing the student as a person. This would become the origins of the liberal arts education. Beyond the basic education, students could pursue the higher fields of medicine, law, and theology. Students would be awarded degrees corresponding to their level of education which reflected the levels of advancement within the guild system. The Church officially supported these degrees and therefore they would be honored all throughout Europe. These cooperatives became the universities. Our universities today are set up in effectively the same way as they were in Medieval Europe. Our colleges are guilds. Each university is, in a way, a collection of masters of knowledge who impart upon their student the intellectual trade.
While the university is in fact itself a guild, the contemporary university has become an institution that has been removed from its original context and has been given a duty it cannot adequately fulfill. The modern university is no longer one guild among many as it originally was. It is no longer the guild that teaches the liberal arts and the advanced intellectual fields, leaving the trade skills and common jobs to other guilds. Rather, the modern university tries to do both. It seeks to perform the task of the original university, (that is, provided a balanced liberal arts education) and simultaneously train students for jobs and careers. The university system is failing at this because it is not built for such a task. Students learn how to be intellectuals from professional intellectuals. But students need to learn to do a particular job or learn a particular trade from those working that particular job or trained in that trade. This is clearly evidenced by looking at the relative importance of differing experiences on a college graduate’s resume. Today, despite all of our emphasis on a college degree, the strongest thing on a graduate’s resume is their internship experiences while in college. Often times, a student’s grades or class work is of little importance unless they intend to continue on to higher degrees in the intellectual fields. Ironically, the strongest sign of a student’s quality is how much time they managed to get away from the university and out of the classroom while paying tens of thousands of dollars to go to a university and sit in their classrooms.
What is needed is a guild-like system for the training of students. That is, a system to train students by teaching them hands on in the field. My proposal is this. Some guild-like associations should be formed among firms or individuals within an industry. These can be formed for many disciplines such as accounting, finance, insurance, marketing, engineering, biotechnology, etc. These associations train their own students. Instead of firms hiring graduates with big degrees who demand high salaries because they are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and who they will have to train themselves more anyways, firms can higher students. Firms can train the students themselves. If need be, education can be supplemented with online courses, text books, and local community colleges. The student will provide entry-level labor to the firm and in return she/he is taught the trade of that firm. The student gets free education, no debt, no years of unnecessary classes, no temptation to fall victim to the extended adolescence and intense party culture that college effective has become. In return, the firm receives cheep or free labor, an opportunity to train a worker in a way that exactly fits the needs of the industry, and a chance to really get to know their employees personally. An association of firms within an industry will establish some level of knowledge of the trade at which they will award the student the honor of master and issue them a degree or license to practice that trade.
To some extent a system somewhat like this exists in places. An example that I particularly like is a hospital school near my home. The hospital has a college for nursing that a number of my friends attend. It is called the Mount Carmel College of Nursing (A Catholic College/hospital). They learn how to be nurses from other nurses not dissimilar to a master teaching an apprentice. Many of the students have jobs at that hospital and live nearby. They learn a trade from those practicing the trade and when they are done, they earn a degree saying that they know the trade.
Another example that is quite promising is the Cristo Rey High School network (a Catholic school of course). This high school network seeks to educate low-income students by coordinating with local businesses to find internships for the students while in high school where the work offsets the cost of the private education. This is introducing real world experience all the way back into the high school level. The way of thinking that influences this school model is exactly the way of thinking that we need when addressing education.
My family is an excellent example as well. My father is a home builder and runs the family home building business. My father learned to build homes from his father and worked for the business all his life. That is, my father learned to be a home builder from another home builder while building homes. When he was in his early 20’s he supplemented his hands on training with a quick associates degree in business from a local community college that he easily paid for himself without debt. Contrast this with some friends of mine in college. These friends got four-year degrees in construction. They got little hands on experience in college, they graduated with tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and were no better prepared for work than my dad was at their age.
A guild system introduced into the educational options for students would rescue the university before the bubble bursts. Before the college debt crisis becomes too great for our nation to handle. The advantages are numerable. First the university can return to what it was made for, liberal arts education and training of intellectuals. Second, the demand for college degrees would diminish which would significantly reduce tuition as students go to many other places for their education. Therefore debt levels would drop for those who are actually interested in intellectual careers, a purely well-rounded liberal arts education, or the higher fields of law, medicine, etc. Those seeking careers can bypass the crushing debt of the universities and simply train for the career that they desire to work in, and become much better at it much more quickly. Finally, the deadly party, binge drinking, extended adolescence culture would shrink as fewer children are shipped off to college with no idea what they want in their life and given free rein to do whatever they want while trying to figure it out.
Guilds are not just a nice distributist idea. Nor are they foolishly unrealistic as some claim. Guilds are actually exactly what our country needs to save our educational system and our students. To make the change we do not need to wait for government either. We need businesses and groups of businesses to be courageous enough to say that they actually do not need people with a degree. They will hire and train motivated employees who are willing to work hard in an apprentice-style agreement. Groups of professionals need to band together to say that they will train students and honor certifications by the members of the association. We need people to support schools like Cristo Rey High School and Mount Carmel College of Nursing or any other arrangement like this. We can and need to escape the bubble before it bursts.
- U.S. Department of Education, National Center of Education Statistics. (2013). http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=98
- U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. (2012). Digest of Education Statistics, 2011 (NCES 2012-001), Chapter 3 .
- Student Debt and the Class of 2011. The Project on Student Debt http://www.projectonstudentdebt.org