It is unrealistic to think of even the most master craftsmen as isolated geniuses. Craftsmen do not exist in bubbles, and their interests vary just like anyone else’s. A master chef might spend his or her time outside of a kitchen writing poetry; a designer might be an expert cellist; a doctor might be a talented athlete—humans are well-rounded, and devotion to a craft should not negate that.
But while every craftsman may have a myriad of interests, the definition of a craftsman requires that they have only one vocation. Vocation is a conscious decision to pursue learning a craft in a purposeful, deliberate way. We weed through our many interests and isolate the one that we want to be the subject of an intensive learning process that will last the rest of our lives. Many times this is what students use college for—they spend their time trying out different subjects and visualizing different career paths, with the goal of coming out of the experience with a clear idea of what it is they want to do, and who it is they want to be.
Practically speaking, what universities are accomplishing is teaching students to learn how to learn. That is why as a computer science major I had to take calculus in order to graduate. I have never had to use calculus in programming. But the thinking strategies and problem-solving techniques prove useful for solving complicated problems for the first time.
These sorts of lessons supply us with abstract knowledge about the theoretical base of a craft. We learn why skills and processes and techniques are the way they are, which allows us to understand how these methods might be improved. So students leave universities with a glut of this abstract knowledge and enter the workforce eager to perform their craft—which is dangerous, because to this point they have only covered one part of what is a continuum of learning. Through abstract knowledge they can explain what and why a craft exists as it does, but to this point they have missed a very important complementary bit of knowledge. They need to learn how their knowledge applies to production. We call this tangible learning. Software development is a career which tangible learning is a necessity in becoming a professional. Most crafts are.
Tangible learning comes through hands-on experience with a craft. For scientists this involves research and lab work; for doctors it requires taking a residence at a hospital; for developers it requires writing lots of applications; many other professions demand an internship at a company. What all of these share are intensive, directed learning and practice in the tangible or hands-on aspect of a craft. So while they all take on different names, at their root they are all modern apprenticeships.
By providing tangible learning, modern apprenticeships fill the gap between studying a topic and working at a job. Many fields these days require a leap between what you learned at school and what you will do at your job, but modern apprenticeships bridge over that gap by providing hands-on experience so that you can achieve the most desirable status of craftsmen—when your practice matches your performance. That is the most tell-tale symptom of mastery.