Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 7. The Apprentice System

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXIII. Education

§ 7. The Apprentice System

Specific literary education was supplemented by, or rather was supplemental to, a broader social training provided for by a law enacted five years previously which related to the training of all children “in learning, labour, and other employments which may be profitable to the commonwealth,” and provided adequate machinery to see that its provisions were applied to every child. Local records of the towns afford abundant evidence that these laws were carried out with fidelity throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries. Education in handicraft or some form of industry through the apprentice system constituted, indeed, the most important aspect of education throughout the colonial period; and those who are content to form their picture of educational conditions in the colonies from the laws or documents concerning the schools or more particularly the colleges—which affected but the few—overlook the most substantial and far-reaching part of the educational system. Many legislative enactments refer to it, though as a matter of fact it was not actually necessary to legalize English customs in English colonies.

The fullest account of the apprentice system, especially as it was applied to the adult labourer, is given in the diary of John Harrower, a Scotchman, who, having indentured himself for some years to pay for his passage, landed in Virginia in 1774. Like many others he was sold as a schoolmaster; but unlike the many known only through newspaper advertisements, he left a long detailed record of his experience. A good account of the apprentice system as a scheme of education is found in the Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Franklin speaks of his father’s desire to give him an academic education and of the unattractiveness of the Latin grammar school. That this disinclination to acquire the prevailing literary education was not due to lack of genuine interest in books is indicated by the fact that after other ventures the boy was finally apprenticed to the printer’s trade on account of his “bookish inclination.” Custom and finally statute in most of the colonies required that all such apprentices should be taught to read and write, as the early Massachusetts and Pennsylvania laws had dictated from the first.