Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/November 1880/Education as a Hindrance to Manual Occupations

624979Popular Science Monthly Volume 18 November 1880 — Education as a Hindrance to Manual Occupations1880Silvanus Phillips Thompson



THERE can not be two opinions as to the prejudicial influence exerted upon the industrial interests of Great Britain by the unsatisfactory state into which the question of apprenticeship has been gradually drifting, and out of which it has not yet begun to rise anew. Out of harmony with the necessities and conditions of the times, a relic of days long past, ere the steam-engine, or perhaps even the printing-press, had rendered great manufacturing industries possible, the system of apprenticeship, which has been handed down to us from our forefathers, is so strangely at variance with the most obvious principles of sound educational science, to say nothing of sound economic theory, that there is little wonder that it has fallen into discredit, and that the legal provisions under which it grew and flourished have been suffered to lapse into a dead letter. Time was when, for the most part, the skilled artisan, who was master of his trade, worked at home in his own house, assisted, it might be, by a few younger workmen or journeymen. Into his house and family he would receive one or two young lads to learn, during a seven years' engagement, the art and mystery of his craft; the master himself working and teaching them his work, feeding and clothing them, and receiving from them in return the value of the services which, as they became more apt in their work, they were able to render. The advantages of thorough training by the continuous care of the master were unquestionably proved by the universal adoption of the system. The ancient trade guilds grew and acquired their legal status upon this usage as their very foundation, and a seven years' apprenticeship formed the one necessary qualification for the possession of the right to exercise the following of any occupation or employment, art or craft, recognized among the handicrafts of the time. With the extension of trade and the wider use of machinery the number and power of the adult employed workmen increased, and with their increase of power came a jealousy, on the one hand, toward the masters; on the other, toward the apprentices, who were regarded as cheapening labor when employed in too great numbers. The conflict which arose between employer and employed gradually merged into one between capital and labor. By dint of strikes the workmen at last prevailed, and, in attempting to bring about a limitation in the amount of apprenticeship labor, brought about a result of quite another kind, and one far more disastrous than the evil sought to be remedied—the destruction of all the best and most important features of apprenticeship. Other issues aided in the accomplishment of the course thus entered on. Mr. George Howell has so well delineated the outlines of the change, that the transcription of a few of his words will suffice to complete the tale. "But a change was coming o'er the spirit of the dream: another day was dawning fraught with still greater issues to the journeymen, for, instead of the old system of master and craftsmen, there grew up quite another kind of mastership and of hiring. The master had already begun to be less the craftsman and more of the employer. Capital was fast becoming the great motive power. Streams were first utilized, then steam; complicated machinery was being substituted for hand-labor in many of the growing industries of the time; the master no longer worked at the trade himself, he directed and found the capital. The number of persons employed was also greatly augmented; instead of the old fealty between master and men there came estrangement more and more, until sometimes the workpeople scarcely ever saw their veritable employer. Under these circumstances the conditions of apprenticeship were completely changed, not suddenly, but gradually, until the apprentice became merely the boy worker, with less wages but more solemn engagements than a journeyman. The master to whom he was bound no longer taught him his trade; he was, so to speak, pitchforked into the workshop to pick up his trade as best he could, or to learn it from the many journeymen who were there employed. It was no one's duty to teach him; there was no pay and no responsibility."

The present state of British commerce brings home the conviction that it is no idle cry that has sounded ever and anon in our ears, warning us of the deterioration in the quality of our manufactures and in the average caliber of our skilled artisans. International exhibitions have from time to time afforded the means of drawing comparisons between the work of other nations and our own work; comparisons by no means always in our favor, often the reverse. Apprenticeship, with its wholesome rules, having decayed in everything but form, the lads who enter the shops are never properly instructed, but are made the drudges of the older workmen. What wonder that they acquire habits of idleness and carelessness that not only pursue them through the whole of their work, but, worse than this, corrupt and undermine their morals? What wonder that their manipulation is but half acquired, or that the methods and devices they learn to apply are those of half a century ago; ancient relics of prejudice and unscientific "rules of thumb," handed down by the tradition of the shops, a veritable survival of the unfittest? Without the shadow of a doubt the truth that there is—and alas, that there is—much truth in the outcry concerning the inferiority of training and capacity of the British artisan, may be very largely imputed to the relaxation and degeneration of the old system of apprenticeship; for, with all its faults, it did at least provide that a skilled master should become personally responsible for the training of the apprentice in his craft. In that famous codicil to his will wherein Benjamin Franklin devised so many thoughtful legacies to promote the well-being of the land and city of his adoption, he wrote—and we must remember how intimate and many-sided was his acquaintance with the condition of labor in his day—these ever-memorable words: "I have considered that, among citizens good apprentices are most likely to make good citizens." If this be true, seeing how rare a good apprentice is in the present day, the aphorism instilled into our ears as schoolboys, Boni cives rari (good citizens are scarce), threatens to receive a weighty comment from the experience of the nineteenth century! Be this as it may, a very little consideration will show how real is the crisis to be faced, and how irrevocably of the past the apprenticeship of the past is.

What, then, must be done? "Apprenticeship is absolutely necessary for the purpose of acquiring a practical knowledge of a trade; without this there can be no guarantee for good and efficient workmanship." Such is the dictum of one who speaks with authority from the point of view of labor, and the sentiment is the expression of that which all admit. Better education of the children—such, in fact, as is contemplated by the provisions of the Elementary Education Act of 1870—may, it is hoped, quicken the intelligence ere the are is reached at which apprenticeship begins: but will it do more? Nay, have we not indeed some reason rather to look askance at the work of the school boards, and the scheme of education which they offer to our juvenile artisan population? Cæteris paribus, the better educated our artisans are, the better workmen will they make; but we must take care that the education is of the right sort. Now, what will be the verdict of future generations on learning that the education which this great and powerful nation offers to the children of its artisans, to the class that will form the artisans of the next generation, was of a character purely literary, in no sense technical or even scientific? It is an education which, so far as it goes beyond the three elements of reading, writing, and arithmetic, is framed in all its essential features upon an exclusively collegiate type of studies; grammar, history, geography, foreign languages, and the like, being introduced, to the utter exclusion in all the most important of the successive "Standards" of any teaching of drawing, of mechanics, of the simplest facts of science or of natural history—of all, in fact, that most nearly concerns the workman throughout his entire career. In all the constructive trades the greater part of a workman's instructions are given to him in the form of working drawings. Yet we suffer the budding artisan to pass through the schools ignorant of the first rudiments of a science that is as essential to his work as are the four rules of arithmetic. And ought we, then, to be surprised if, in pursuance of the system we have deliberately marked out for the rising generation, we keep our future artisans, till they are fifteen or sixteen, employed in no other work than sitting at a desk to follow, pen in hand, the literary course of studies of our educational code, we discover that on arriving at that age they have lost the taste for manual work, and prefer to starve on a threadbare pittance as clerks or book-keepers rather than by the less exacting and more remunerative labor of their hands? At the present moment, this tendency to despise a life of honorable manual toil in straining after a supposed gentility would be truly pitiable, if the proportions it has attained did not awaken more serious apprehensions. It is an evil not confined to this country alone, but it is known, too, in the great cities of the States, of Germany, and of France. In a recent most able work upon primary education and apprenticeship in France, M. Salicis, a naval officer and cantonal delegate, speaks in forcible terms of the distaste for work of the children who leave the elementary schools of Paris: "These little bureaucrats, boys and girls, outlaws from real labor by no fault of their own, come naturally to the end of their school course with one fear before them—that of being forced to become workmen and workwomen; but with one wish also, the boys to become clerks, the girls shopwomen. And hence this undefined, uncertain, overstocked class of book-keepers, cashiers, salesmen, clerks, agents with a thousand qualifications, scorning the cap and blouse for the sake of broadcloth and silk hat; and the corresponding class, still more to be pitied, of young ladies, of no shop, perhaps, and some with the coveted bonnet, but, alas! how procured?"

Obviously, with such facts as these staring us in the face, we must admit a flaw in the training given in our primary schools if its result is in so large a number of cases to destroy the natural capacity for manual labor. The fault is not so much in the amount of education as in the nature of the studies. For many trades the training of the hand to work may, and in some must, begin at an earlier age than that at which many children leave the elementary school. In some trades, indeed, the masters definitely refuse to take apprentices above a certain age; if they did take them the union would interfere. The taste for manual work is imbibed at a very early age, and there is not wanting evidence to prove most distinctly that even a very small amount of manual labor introduced into the elementary school serves to keep alive the capacity for active employment, and the manipulative skill of the fingers.

The first and most obvious step to be taken to bring about the urgently needed remedy is to render at least permissive, if not authoritative, a reform more or less sweeping in character in the instruction given in our elementary schools to boys and girls between the ages of ten and fourteen. For this class of children the provisions of our existing educational code could not possibly be more unsatisfactory than they are, when regarded from the point of view that these children will in a few months have to work for a part at least of their own living. The crumbling edifice of apprenticeship is made to repose upon a basis of literary studies which positively unfit the young apprentice to enjoy the few benefits which that obsolete institution can still offer.

The case is beset, then, with a double difficulty: that while the old system of apprenticeship is less and less able to afford a training worthy the name to the child of the artisan, the character of the education given him not only does not make up for that which apprenticeship can not now give him, but even predisposes him against the career of manual toil to which apprenticeship is the necessary and only adequate introduction. The reform needed, then, as a first step, is the substitution of certain technical and scientific studies for some of the literary studies at present prescribed. Not that these literary studies are not in themselves good—quite the reverse; only, they must be deferred till a little later in the educational course. Among the subjects that will in lieu claim prominence are drawing[2] and the elements of the physical sciences so far as they can be illustrated by the common things of every-day life. That is the first and easiest step in reform, but it it does not probe to its depths the malady: at best it is little more than skin-deep. The distaste for work on the part of the artisan children on the one hand and the incapacity and ignorance which result from the chaotic state of apprenticeship on the other hand alike call for a more trenchant remedy. It is absolutely necessary, in the first place, that the children should enter earlier upon manual labor, that they may gain some skill with their fingers ere they pass the perilous point at which their taste or distaste for work may be acquired; and, in the second, that their education, the training of their mental capacities, should continue till a later period, when their minds are more matured and their faculties sharpened by experience. The whole question of technical education lies in the simultaneous solution of these two problems.

  1. Extract from an article in the September "Contemporary Review," entitled "The Apprenticeship of the Future."
  2. I am not here advocating drawing as a fine art, much as we may hope the fine arts might do for the culture of the future generation, but drawing as a science; by which I mean the representation of real objects to scale, as workmen have them represented in the drawings from which they work; as, in the higher development, engineers and architects represent them. As is well known, this is frequently, though erroneously, described as "mechanical" drawing. Erroneously, for the sketches by which directions to work-men are conveyed may be of the roughest "free-hand" type provided only they are constructed upon the scientific methods in use in all the best workshops, and "figured"—that is to say, having the various dimensions accurately marked upon them.