For most of recorded history, young men trained for their trades by being apprenticed to master craftsmen. They did not go to school or college to learn. Instead, they learned on the job. Some professions like medicine still require internships before giving a person full authority to work on his own. The intern/apprentice is taught and guided by the master practitioner while working on the job. No other educational technique has ever proven as effective as this most ancient method.
The first master practitioners young children learn from are their parents. Children blessed with parents who take this role seriously seem to function better in life. Richard Feynman, the physicist, described how his father taught him in a book entitled. “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” His father translated what the young child was experiencing into a reality he could understand. When teaching about dinosaurs he did not just tell him that the dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across and he should memorize that. Rather, he told the young boy what that means. “That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his head through our window. But his head would be too wide to fit in the window.” On a walk in the woods his father would tell him about interesting things happening there. He did not have him memorize the names of the birds, rather he had him observe what the birds were doing.
Feynman says he learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something. What makes this first apprenticeship so effective is the relationship between the master teacher and student. That is ultimately what makes all apprenticeships effective.
Stephen Hamilton of Cornell University advocates an American System of Apprenticeship in a book entitled, “Apprenticeship for Adulthood: Preparing Youth for the Future.” This author came to the same understanding that Feynman’s father practiced so well when he wrote: “Schools are not necessarily the best places for learning. They are too prone to detach knowledge from its uses, therefore not only impairing motivation but also ultimately distorting learning. Beyond accumulating facts, education means acquiring both an understanding of how the world works and the ability to learn the principles and skills required at a given time.”
In West Germany apprenticeship is the predominant form of education for upper-secondary education. Young people from 16 to 18 years old typically serve three year apprenticeships. They attend school one or two days a week and spend the balance of their time learning at work.
Teachers like the one portrayed by Robin Williams in the film “Dead Poet’s Society” often function as master practitioners for their students. These teachers do not just teach the students, they immerse them in the richness of great written works whether that is part of the curriculum or not. The apprenticeship these teachers offer is helping the students live a life rich in ideas. They understand that the business of education is not to gather facts, but to find a ruling passion – something around which the students can organize their lives.