|Forum topic by DrDirt||posted 336 days ago||1038 views||0 times favorited||27 replies|
336 days ago
Interesting article – aparently preprint. But asks a great question
Credit: Burcu Avsar
Science-fiction author Robert A. Heinlein once wrote: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”
That’s a tall order. Although I can only do some of those things, I approve of the principle. Nowadays, though, we’re specializing more. A popular Internet essay is titled: “I Can’t Do One-Quarter of the Things My Father Can.” Are hands-on skills — building things, fixing things, operating machines and so on — really in decline?
I think so. SAT scores provide a record of academic performance, but there’s no equivalent archive for tracking handiness. There is, however, a lot of anecdotal evidence that what used to be taken for granted as ordinary mechanical skills now amounts to something unusual. When I recently wrote on my Web site about the importance of giving kids hands-on toys, a reader e-mailed: “Boy, can I second [your point about] the lack of basic skills in adults. I volunteer with Habitat for Humanity here in Los Angeles. The volunteers who come out frequently can’t do something as basic as using a tape measure…. Many of my Saturdays are effectively clinics on how to pound a nail.”
Even the simplest of automotive tasks, changing a tire, seems to be beyond the ken of many people. According to AAA, nearly 4 million motorists requested roadside assistance last year — for flat tires.
And just look at the Popular Mechanics Boy Mechanic books to see the kinds of skills that boys and teenagers were once routinely expected to possess. These books (which PM published in the early 20th century and recently reissued) assumed that young readers would be prepared to construct a fully rigged ice boat, a toy steam engine, or — I’m not kidding — a homebuilt “Bearcat” roadster powered by a motorcycle engine.
It’s hard to imagine too many teenagers tackling projects of that magnitude these days. To be fair, young people today are likely to have skills that earlier generations never dreamed of — building Web sites, say, or editing digital movies. But manipulating pixels and working with physical materials aren’t quite the same thing.
Does this matter? And if people are becoming less mechanically handy, is that so bad? I think so — and not just because specialization is for insects.
We don’t all have to be MacGyver, but from time to time all of us will face problems that can’t be addressed with a laptop and a cellphone. In a genuine emergency, having some basic manual skills could be the difference between surviving comfortably and being totally helpless.
I think that a modicum of ability in dealing with the physical world is good even for those of us whose jobs are mostly cerebral. Engineer Vannevar Bush, one of the great minds of the 20th century, made his mark on everything from the Manhattan Project to the development of computers. But when he wasn’t commanding vast enterprises, Bush spent a lot of time in his basement workshop building things. He said that trying to make a finished project match his blueprints taught him humility and problem solving.
Shop classes and the Boy Scouts used to teach a lot of real-world skills, but both have faded under the onslaught of budget cuts and shifting political winds. (Shop isn’t just for boys: My wife took shop in high school, and is glad she did.) The traditional father-son route for teaching these skills has also weakened, as many fathers lack the requisite skills themselves, and others, because of divorce, don’t have as much opportunity.
I don’t think the decline in hands-on skills is irreversible. In fact, it might be starting to turn around. The boom in home renovation has led many people to brush up their DIY chops. Home Depot and other retailers are finding success offering workshops in basic techniques.
We’re also seeing changes in our popular culture. One example is the best-selling status of The Dangerous Book for Boys, by the brothers Conn and Hal Iggulden. It hearkens back to the Boy Scout manuals and other boys’ books of the early 20th century, with instructions on how to build go-karts, bows and arrows, rafts and more. The book’s success tells me people are interested in regaining lost ground. (It works, too: I gave my 8-year-old nephew a copy, and it got him away from the Xbox and into the outdoors.)
Conn Iggulden tells me he hopes the book inspires fathers to get out in the yard with their sons to build catapults and the like. “Most boys will value something they do with their dad, and they’ll have an experience they’ll value for the rest of their lives,” he says. “If you show them how to beat the next level on the Xbox, it won’t last the rest of their lives.”
We can start with our own families, but there’s no reason to stop there. Most people can do more than they think they can, and it’s often fear of failure as much as lack of skill that keeps people from tackling hands-on tasks. So the next time you see somebody by the side of the road, waiting for AAA, pull over and show them how to use a tire iron. Who knows? It just might catch on.
-- "_If we did all the things we are capable of doing, we would literally astonish ourselves_." Edison