04/19/2011 07:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 19, 2011

Of Apprentices and Interns

After all the talk about amputating ears and public whippings, the Code of Hammurabi pauses to consider the plight of the intern. Well, not exactly -- but that ancient litany of 282 laws, inscribed on diorite some 3,700 years ago, did enjoin the master craftsmen of Babylon to pass on their trade and treat their apprentices fairly. Four millennia later, these the basic rights that interns are still fighting for.

Interns, not apprentices, that is. Today, the contrast is stark, with the two groups seeming to inhabit completely different universes. The former are our favorite white-collar peons, often unpaid or paid a pittance, loaded with little indignities and unprotected in the workplace.

Apprenticeships, on the other hand, represent a humane, professional model for training and beginning a career -- the justified successor to the European tradition of craft apprenticeship, minus the cruelty, coercion, and familial arrangements, sensibly updated for the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries. If no longer ubiquitous, apprenticeships have nonetheless weathered the centuries. At this moment, there are nearly half a million active apprentices across the U.S. in fields as disparate as aerospace manufacturing, seafaring, cosmetology, and green energy.

Still, our archetypal apprentice is a cheerful, mildly rambunctious minion, probably straight out of medieval Europe (Goethe's The Sorcerer's Apprentice, pre-Mickey Mouse), Colonial America (Ben Franklin), or Victorian England (a Dickens novel). Indeed, the institution has long since become a central mode and metaphor for education more broadly.

The Western apprenticeship tradition grew out of the medieval guilds, widely known as universitates. Some scholars assert that the first universities -- early gatherings of scholars at Bologna, Paris, Oxford, and elsewhere -- fancied themselves guilds of scholars, and that everything from set terms of student enrollment (inspired by indentures) to the concept of the dissertation (the "masterpiece" of a scholarly apprenticeship) drew on the model of guild apprenticeships.

In the English-speaking world, a typical term of "indenture" lasted seven years; the (mostly male) apprentices usually took up their indentures, with a nudge or a shove from their family, when they were around 14 years old, the common-law "age of discretion." These indentures spelled out mutual obligations, more or less formally -- the apprentice would work for such and such a period, at tasks relevant to the craft. (There were sometimes specific prohibitions against an apprentice performing grunt work considered the preserve of servants). In return the master was obligated to teach the apprentice his trade, while also providing housing, meals, clothing, and so on. Numerous other kinds of stipulations also commonly bound both parties -- that the apprentice should not marry during his term, for instance, or that the master should provide bedding or clothing of a certain quality.

In Britain, the Elizabethan-era Statute of Artificers enshrined this basic setup until 1814. In the U.S., it began to come apart during the American Revolution, ironically enough since almost all of the Founding Fathers had started out as apprentices.

Apparently, the revolutionary spirit broadened the discourse of freedom in a way that threw indentures into a bad light, and runaway apprentices became an intractable problem. "Go West, young man," the Industrial Revolution, and the spread of mandatory schooling put further nails in the coffin of apprenticeship until the early twentieth century, when a coalition of enlightened employers, unions, and progressives managed to carve out the current, impressive niche.

So what about interns? In the late nineteenth century, the medical profession, eagerly standardizing, started pushing aspiring doctors to endure a year or two of purgatory between medical school and professional practice, "interning" them within the four walls of a hospital. Only after World War II did the model spread decisively to Washington, D.C. and corporate America. Yet the real internship boom is only three decades old -- a sprawling, unstudied, unregulated mess gone global, allowing companies in every industry to save on costs and cut corners while millions of college students (and their families) scramble and sacrifice.

Every society has its gift economies -- you probably don't pay a relative for babysitting, for instance -- but young people working for free en masse is something new and frightening. What's amazing is how quickly we've become inured to it, how naturally we've accepted the idea of "investing in ourselves," bartering for connections and resume line-items. It's a useful reminder that the notion of work is hardly an eternal verity -- more like a shifting, uneven landscape, fought over and redefined in every culture and in every age, in spite of hallowed old chiselings in stone.

Ross Perlin is a researcher for the Himalayan Languages Project in southwest China. He has written on forgotten histories and disappearing languages in the U.S., China, and the former Soviet Union. His first book, Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, will be published by Verso in May.

This post originally appeared on the Lapham's Quarterly Roundtable blog.