I love that the french word “apprendre” means both to teach and to learn. I like to think that when we share our knowledge, passion or life’s work with someone, there is an exchange in which both parties learn from each other.
Whenever we visit France, I’m always happy to see that apprenticeships are still alive and well. Carpenters, metal workers, mechanics, glass-blowers, bakers, butchers, gardeners, “chocolatiers”, artisanal cheese, bread and wine makers, even shoe-makers still hold an important place in society as revered artisans. As my husband says, when we purchase from an artisan, we make an investment in a quality product as well as the artist, and we ensure the continuation of their art form. These artisans learn by “apprentisage,” by experience, often from a family member or local master, and pass their honed trade down to others–generation after generation. I like to keep this in mind when I’m eating a crusty hunk of artisanal french bread spread with salted butter from the farmer down the road. I am literally tasting tradition.
This past week, my daughter asked my mother-in-law, who is visiting from France, to teach her how to embroider. They spent entire days together, heads and hands bent over tangles of colored thread, practicing patterns, experimenting on heavy and light cloth. They designed, embroidered and sewed a handbag in one afternoon. My daughter learned so much during these past few days, with intense focus and joy, immersing herself in an activity she sought out and soaking up every crumb of knowledge from her grandmother. Tomorrow, they’ll be moving on to knitting at my daughter’s request and her grandmother’s delight.
This is a form of apprenticeship. And it’s a big part of our children’s learning experience. There is often a misconception that life learners don’t learn from others, that instruction is banished in favor of independent learning. Somehow when I tell people that my children are self-directed, autonomous learners, they envision solitude and even isolation. While it’s true that they often learn by doing internet research, reading books and exploring nature on their own–all solitary activities– they spend an equal amount of time interacting with others in order to further their passions or deepen their learning.
When our children are interested in learning something which requires an expert, we don’t hesitate to call on friends, family members, even people we hardly know to ask if they are willing to share their talents and work one-on-one with our children. Without fail, they are always graciously willing, even flattered to say, “Yes!”
Like my husband’s cousin, the painter
or our friend, the Reiki Master
or an Italian Pasta Pro
or a mud brick maker
or a sailor
The value of learning directly from someone else, which I call apprenticeship, can’t be replaced by an internet tutorial, a crowded classroom or an instruction manual. Why? Because it’s a wholly human exchange involving our tactile, auditory and sometimes olfactory senses, our power of observation and our basic good will. And often a good sense of humor.
We all have something to teach and learn. Whether we learn a formal craft from a true artisan in a workshop or how to sew from our grandmother on the living room sofa, we are given a great gift. And we can thank that person by saying “yes” to someone else.