Category Archives: Learning

How Reviving Apprenticeships Can Change the World

apprenticeships on the piano

“She seems bright and very interested in the job, but she only has a bachelor’s. The person for this position should have at least a master’s.”

For those of you in “higher ed” or who work in the “knowledge economy”, how often have you heard similar words? I, for one, work in a sort of interstitial space between higher ed and the so-called knowledge economy. And on a perennial basis, I hear far too many of these kinds of statements and conversations.

But, you may ask, “what’s the matter with requiring higher levels of achievement of your potential employees? Doesn’t doing so ensure that you attract quality candidates who possess the ‘right skill sets?’”

This is perhaps the most prevalent way of looking at the issue of hiring in the knowledge economy. Those of us who make hiring decisions assume that academic credentials predict job performance.

Just as college admissions staff of yore believed that a student’s SAT score predicted his performance during his freshman year of college, the hiring committees of today assume his academic degrees—especially if acquired at one of the elite universities—will portend how well he performs on the job.

In other words, the hiring class looks at the downstream results of candidates’ educational experience. When for the most part, the quality of one’s education is largely determined by their social class, or from the upstream part of one’s opportunity pathway.

These upstream experiences depend mostly on where people grow up. And where one grows up is itself mostly dependent on one’s family’s socioeconomic situation, their broader social connections, and, of course, their race.

Because public schools are a product of local tax bases, the quality of local schools varies along socioeconomic lines. Rich kids partake in enrichment activities in the form of diverse languages, music lessons, and culture; poor kids share dated textbooks.  

And we all know parents who fret about locating in a community with good schools the moment—or even before—their first child is born.  This may be a smart move for the family. Yet it also serves to drive a wedge between people who can afford to “pay for education” and those who cannot. Individual achievement means nothing when children’s initial playing fields are not at all level.

So, until we “close the achievement gap” or better yet, address systemic inequities by abolishing obscene income inequality, we can introduce a few course corrections on the downstream part of the opportunity river.

This is where apprenticeships come in.  As we’ll discuss, these ancient arrangements are in many cases superior to the privileging of academic credentials.  As I’ll argue, most professions—and not only the mechanical arts—apprenticeships are fairer, more empowering, and more motivating for the workers involved.

The Fairness of Apprenticeships

Apprenticeships are fairer than credentialism in that they give everyone, including those without elite educations, opportunities to expand their skill set and contribute meaningfully to society.

As is too seldom recognized, historically, enrollment in elite educational institutions has been based on privilege over merit.

And we’ve discussed, many wish to close the achievement gap. Yet to do so, we must assume that all schools in all neighborhoods start from the same place; that all possess the same resources and governmental support from the beginning.  The close the achievement gap mantra also assumes that all children endure similar experiences outside of school. The problem, in other words, is with individual children, their families, and their schools.

But the problem is not about the person or even the school. It’s about the structure of schooling in a corporate capitalist system

The differences among schools in wealthy areas and in pooer ones reflect a long, troubling past that has morphed into a shockingly segregated and inequitable present.

As the children grow up and swim downstream to the land of careers and vocations, many poor and people of color find themselves on the margins of our modern economy.  For sundry credential-obsessed firms and businesses and corporations and centers and universities shut the door in their “under-achieving” faces.

The Empowering Potential of Apprenticeships

Thus, credentialism disempowers and alienates the less privileged. The need to credential any and all fields of inquiry and know-how by a class of self-credentialed elitists validates the unfair, unjust system. 

Families and community members socialize poor kids to understand their position in society and of those in their racial and ethnic group and socioeconomic class as part of an underclass.  For if everywhere they look they witness their people sweeping floors, cleaning hotel rooms, dealing drugs, might they begin to believe the system is good, fair, and legitimate? 

Apprenticeships open the credentialism-installed doors, welcoming innately intelligent and curious humans to learn on the job, and in a supportive, growth-promoting environment.

Apprenticeships are Motivating

Thus empowered, thus dignified, the apprentice draws upon her inherent creativity to envision, problem-solve, create. She expands her self-concept, which motivates her to carry on, to keep learning and growing.

The credentialed learn by acquiring degrees and accolades; the apprentice learns so as to keep improving, broadening, and building.

The credentialed sets boundaries of inquiry and engagement. “I don’t do public health, I’m an economist.” The apprentice sees through these false disciplinary divisions and stays motivated to learn about each of them.

Academics wax poetic about “multi-disciplinary research” while failing to see the irony in how they reinforce divisions among professions first and foremost.

Yet as physicist, Amory Lovins once remarked, “any reasonably intelligent and motivated person can become conversant in any subject within 6 months’ time.” The apprentice understands and lives the truth of these words.

Apprenticeships as an Old, New Way Forward

Trump and Obama before him have sought to kickstart apprenticeship programs in the trades and vocational arts. And writer and philosopher, Michael Crawford has written elegantly about the soulfulness of motorcycle mechanics and hands-on work.

The myriad trades are a natural fit for apprenticeships, but so are the more “academic”, “esoteric”, “abstract-symbolic” fields.

We must begin with an understanding and appreciation of humans. By nature, we are curious, creative, intelligent, and motivated. Mandatory schooling often serves to compromise and thwart these beautiful qualities. Apprenticeships offer a chance to restore people’s natural capacity for flourishing.

To well-meaning academics: let’s not erect ever more barriers to entry.  Let’s open our firms, our businesses, our universities, to the motivated, creative souls out there. Bring less privileged, yet still deserving people a chance to grow into the brilliant, worthwhile humans they are.

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