Trevin Wax|3:30 am CT

Adolescence and the Loss of Apprenticeship

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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