Apprenticeship was an education for an intelligent way of life, a mechanism by which young people could model themselves on socially approved adults so providing a safe passage from childhood to adulthood in psychological, social and economic ways.1
Adolescents are neither children, nor adults. No longer content simply to be sat down and talked at, yet not skilled enough to earn their own livings, adolescents push to get out and experience life for themselves. Their enthusiasm and naivety can be engaging, but their exuberance can make them terrifyingly vulnerable. There is nothing new in this. A fifteenth century ballad noted, “But when his friends did comprehend / His fond and foolish mind / They sent him up to fair London town / An apprentice for to bind”2. In the long evolution of the human race the characteristics of adolescence ─ energy, enthusiasm, idealism, devil-may-care attitude ─ must have had an evolutionary advantage that increased a young person’s chances of survival. To a modern parent, as to their fifteenth century ancestors who could not wait to ‘bind’ their children to someone else during the years of their children’s adolescent blues, to suggest there is a benefit to society at large of being a teenager seems counter-intuitive.3
Our ancestors twenty or so generations back didn’t try to intellectualise adolescence; they simply knew intuitively how to turn it to society’s advantage. They put the youngsters to work. It was adolescent muscle that did so much of the back-breaking work on the farm, or in the workshop. The skilled cabinet maker or carriage builder relied on his apprentices to turn roughly cut timber into truly squared, smooth and prepared wood ready for the craftsman to fashion into a marketable commodity. The same held true for the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. The apprentice and the master were legally, and actually, bound to each other ─ by the statute of Artificers of 1653 every adolescent had either to undertake a seven-year craft apprenticeship, or be ‘indented’ as a labourer to a farmer4. There was no room in society for a youngster who couldn’t do anything properly. Both craftsman and apprentice were dependent on each other for their livelihood. There was little slack. Mistakes easily led to devastation.
Consequently school was only the first part of most people’s education. Apprenticeship was the period nearly everybody learnt how to earn a living. Apprenticeship was a form of coaching, not a form of teaching. It was about stretching the youngster’s powers of reasoning. “You have got to learn to think like me, then you will come to appreciate what I’m going to do next”, said the old craftsman5. It was about showing how each sub-section of a job came together to create the whole. It was full of intuitive understandings, the things difficult to quantify in a textbook. It was about getting the learner to so understand what the task was all about that he eventually developed such a level of expertise that he was no longer dependent on simply playing by the rules. Master craftsmen knew when to break a normally accepted rule so as to get an even more glorious result. You had to be good to be able to do that.
Apprenticeship took learners beyond routinised skills to a third level, a level of understanding described by today’s cognitive scientists as ‘the zone of proximal development’ ─ a complex term for an important concept6. As we learn, so the theory states, we progressively achieve a higher level of understanding. Having reached that higher stage we can then glimpse still further possibilities. It’s rather like mountaineering ─ as we climb the foothills so we see the mountain tops more clearly, but we may never reach the mountain top unless aided by a team of mountaineers. Apprenticeship learning involves collaboration. It’s about talking things through together. It’s about being challenged to think outside the box. A true craftsman would say that you never really understand something until you have to teach it to someone else!
Take the city of Bath as an illustration of apprenticeship in action. In the 1750s the city had a population of nine thousand people7. For its size it was an amazingly creative place. It had apothecaries who made their own medicines, book sellers who published their own books, braziers who made door locks, and ironmongers who operated their own smelting works. It had clothiers who controlled the spinning, weaving and design and making of all kinds of clothing. There were tanners for leather goods, brush makers, cabinet makers, carvers and guilders, stay makers, clock makers, coopers, gold, silver and tinsmiths, gunsmiths, paint makers, and workers in lead, stone and copper. There were, of course, brewers, butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. Bath even built carriages, stagecoaches, post-chaises and landaus, any one of which required the coming together of numerous sub-crafts. The community’s survival was dependent on the transference of complex skills to the younger generation, through a variety of different apprenticeships. Such towns were vibrant communities where learning did not require taking time out from productive activity, for learning itself was the very essence of productivity. Isn’t that what the modern jargon ‘learning cities’8 should be all about?
Thesis 33: 24th August 2006