Too often we underrate our brains and our intelligence. Formal education can become such a complicated, self-conscious and over-regulated activity that learning is widely regarded as something difficult that the brain would rather not do. That is wrong, for learning is the brain’s primary function, its constant concern, and we all become restless and frustrated if there is no learning to be done1.
A hundred or so years after Comenius and Milton it was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a cantankerous figure who gave all his own children away, who advocated a consistently naturalistic approach to education. In his book, “Emile”2, (1762) he maintained that a child is naturally good and only made wicked by his environment, the exact opposite to what the Puritans had taught when they said that every child needed ‘Original Sin’ knocked out of them. “Childhood has its ways of seeing, thinking and feeling which are proper to it. Nothing is less sensible than to want to substitute ours (way of thinking) for theirs”3. Understand the child, Rousseau argued, and you will then know how it should be educated. Give them space, and the time to grow up slowly. Froebel4 extended this when he stated that education has to respect the sensitive, inquisitive child who has an unbridled curiosity and genuine respect for nature, family and society. A reasoning, creative child would later have few problems learning to read, write and calculate. So wrote the philosophers, yet ordinary people left to their own devices, knew all this quite intuitively, and many of them have learnt so well from their environments that they have gone on to change the world.
One such was William Harrison5, son of a Yorkshire carpenter born in 1693, who never even went to school or served an apprenticeship. As a youth he became fascinated by clocks and at the age of twenty built a most unusual pendulum clock almost entirely of wood. It was a pretty reliable timekeeper, and it still works today. Then he learnt that the British Admiralty were desperate to find a clock that could keep perfect time onboard a ship, however tempestuous the seas might be, for only then would sailors be able to use a sextant to compute their ship’s exact position and avoid shipwreck. It took Harrison an amazing forty long years to build this clock which was so accurate that after a passage of eighty-one days to Port Royale in Jamaica in January 1759 the clock lost only five seconds. In the years before global positioning systems Harrison saved the lives of countless sailors.
Then there was William Smith6 the orphaned son of an Oxfordshire village blacksmith who, with only the most rudimentary education in the village school, taught himself to survey. At the age of eighteen he was employed to lay out the line for a new canal and was then put in charge of its building. Cutting a huge slice through the history of rock formation, he said, gave him revolutionary ideas about geology. At the age of thirty in 1799 William Smith produced the world’s first ever geological map. Single-handedly, over a sixteen-year period, he made the first geological map of England and Wales by walking some fifty miles or so each weekend collecting data as he went. Quite rightly this self-taught man is known as the Father of British Geology.
Or take the case of the fractious, argumentative Thomas Payne7, the former corset maker from Thetford in Norfolk who, in his frustration at not holding down a suitable career in England, emmigrated to Boston in Massachusetts. What might have seemed like the quick mind and rough tactics of a barrack room lawyer in Norfolk became, in his pamphlet “Common Sense” in the Boston of 1776, the first blast of the call to revolution. Thomas Payne had found his voice ─ so escalating the drift towards an independent United States of America.
In Boston Payne met other men who had travelled far since their apprenticeship days: Benjamin Franklin8 who had started as an apprentice printer; Paul Revere9 the silversmith, George Washington10 a farmer and surveyor, and Thomas Jefferson11 the aristocratic farmer. Apprenticeship developed inquisitive, problem-solving minds. It energised men by giving them a belief in themselves. Such craftsmen repeatedly went beyond their well-learned procedures, avoided getting into ruts, and surpassed themselves by reformulating problems at ever new and more complex levels. Life was so full of challenges that such men normally lived longer than other people. John Harrison lived into his seventies, and so did William Smith. Benjamin Franklin died at eighty-four, and Thomas Jefferson at eighty-three. As the study of Whitehall civil servants showed in 1985-96, to be in control is less of a threat to health, despite the stress, than being subservient12. Apprenticeship created people who expected to take control. It was the yeast to quicken a dynamic society. It did people good, and made for self-confident communities.
Thesis 34: 24th August 2006