As a great admirer of traditional craftsmanship, I am saddened when craftsmen come to the end of their working practice without having passed their unique skills on. However, the more I read about traditional apprenticeship, the more I can see why this has happened and cannot wish for a return to the old ways of teaching.
I just finished reading "Edo Craftsmen, master artisans of old Tokyo" and of the twelve featured craftsmen only two appear both to have long-term viable businesses and trained apprentices to pass on their skills. Part of the problem is the increasing accessibility of cheaper, mass-produced alternatives to whatever they make. However, many craftsmen manage to market their produce in such conditions by selling a small volume at higher prices to more discerning customers. The failure is in part caused by a lack of younger people coming into the crafts with the vision to exploit such markets.
The descriptions in the book of the craftsmen's experience of traditional apprenticeship reveals both the rigour and the modern-day drawbacks of the system. They would start very young and spend several years doing menial tasks whilst observing the breadth of the practice, then gradually take on small tasks followed by increasingly complex ones as they grew older and more able. The emphasis was not on teaching, but learning; observing and imitating, rather than being shown how.
With a good master and a willing student this clearly works well. In her study of the Japanese ceramicist Shoji Hamada, Susan Peterson describes the relationship between deshi (apprentice) and master: “To learn as a deshi means to submit one’s self to the master, to leave one’s own self, to become ‘in’ the master. This ‘surrender’ to the master does not mean just blind imitation, but gives a spiritual discipline and the opportunity to absorb a skill into one’s bones.”
However, it is a system that relies on a huge amount of trust and non-verbal communication between master and apprentice, and that is not always going to work well. Whilst a very strict master might ensure that very high standards of craft skills are passed from one generation to the next, it might well be at the cost of creativity and the ability of the younger person to see new opportunities and develop new markets. Given also that young people stay in school much longer nowadays, I cannot see a traditional craft apprenticeship being a very appealing option.
The future, however is not all bleak, I think there are craftsmen who have adapted to new ways of teaching and also multimedia offers huge potential to record and transmit quite complex skills. In my last research project I worked with traditional Sheffield knife makers and made an online resource which was successfully used by a variety of learners. The wonders of the internet mean information travels fast and those who wish to learn in this way can readily access such resources and conduct their own apprenticeships in their own way.