An early form of education in the American colonies was apprenticeship. The need for skilled workers was great, as a constant influx of new immigrants continued to arrive by ship. The "new world" had a wealth of raw materials which needed many hands to develop.
Apprenticeship was a system of on-the-job training which was based on ancient and medieval practices. England systematized the training and in 1601 "The Poor Law" was transferred to the American Colonies. Eventually Massachusetts and Virginia passed laws in favor of the formation of this educational endeavor.
After young boys aged 6-8 completed their education at the "Dame school," they were able to read. The curriculum allowed only limited math and writing skills. At about age 9, they were given little choice in their destiny.
Their parents chose for them one of the three options. Attendance at a Latin School, which had college prep courses, would further their reading skills. Most did not go on to college, since at that time the curriculum was only for the training of ministers of the Christian faith. As a second choice, boys could be trained at home in the occupation of their father. This had obvious benefits and required no extra cost to the family. The third option, apprenticeship, occasionally required monthly payments to the craftsman who served as employer.
The young man lived with the craftsman and was employed doing the menial tasks of the trade. In the course of about 7 years, the boy was to have learned all of the duties and be able to begin his own business. Along the way, his "Master" was to have educated him in the matters of faith, so that he would be able at any time to give appropriate answers to anyone who might require it of him.
As the practice of apprenticeship grew, provisions began to be established to expedite the process. Expectations were recorded in writing to provide adequate accommodations for the child. By 1647, they expanded the definitions to include girls as well, though they were given the privilege only because they were poor.
Leadership in the colonies was concerned with the education of its young, and pioneer life was difficult. Often families were impoverished or left children as orphans. Combining these needs, the poorest children were sent to be apprentices in James City and employed in the public flax houses. There were specific endowments for each child including "6 barrels of corn, 2 coverlets, 1 bed, 1 rug, 2 spoons, 2 chickens and wearing apparel with hose and shoes". Two boarding houses were constructed to contain them.
The system of apprenticeship, as a whole, was rather disorganized. Each parent and craftsman "struck a deal" that dictated the life of the child. By the time of Benjamin Franklin, several laws were enacted, but that did not preclude difficulties. Benjamin was apprenticed to his older brother in the printing business and was promised a small salary. The idea was his father's and the elder son did not appreciate the help. In time, the older brother became jealous of Benjamin's literary talents, and began to beat him. He was arrested and imprisoned for a month, but returned to the business very angry with Benjamin. The system itself had problems in it, but Benjamin did receive the training necessary to procure him a job elsewhere... and be of great benefit to our country. Andrew Johnson and Paul Revere were also participants of the apprenticeship system.
Primary education in the 1600's focused on physical skills. Apprenticeship gave opportunity to spur on economic growth in a two-fold process. The craftsman received much-needed help in his work, and children were prepared to continue the skills of business in the succeeding generation.
Prepared by Kay Kizer