Wisdom that can’t be taught

There is a new word being heard around the block – internship.  Traditionally it meant newly-qualified medical graduates understudying experienced doctors, but Alan Milburn’s Report, “Unleashing Aspirations,” expands the definition to mean young people shadowing experienced professionals so learning some of the tricks of their trade.  Internships are similar to apprenticeships.  However, as the media has been quick to point out, youngsters need parents with good connections if they are to find a quality internship which could well give them a hefty start on their career ladder.

William Pitt the Younger learnt the skill of premiership from his father, and Brunel learnt most of his engineering skills in his father’s workshop.  Alan Sugar has given an entrepreneurial edge to the meaning of apprenticeships, and this week’s Press has given an aura of social privilege to internships.  Both depend on the advice given by the Earl of Chesterfield to his son in 1746: “Do not imagine that the knowledge which I so much recommend to you, is confined to books, pleasing, useful and necessary as that knowledge is; the knowledge of the world is only to be acquired in the world, and not in a closet.”

Interest in apprenticeship and internship has increased as faith in the classroom has decreased.  This is bound to continue as the English finally accept that the separation of thinking from doing is as stupid as the separation of the academic from the vocational.

In the late 1920s my father attended a small West Country grammar school where every boy studying for Higher School Certificate (A Levels) had also to learn a craft skill.  My father studied under a Birmingham silversmith, and his eventual work was accepted by the Silversmith’s Guild to be assayed.  At university he decided against engineering, and became a priest.  Remaining an enthusiastic engineer at heart he and three colleagues completely rewired his vast Victorian church in the 1950s.  As a keen little boy I tried to help out by holding the trailing light to illuminate where the men were working, but my concentration frequently faltered, plunging the men into darkness.  Eventually this prompted my father to give me some of the best advice I’ve ever had: “if you don’t learn to think like I’m thinking you will never understand what I am trying to do, and you won’t know what you think you will need to do next!”

That was the advice he had learnt from the old silversmith, probably born in the 1850s; it’s what I have said to my own sons, and what I said to six-year-old Amelie last week.  That is what intergenerational learning is all about.

See Part Three of Briefing Paper