Graduates and Their Careers

There was another critical factor that led to the rise of universities in the 13th century. It was the need for highly trained men to serve Church and king, in commerce and in estates. As Professor Southern writes, “the most effective stimulus to the growth of the schools (in the 13th century) came from the demand in government for a growing army of educated officials. King, bishops, monasteries and all great landowners needed the services not only of literate but also of scholastically highly trained men for the conduct of their affairs." According to Southern, “no single cause had so much influence” on the development of studies in the schools as this one. The training students received at the university was and is seen to be of great value in preparing talented men for a range of high-level professional responsibilities. So it has remained for centuries.

The training and advancement of students at the university borrowed from the framework established by the various medieval trade guilds. The professions of, for example, carpenter, stonemason, glazier or metal worker of various sorts organized into fraternities called “guilds” that set standards for professional competence and trained young aspirants in the trade. The terms bachelor and master that the universities used and we retain even today in degree titles, such as “Bachelor of Arts” or “Master of Science,” were taken from levels of training and mastery in the trade guilds. The guilds, like the university, established times for aspirants to be trained at each stage and defined levels of competence that would allow the trainee to progress to the next level.

Within the medieval framework, universities could be thought of as a guild of scholars, set alongside the guilds of carpenters or stonemasons. From the very start, however, there was one striking difference between the university and the trade guilds. The trade guilds gave the successful aspirant the knowledge and skills to practice the guild’s trade and become one of its members. The university, in contrast, trained students in the disciplines of scholars, but most did not seek to join the ranks of scholars; the great majority of university students went on to work in a wide range of professions that demanded a high degree of intellectual sophistication.

"If universities did not provide education that prepared a student for such a range of professional occupations, they would not have attracted students, and would not have survived."

We can only conclude that the curriculum of the 13th-century university effectively trained its students to take on any one of a wide variety of professional positions. If it did not, there would not have been the demand from prospective employers, and students and their families would not have been willing to invest the time and expense for study at the university. If universities did not provide education that prepared a student for such a range of professional occupations, they would not have attracted students, and would not have survived. So it was in the 13th century, and so it has been in subsequent centuries up to today.

It is worth pausing over this characteristic of university education, for it helps explain the power and enduring relevance of universities over centuries that have seen so much change. We can find the successors of the medieval trade guilds in trade associations of various kinds. Yet these associations have come and gone, survived or not, depending on the fate of the particular occupations which they practiced and for which they trained. Universities, however, provided a training not tied so much to particular occupations and trades, but prepared students for a range of occupations that required a high level of intellectual acumen, so they survived dramatic changes in technology and the economy that destroyed some professions and created others.

We often hear that education at universities is not particularly relevant to this or that profession, or that what someone needs to know for a particular profession could be delivered more efficiently than it is at universities. To some extent, this kind of objection argues for training similar to that of the medieval trade guilds, perhaps at a higher level of sophistication. Such training directs the trainee to a particular occupation. Yet the bet that universities and their students have made for centuries is that training in the practices of inquiry at the highest level, by faculty at a very high level in their discipline, will give a student the knowledge and intellectual skills to flourish in a wide range of professional careers. Such training remains valuable even as the demand for a particular trade waxes and wanes. It is an investment that has proven to be sound over many years, and I would wager that it will prove to be so for years hence.