Much of our education nowadays is explicitly about “book learning”: the intellectual labor of learning history and literature, of mastering mathematics and science, of practicing how to solve problems and write persuasive essays.
But there are many jobs people do which aren’t really about deploying words or memorizing facts. They’re hands-on tasks, whether the heavy work of manual labor or the more delicate arts of the craftsman. And while you can learn some useful things about that from books or lectures, in the end, the real learning comes through doing. This is why, for many people in the past (and still some today, like electricians), the educational path takes the form, not of school, but of apprenticeship.
An apprenticeship can be as much a relationship as it is a form of education. In Europe, masters took apprentices into their own households, essentially as a kind of indentured worker. They provided food, lodgings, and instruction, and in exchange they got the apprentice’s labor. Of course that labor wouldn’t be worth much in the early stages; the newcomer was often assigned menial tasks like cleaning up after their master and any senior apprentices. But over time, through observation and training, they began performing the simpler tasks of the trade, slowly graduating up to more complex ones, until they themselves became master craftsmen and craftswomen.
In theory, at least. Apprenticeships were usually formal contracts with a set duration, but whether or not you were ready to set up your own shop at the end could depend on a number of factors, ranging from whether your master had done a good job of teaching you to the politics of your local trade guild. Some masters were not very good teachers (or not very good at the job themselves); others hardly bothered to try, preferring to use their apprentices as grunt labor without going to the effort of training them beyond the basics, or not wanting to create their own competition. Guilds and similar associations might strictly control whom they admitted to their ranks, requiring further experience or monetary gifts before they would certify a new master.
The in-between stage is that of a journeyman: not, as some people assume, a traveling craftsman, but rather one who is paid by the day (French journée). A journeyman has acquired the necessary competence, but for whatever reason — such as the guild regulations mentioned above — they’re not permitted to set up their own shop. Instead they have to go on working for someone else, though at least they now earn a wage. Sometimes that does involve travel; there’s an old tradition of spending three years and a day as an itinerant journeyman, which I’m charmed to discover still persists to a minor degree in Europe today, among groups like German carpenters. But it could also mean staying where you are, possibly in the workshop of your original master, and working for many more years in the hopes of submitting a “masterwork” that will earn you full certification. (We’ll talk more about that aspect of things when we get around to discussing guilds and trade unions at a future date.)
Historically, apprentices generally started quite young, pre-teen or early teen, but sometimes even younger than that. Most were boys, with girls learning domestic management at home or working in someone else’s household as a servant. In trades where women were common, though, such as sewing and baking, girls also became formal apprentices. Seven years was a standard duration for the contract, but it was entirely possible to still be stuck as an apprentice into one’s twenties, or in the limbo of a journeyman. In Elizabethan England, the average age of first marriage among commoners was the mid- to late twenties — much the same as today, and for much the same reason: people weren’t financially secure enough to start their own households before then.
Given that apprentices tended to be teenagers, it’s not entirely surprising that they had a reputation for trouble. Historical records are chock full of complaints about lazy apprentices, drunken apprentices, rioting apprentices. Sometimes they rioted for good cause, objecting to their mistreatment at the hands of their powerful, guild-backed masters, or supporting some broader political movement. At other times they were just the rabble, happy to be roused by anything that could give them a change of pace from the toil and drudgery of their ordinary lives. Sports hooligans today? Replace them with apprentices, jerseys and face paint swapped out for the items of clothing that mark their particular trade, and you’ve got the right idea.
As I said before, apprenticeships aren’t entirely a thing of the past. Not only do they persist in some trades, but we’ve got other arrangements that mimic some aspects of apprenticeship without bearing that name. In the previous essay I mentioned learning the excavation work of archaeology through hands-on training; that doesn’t involve a multi-year contract, but a field school provides food, lodging, and instruction in exchange for my labor (and a monetary fee, but it wasn’t uncommon for parents to have to pay to get their children into an apprenticeship). Interns at white-collar jobs? They don’t get the food and lodging, and may not even get monetary compensation in place of those things, but the idea is still that they’ll work alongside experienced professionals in preparation for their own careers in that field.
And thinking about this has actually made me notice the resemblance to apprenticeship in other historical roles. Researching this essay, I came across a reference to the kingdom of Dahomey (home of the “Amazons” I mentioned in the war essays) recruiting children to serve as military apprentices, carrying shields and performing other tasks for the actual soldiers. Which made me realize: that’s exactly what a squire was in medieval Europe. They were knightly apprentices, eventually — in theory — graduating to knightly status themselves. And those girls I commented on above, working in someone else’s household as a servant? It lacked the “master certification” aspect of the core system, but you can view it as a less formalized apprenticeship in domestic management — especially when the servants lived with the household, receiving most of their compensation in food, lodging, and clothing.
Basically, apprenticeship is a very apt lens for thinking about any craft, trade, or career that contains a significant hands-on component, and even some that are more intellectual in nature. Especially before the advent of compulsory schooling, it was the primary route by which most people learned how to do their jobs, and the imprint of that persists today.