Education: Skills without Purpose

To define “education” as knowledge transfer is not only to miss the purpose (or any purpose) but also will fail at transferring knowledge.[1] To quote myself: If education were simply a matter of knowledge transfer, then libraries would be full of readers and MOOCs would be successful.

But what about “skills training?” Isn’t that purely knowledge transfer?

The question itself is a curious expression that reflects the degree to which we may be adrift. So let’s take a look at the historical context of “skills transfer” education.

For centuries, the most common kind of formal education of any type was apprenticeships (the Catholic church — seminaries, monasteries, convents, etc — is probably second, and the university, as we know it, is probably third in total number of students up until the late 19th century).

Of all the kinds of formal education, apprenticeships are, according to our modern minds, the kind most purely dedicated to “skills training.”

And yet when Abel Buell, a very skilled young master working in mid-1700s New Haven, was arrested on very serious charges, who shows up to bail him out? who is the first to arrive at the jail to discuss his case? who takes the lead in reforming the wayward silversmith?

Not his father or mother. Not his siblings. No other relatives rushed to the jail. Rather, his master rushed to the jail in an attempt to reform his former student. To pre-modern minds, this made sense. His master was responsible for shaping this young man, and it was his master’s reputation that was on the line.

But let’s review some details of this relationship.

Abel Buell’s indenture to Ebenezer Chittenden was standard for 18th century Connecticut. The young apprentice would be indentured to the master at the age of 13 or 14, typically for seven years. The arrangement would be formalized by a legal agreement between the master and the boy’s legal guardian, usually his father. A typical 18th century Connecticut indenture required that

The said apprentice his said master faithfully shall serve, his secrets keep, his lawful commands gladly obey, he shall do no damage to his said master nor see it to be done of others without giving notice thereof to his said master, he shall not waste his said master’s goods nor lend them unlawfully to any.

He shall not commit fornication not contract matrimony.

At cards, dice or any unlawful game he shall not play.

He shall not absent himself by day or by night from his said master’s service without leave nor haunt taverns but shall in all things behave himself as a faithful apprentice ought to do toward his said master.

And the said guardian shall find and furnish the said apprentice all the wearing apparel he shall want during his apprenticeship.

And the said master doth hereby covenant and promise to teach or cause the said apprentice to be taught and instructed in the art, trade or calling of clockmaking, silversmithing, and watch repairing so far as his business will admit, and will provide meat, drink, washing, lodging and mending cloths suitable for such an apprentice, and at the expiration of said term dismiss him from the apprenticeship.

The document was then signed by the guardian, the master, the apprentice and then usually witnessed by the boy’s mother. The boy would arrive around 13-years-old with clothes, and would leave around 20-years-old with an employable set of skills. The process took longer than college, but the graduate would usually have readily marketable skills, and an apprenticeship was less expensive than college — though some masters actually charged apprentices.

The indenture was not merely a matter of transferring skills; the master was expected to teach morals, good working habits, and decent business skills. It was a comprehensive education that was, in many ways, more valuable than similar training in Europe. Most European trades were managed by guilds, and these guilds limited the number of masters in each trade. This resulted in numerous apprentices completing their indenture but unable to employ their skills as a master, so they’d travel the country as a journeyman assistant, offering help to whoever was willing to pay. Many of these journeymen assistants never became masters, because such formal elevation often took connections and fortuitous timing (such as the death of a master). In the colonies, no such guilds existed, and an apprentice could sell his newly acquired skills to whoever was the highest bidder or could establish his own business.

In summary, the master was typically contractually bound to teach the student:

1. To stay away from women, alcohol, and gambling.

2. General business skills (e.g. pricing his labor and products, sourcing material).

3. Specific trade skills (e.g. silversmithing).

The master also provided the student with clothes (as the boy grew), tools, food and lodging.

It’s noteworthy that none of this is overtly Christian (or Puritan); the master wasn’t obligated to teach anything religious or take the boy to church. Rather, the apprenticeship contract is a fairly straightforward set of common-sense expectations and objectives designed to produce an employable, productive member of society upon leaving the apprenticeship at age twenty-one.

Is there any modern institution that replicates this combination of responsibilities? Church? State? University? Major League Baseball? Facebook?

Why? Is it because we’ve fetishized the individual to such an extreme that we’re no longer capable of comprehending that this binarism we’ve synthesized — individual vs. community — is but 19th c. artifice?

Perhaps Ebenezer rushed to the jailed Abel because the responsibility for Abel’s actions does not solely rest on Abel, and the effect of Abel’s transgression likewise does not solely rest on Abel. There both is and is not “the individual” — a quantum mechanical butterfly effect. Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes and no, simultaneously, for all things. God asked Cain that question because Cain didn’t know; Abel knew.

And so Ebenezer committed himself to rehabilitate Abel; he coordinated the entire town to commit to the court and the colonial legislature to ensure that Abel would regain freedom and some standing — which was significant, because Abel faced life in prison.

Released from prison, Abel then produced the first type (to be used in the first printing press) wholly developed and constructed outside of Europe. It was those presses that fueled the American Revolution.

And, in the months after the surrender at Yorktown, it was Abel who printed the first map of the new nation.

And so, even when we talk of “skills training,” we’re speaking of something wholly untethered from the Western tradition. Just like all our other institutions.

Colinford Mattis graduated from Princeton in 2010. He’s one of the two lawyers who attempted to burn a police car in Brooklyn. Do we think Princeton will reflect on how they may have contributed to this? Do we think Princeton will dispatch Colinford’s undergraduate advisor to Brooklyn to help correct his ways?

A bit about Ebenezer Chittenden and 18th c. Puritan aesthetics.

Abel’s master, Ebenezer Chittenden, was born in 1726, so he was only 29 when he took on the 13-year-old Abel. But Chittenden’s skills were already well-known, and over the next six decades he would become known as one of the best silversmiths between New York and Boston (Chittenden lived to be 95). In the 1600s, there were no local silversmiths in Connecticut; silver manufactures were mostly imported from Boston and sometimes from New York. Connecticut developed local skilled craftsmen in the 1700s, and Connecticut artisans created a uniquely Connecticut style that was influenced by the Puritan ethic of function over form but also by Dutch aesthetics from New York and French aesthetics from the Huguenots who fled Louis XIV’s persecution. Chittenden was unsurpassed in expressing a restrained Rococo style that produced swelling curved handles on pitchers and jugs that were far more suggestive than their explicit French Rococo counterparts. Chittenden would have taught Abel how to make beakers that were short and had no splayed pedestal foot. These design features were important because Anglican beakers were taller and typically had a splayed foot, and Anglican beakers looked very much like the chalices used in Roman Catholic Mass. Anglicans and Catholics also used a term for these beakers that Congregationalists did not use — chalice — and these Congregational churches were a Connecticut silversmith’s best customer. Other customers would ask that their silver coins be made into plates and cups and spoons — Connecticut silversmiths were known for their spoons. These customers were concerned about the value of their currency and, most importantly, theft. It was difficult to prove ownership of stolen coins, but a silver plate with a family’s name inscribed on the back offered evidence a court would find difficult to ignore. So Abel learned about the reserved strength and dramatic simplicity of Puritan aesthetics, the interests of customers, and the business of silver smithing.