Before there were schools, there were apprenticeships. Young people learned a trade from a journeyman, and once these young people attained a certain level of mastery they were able to make a living in that trade. Apprenticeships still exist, of course, but the majority of young people in the U.S. receive a formal education by attending traditional schools.
Apprenticeships, as the primary means of educating young people, were fairly inefficient when compared with the model of schooling we use today. Working professionals had to invest quite a lot of time teaching and supervising a small number of apprentices (although they did benefit from the free labor provided by the apprentices). With the more efficient public school model, a relatively small number of teachers, support staff and administrators can educate nearly every child in the country, while the rest of us are able to focus on our jobs. In addition, the K-12 system is designed in such a way that by the time students complete high school they have a much broader base of knowledge than apprentices who only learned one trade, theoretically enabling high school graduates to choose any career path.
Despite their inefficiency, however, apprenticeships did provide one thing that schools are often less successful in fostering: deep relationships between young people and adults. Apprentices and masters spent so much time together that they got to know each other very well. It’s not hard to imagine that even after apprentices left their masters, the relationships probably continued. Because of the number of students they see every year, teachers are unlikely to forge lasting relationships with more than a few children.
I don’t want to romanticize apprenticeships. There have undoubtedly been cases in which the master-apprentice relationship was exploitative, even abusive. But apprenticeships provide young people with valuable workplace experience and help them establish relationships with successful adults. These relationships can be especially helpful to disadvantaged youth who rarely interact in any meaningful way with successful professionals and influential adults outside of school. In other words, apprenticeships can support the development of relationships that cross class lines.
The U.S. is a very diverse nation, but our neighborhoods and communities are often strikingly segregated. Our public schools reflect this segregation. In order for our democracy to work, however, we need to interact with and understand people unlike ourselves. To be able to develop public policies that respond to the needs of the majority of citizens we need to understand one another’s experiences and communities.
We like to believe that in the U.S., anyone can be successful with hard work and determination. But the reality is that young people who grow up poor are much more likely to stay poor throughout their lives than those who grow up in more affluent communities. The knowledge and skills learned in school are not enough. But apprenticeships and other kinds of community-based learning can give disadvantaged youth a glimpse into careers they might not have known existed, and lives they might never have imagined for themselves. Apprenticeships also foster relationships with influential adults that can help youth make decisions and find opportunities that will enable them to have such careers and lives.
The help that can be provided by influential adults to disadvantaged youth is part of the social capital theory that I’ve written about before. The other part of this is the communication skills disadvantaged youth develop through their exposure to influential adults. Interacting with successful adults forces young people to learn to communicate in ways these adults understand. The more exposure they have to adults with influence, the more opportunity young people have to observe and practice these successful behaviors and communication strategies. As they see influential adults using their communication skills to exert influence (i.e., to get what they want), young people learn how to exert their own influence. This is a critical civic skill.
Young people benefit from their relationships with successful adults, but the experience of learning about the lives and experiences of others goes both ways. The more we learn about those who are different from us, the better we understand their strengths and needs. The more we understand one another, the more caring and cohesive our communities become.
Citizen Schools, a Boston-based program that now operates in seven states, offers a great apprenticeship model. Volunteer “Citizen Teachers” provide ten-week apprenticeships to middle-school students as part of an “extended school day” after-school program. Any adult can be a Citizen Teacher, whether they develop their own curriculum with the help of Citizen Schools staff or use one of several curricula created by Citizen Schools.
Apprenticeships are, of course, only one strategy for building bridges between communities. There is a growing trend in education toward providing learning opportunities that are more flexible and tailored to the needs of individual students and families through the use of online and other learning options, and away from the traditional model of American schooling in which students who don’t conform are considered failures. As we make this transition to personalized, anytime/anywhere learning, we should be sure to provide opportunities for community-based learning, including apprenticeships, that better serve many students, foster community cohesiveness through youth-adult relationships and prepare disadvantaged youth to participate as full citizens.