I came across an article recently in The Wall Street Journal titled “What’s Wrong With the Teenage Mind?” It explores the cultural changes leading to a contemporary vision of “adolescence.” Of particular interest to me was the role of “apprenticeship” throughout history.

In gatherer-hunter and farming societies, childhood education involves formal and informal apprenticeship. Children have lots of chances to practice the skills that they need to accomplish their goals as adults, and so to become expert planners and actors. The cultural psychologist Barbara Rogoff studied this kind of informal education in a Guatemalan Indian society, where she found that apprenticeship allowed even young children to become adept at difficult and dangerous tasks like using a machete.

In the past, to become a good gatherer or hunter, cook or caregiver, you would actually practice gathering, hunting, cooking and taking care of children all through middle childhood and early adolescence—tuning up just the prefrontal wiring you’d need as an adult.

The article then pointed out the loss of this way of learning and its impact on society today:

Contemporary children have very little experience with the kinds of tasks that they’ll have to perform as grown-ups. Children have increasingly little chance to practice even basic skills like cooking and caregiving. Contemporary adolescents and pre-adolescents often don’t do much of anything except go to school. Even the paper route and the baby-sitting job have largely disappeared…

Of course, the author is not making the case that children today are less knowledgeable than children in previous generations. The results appear to be just the opposite. Still…

There are different ways of being smart. Knowing physics and chemistry is no help with a soufflé. Wide-ranging, flexible and broad learning, the kind we encourage in high-school and college, may actually be in tension with the ability to develop finely-honed, controlled, focused expertise in a particular skill, the kind of learning that once routinely took place in human societies. For most of our history, children have started their internships when they were seven, not 27.

The author concludes by pleading for the return of apprenticeship as a way of helping teenagers move forward into adulthood.

Instead of simply giving adolescents more and more school experiences—those extra hours of after-school classes and homework—we could try to arrange more opportunities for apprenticeship. AmeriCorps, the federal community-service program for youth, is an excellent example, since it provides both challenging real-life experiences and a degree of protection and supervision.

“Take your child to work” could become a routine practice rather than a single-day annual event, and college students could spend more time watching and helping scientists and scholars at work rather than just listening to their lectures. Summer enrichment activities like camp and travel, now so common for children whose parents have means, might be usefully alternated with summer jobs, with real responsibilities.

Evangelicals are talking a lot today about prolonged adolescence and the problems caused by this new phenomenon. I wonder, though, if the need for apprenticeship goes beyond application to teenagers and speaks to the very nature of discipleship in general.

If knowledge and learning in biblical times took place primarily through the role of teacher and apprentice, then perhaps when the New Testament authors place such a strong priority on teaching, they are not thinking merely in terms of lectures and sermons. Perhaps their vision of teaching also includes the idea of apprenticeship. If so, how should this affect our view of discipleship today?

I’m open to ideas. More on this tomorrow…

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9 thoughts on “Adolescence and the Loss of Apprenticeship”

  1. SeekTruthFromFacts says:

    This is now a standard model for discipling future evangelical leaders in the UK and Australia.

    See
    http://ninethirtyeight.org/apprenticeships/?/apprenticeships
    for the most popular scheme.

  2. Chris Gilliam says:

    Trevin,

    This is the exact reason i started FishForMen in 2005. The danger as I see it in the uber efficient techno age is heartless Christians whose brains are filled from overflowing troughs of theology yet can’t discern how it applies in everyday life. I have read and met many of the YRR who are smart as a whip but lack the true nature of walking after the Spirit.

    Sadly, very few want to roll up their sleeves and disciple because it takes immense time and is not efficient. I have spoke to quite a few churches asking them to allow me to train some of their men to become disciplers and the answer is always the same. Your process is too slow. But there is lasting fruit in this endevor, fruit that remains.

  3. Frank Gantz says:

    I wonder what would happen if we adopted the Jewish Bar-Mitzvah approach with a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood?

    Adolescence probably needs to be rethought.

    1. I agree and believe that adolescence should not just be re-thought but probably should not even exist. We take people who are young adults and place their lives on hold. They have no function, no resposibility that relates to real life and tell them that what they are feeling is “not real”. I know I’m generalising, but we take the first part of their journey towards adulthood away and then we wonder why we have people who do not grow up and takes no reponsibility for their actions.(again…generalising) I like the Jewish Bar-Mitzvah approach a lot :-)

      My daughter turned 13 two years ago. Our small home-church-gathering bought her a huge gift, prayed for her and blessed her and welcomed her as an adult. It changed her. She is reliable. She looks for ways to help around the home and even started to make some money because she wants to help out or as she put it “buy food for everybody” (Yes we have enough food in the home :-) Because she is treated as an equal-adult, she learns adult stuff from…..adults. She sees the consequences of our and our friends lives…the good and the bad and she can discuss it with any one in the group at any time. Apprenticeship of everyday life as a young adult. It works for us.

  4. David Axberg says:

    I have apprenticed now 4 young men and all of them have remained in the church (universal) and the line of work we perform. They have not remained in my business and I knew that going in. I wanted to give them something that would last. It is the old addage about give a man a fish and he eats for a day teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime.

    We need to do things counter cultural. Love God, Love the World, Work for nothing, the blessings will then abound in the treasures of heaven.

    God Bless Now! thanks Trevin

  5. Seems like declarative, procedural, and contextual types of knowledge and how the church is meeting these would be huge for understanding this “loss of apprenticeship”.

    We often give a lot of declarative knowledge in sermons, conversations, etc. and less often procedural knowledge seen in classrooms of informative discipleship methods and 7 ways to build home groups and most rare contextualizing the gospel and seeing some one model for us what it looks like.

    Makes me think of a dude I got to spend time with during the last two years of his life, wally norling, who modeled for me and contextualized for me the idea of discipleship.

    @SeekTruthFromFacts –maybe its just me and my personality but it seems too wooden to say sign up for 2 years to go through this program–it would seem that “the olden days” hunter gatherer style was more a long the lines of, “hey follow me today son and check out how to swing this cool machete”…not “hey son, I am going to take you through a two year process where you will develop into a man and I will teach you a,b, and c and after you graduate from this program you will be prepared to swing your own machete…”

    Wally invited me in the process, modeled for me what it looked like, and I get the privilege of intentionally and yet casually discipling others. I don’t believe it has to be formal in order to be intentional and as a result I believe led me to real contextual knowledge.

    Not to bash on formal education, the value of the classroom, and any others I amy have offended in the process of writing this.

  6. Chris Julien says:

    I very much look forward to your next post on this topic. As a 21 year old, I can tell you that I’m itching to start honing the skills that my vocation will require. Now, for me specifically, I think the Lord is leading me to become a pastor. I think this for a number of reasons: I love teaching others and have been told that I’m an effective and clear communicator; I love listening to others and counseling them through difficult times in life; when listening to preaching not only am I impacted by the Spirit personally but also I find in myself a fire rising up that begins to bubble over and results in a strong urge to preach and share the gospel with others. While I can and have been trying to refine these skills through my friendships and leading Bible studies, etc., none of this has been under the supervision of a mentor, of someone discipling me.

    But I feel as though I am just coming to the age where maybe it will be acceptable for me to begin teaching in Sunday school; what I mean is that, regarding pastoring/teaching specifically, I don’t think that people my age are given true opportunities to teach and hon their budding gifts because, nowadays, seminary is often seen as a prerequisite to teaching, counseling, writing worthwhile books or articles, etc. I’ve had a yearning to start learning and be discipled, but I haven’t for the main reasons that 1. I feel too young and 2. therefore I worry that I’m just being prideful. But I am hoping to get an internship this coming summer at a local church and begin serving however they need me!

    All that being said, I see this from the side of someone who wants to be discipled and grow in the Lord. Thanks for the post.

    God bless.

  7. Car says:

    just a question: what do we need to do?

    I know we have discipleship programs like this, but i’m thinking practically. if we need this kind of apprenticeship, how can we integrate that into the societies we find ourselves in now?

    and a related question: I’m almost 30 now, and I’ve never had an apprenticeship experience; I can feel the lack of it in so many subtle ways in my life. How do I overcome the training that I feel lacking?

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Trevin Wax


‚ÄčTrevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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