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Working Man's PhD
September 5, 2011 - 6:30am

Can't hang it on the wall for the world to see

But you've got yourself a working man's Ph.D.

--Aaron Tippin, 1993

We are remodeling our house. This might not seem connected to a blog about international higher education. However, I come home each day for an update from our outstanding Irish carpenter and to marvel at the evidence of his higher education.

I delight in the array of accents echoing off my walls, but I recognize their reflection of a sad truth. The United States fails to produce phenomenal craftsmen like these. We import them from countries where post-secondary or ‘higher’ education continues to train masters of something other than business administration.

A deep historical irony underlays the American obliteration of artisans. Academic training modeled itself on the rigorous requirements of craft guilds. Each June, I don a velvet cap, grasp a scepter, and serve as a faculty marshal for Northwestern’s doctoral hooding ceremony. While I try to keep the professoriate in their chairs, the Dean regales the assembled PhDs-to-be and their relieved relatives with tales of medieval journeymen academics made masters.

Sceptics scoff at the Oxbridge MA collected once the recipient of a BA has practiced his or her art in the world for a few years. To a European familiar with an apprentice’s journey (hence journeyman) across the continent practicing his craft under different masters before ascending to that status himself, this makes sense. The BA is an apprentice, who has completed classroom training but not the education only practice can provide and make a Master.

Back when Benjamin Franklin was a Boston journeyman, he ran for freedom in Philly like so many through our national history who stepped off ships, trains, and planes into communities desperate for bakers and builders whether or not their training had reached completion. Many, like Franklin, succeeded without further supervision. Nonetheless, our culture of runaway craftsmen left us without a way to assess quality until it’s too late. No guild gauges excellence on the community’s behalf.

My Celtic carpenter attended a technical school where he learned ‘joinery.’ Google Irish carpentry and you’ll quickly find yourself on a page about apprenticeships. Spend time in Germany and you’ll eventually see young carpenters in silly smocks, the journeyman’s uniform. Hire a graduate of these training programs and you know precisely what you get: who taught them for how long to what end.

Into this gaping hole in America’s educational economy stepped for-profit institutions willing to grant working men and women the certificates absent from craftsmen and women’s walls in Aaron Tippin’s lyrics. Such institutions ran amok when they restructured the economy of apprenticeship. Franklin’s father bought Ben’s place, but Ben then worked for his brother to earn his keep. As Marx would say, the masters owned the means of production - the tools. The apprentice’s parents paid for their child’s access to those tools until his work became of the quality that he merited his own.

I studied in Britain when Prime Minister Major adopted American degree inflation and declared all Polytechnics to be Universities. By the time my generation bought homes, Polish plumbers built Britain’s bathrooms.

I watch the UK’s current travails from across the Atlantic like a bad re-run. First, make everyone aspire to a ‘University’ degree. This goal rests upon the devaluation and deconstruction of crafts. Second, make ‘University’ degrees unattainable for all but the fortunate few. Third, pontificate about a “broken society” in which the young fail to take pride in their contributions to the public sphere. Britain’s Oxonian Prime Minister blames “a lack of proper parenting.”

Of course! Why didn’t I think of that? I suppose I spent too much time with my parents and too little on the playing fields of Eton with Cameron and his cohort. Here I thought the US and the UK needed to accept the existence of myriad skilled crafts and social contributions, then provide youth an educational structure in which to earn “a working man’s [or woman’s] Ph.D.”

Elizabeth Lewis Pardoe is a member of the University of Venus editorial collective and an associate director of the Office of Fellowships at her undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University. She earned M.Litt. and M.Phil. degrees in European History as a Marshall Scholar at Cambridge University before completing her doctorate in American History at Princeton University. For more, follow @ejlp on Twitter or go to


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