Popular Mechanics Article - Americans losing DIY skills

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Forum topic by DrDirt posted 04-11-2013 02:49 PM 1775 views 0 times favorited 27 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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04-11-2013 02:49 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question

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.

-- “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

27 replies so far

View Airspeed's profile


445 posts in 1867 days

#1 posted 04-11-2013 03:10 PM

Drdirt, that is so true! I raised my daughters to know how to do a lot basic things, it paid off because all of their boyfriends couldn’t even change a flat tire, once while my daughter was on a date they had a dead battery, they called one of their friends to come jump start the car, norther of the two guys knew how to connect the cables so my daughter had to do it. It’s very sad that parents don’t insist their kids know basic things like this. I can’t tell you how many kids I had to teach stuff like this because their parents were too lazy or never bothered to learn themselves. School kids these days don’t know anything, all their time is spent texting each other. Crap, I’m kinda doing that now! I better go build something!


View madts's profile


1855 posts in 2304 days

#2 posted 04-11-2013 03:23 PM

Very profound and true.

-- Thor and Odin are still the greatest of Gods.

View crank49's profile


4030 posts in 2935 days

#3 posted 04-11-2013 03:24 PM

Thanks for posting.
A good read.
And, I can relate on a very personal level, that this trend has been present since nearly 50 years ago.
When I was in middle school in the 1950s I used to get into the archives in the back of the library to find books about building boats and carts and steam engines and such. I loved this stuff. But I was the only person in there.

I still have old copies of Mechanics Illustrated and Popular Mechanics from the 40s and 50s and I still re-read them occasionally.

My kids share my interest in these things, but we are far from the mainstream, and getting farther away every year it seams.

About all the new magazines want to do is create a lot of fantasy with computer generated graphics. It’s sad, because the real thing is just as interesting, if not as flashy.

Reminds me of what a real cowboy once said about the “Urban Cowboy” types.
He said, “If you ask me, they’re all hat and no rope”.

View Tedstor's profile


1643 posts in 2597 days

#4 posted 04-11-2013 03:29 PM

We’ve reached a point in our society where parents don’t encourage their kids to develop trade skills.
- they feel using tools to build go carts and bike ramps is too dangerous.
- everyone wants their kid to become a software engineer or a lawyer. Vocational skills don’t fit into that plan.
I’m fortunate in that I’ve become a pretty handy guy. I intend/ demand that my three boys not be “that guy” that has to depend on AAA to change a tire or hook up a set of jumper cables.

View nomercadies's profile


589 posts in 2303 days

#5 posted 04-11-2013 03:32 PM

I am in agreement. Check the website we host mentioned on my homepage here at Lumberjocks. I found the most wonderful talents hidden in students with special needs (possibly they should be renamed “special abilities”).

The four letter word that keeps popping up and stands in the way of most people embracing the wonder hidden inside is … “work.”

I met a wonderful mason/philosopher once. As he was repairing a chimney on my friend’s home he was chatting along about some of the most insightful things. I asked him, if there was one thing he would share with young people, what would it be? He said, “Tell them … not everything needs to be fun. You have to carry some bricks to make a beautiful chimney.”

The computer was supposed to fix everything. It does, as long as the world you live in is virtual.

Taking something from the bubbling mud in your mind and making it stand before you in reality happens less and less, I believe because there is no large group of people to watch as living examples.

Supposedly, computers are a tool, not a universe in which we live. I never would have read your words without my computer, and I truly appreciate that, but now I am going to stand up, go into the living room I turned into a shop, and work on a brand new way to attach wheels to a workbench.

Again, check out the quest I am on to reverse some of what we have discussed here. We are trying to create something truly wonderful to put the talents and drive of the so-called “graduates” from classrooms for students with special needs to (four letter word) work. You’ll find the web address on my home page.

Thanks again for your thoughts.

-- Chance Four "Not Just a Second Chance"

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Kaleb the Swede

1821 posts in 1934 days

#6 posted 04-11-2013 03:58 PM

I like this. I am a high school music teacher, I sent it to the shop teacher where I work. I figured if anyone would appreciate it, he might. Thanks

-- Just trying to build something beautiful

View Hammerthumb's profile


2836 posts in 1939 days

#7 posted 04-11-2013 04:33 PM

This has got me to thinking about the changes as you have pointed out. I worked in electronics in the mid 70’s and would alway wonder how the evolution of technology would effect society. At that time my comments would be that technology had raced past the average consumers ability to use it (can’t even program a VCR). I think it was at that time that society started to catch up with the advancements in technology, and the hand skills and mechanical talents started to diminish. Why can’t we do both? It seems you are right, not only do fathers and mothers not pass down the knowledge of changing a tire or hemming a seem, but our schools and institutions are intent on teaching skills that require abstract thought and fuction over physical work skills.

-- Paul, Las Vegas

View DrDirt's profile


4423 posts in 3706 days

#8 posted 04-11-2013 04:41 PM

I thought it interesting.

The above is why at the Home Depots, and LOWES and Menards etc there are all of these weekend clinics on how to lay tile, landscape, paint etc.

The folks that run the DIY home centers, are realizing that there are tons of new young homeowners, that have never used a screwdriver. So in order for their businesses to survive, they are trying to encourage and even train the next generation of homeowner to do work themselves.

-- “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

View BinghamtonEd's profile


2297 posts in 2334 days

#9 posted 04-11-2013 05:38 PM

I think this is a great article, and I forwarded it on to my parents, my wife, and my in-laws. I was lucky growing up, I had a dad who pretty much did everything around the house, and included me when he was working. I consider myself pretty handy, and this is something I fully intend to pass on to my children.

-- - The mightiest oak in the forest is just a little nut that held its ground.

View BTimmons's profile


2303 posts in 2449 days

#10 posted 04-11-2013 07:50 PM

In his book ‘The Demon Haunted World’, Carl Sagan wrote -

“We’ve arranged a global civilization in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We have also arranged things so that almost no one understands science and technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.”

Granted, good old Uncle Carl was addressing heavy subjects like loosing our technological edge as a first world country, societal collapse and nuclear war in that book. Not exactly the same thing as not knowing how to swing a hammer. But the principle applies. Our ancestors made just about everything they owned and used, and here we are running to Walmart to buy a chair made of plastic, on the other side of the world, that’s just going to break in a year or two anyway.

It goes way back to the beginning of the Information Age and the decline of American manufacturing. We had an economy based on making things, that gradually shifted towards service sector work. Now, there’s nothing inherently bad or “less American” (whatever that means) about either line of work. But the fact remains that focusing heavily on either side will leave you lacking in skills and awareness.

I can’t help but think less of an adult that doesn’t know how to use a screwdriver. And I also can’t help but think less of someone that is computer illiterate and/or can’t write worth a damn. So in spirit, I’m neither white or blue collar, but somehow I have elitist feelings about both. Maybe a flaw in my own character. I don’t know, but there it is.

I was born in 1980 so I was raised during a time when vying for a service sector job (i.e. anything that had me sitting behind a computer) was the thing to do. Video games were present from early on. But so were Lego sets. I was much more inclined to art and music for the earliest parts of my life, but being in Scouts also allowed me to experience things outside of my suburban existence. Building fires, using an ax to cut firewood, archery, things you couldn’t exactly do in your back yard.

I get my soft spoken and introverted personality from my dad. He’s not the most alpha male guy, but I did learn a few skills from him as a kid. How to cut a board with a saw, drive screws, drill holes, hammer a nail, etc. Nothing really advanced, but it’s something. He never changed his own oil or taught me how to (which I swear I’ll do someday). But when I was a teenager and I was about to start driving, he did make me change a tire right there in the driveway. That, and being able to inflate your tires and jump start a car should at least be the baseline of mechanical skills for any driver. I intend to make my daughter do the same thing when she’s old enough. Potty training comes first, though.

-- Brian Timmons -

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2656 posts in 2887 days

#11 posted 04-11-2013 08:14 PM

Spot on. Thanks for the post.

-- Life is good.

View Bogeyguy's profile


548 posts in 2032 days

#12 posted 04-11-2013 08:39 PM

Well guys, it’s up to us to pass these skills along to our sons, daughters, grandkids. Someone needs to show them. That’s us. My dad wasn’t very handy and I would laugh when he would bring a tool home from Sears and mom would ask him what he was planning on doing with that?? Luckily I had Uncle Tom who was quite the handy man and I helped him out doing little jobs on the weekend. I passed alot of this “knowledge” onto my sons and I can see them passing it on to my 8 grandchildren. It has to start somewhere.

-- Art, Pittsburgh.

View madts's profile


1855 posts in 2304 days

#13 posted 04-11-2013 08:58 PM

At the marina where I used to live we had a joke: “The worst thing on earth was a lawyer with a screw driver in his hand.” Needless to say there were several lawyer boat owners at this marina. Ever Monday morning I would get calls from these lawyers asking me to fix stuff that had been screwed with a driver or similar.

-- Thor and Odin are still the greatest of Gods.

View Elizabeth's profile


817 posts in 3108 days

#14 posted 04-11-2013 09:55 PM

I wish my dad had been able to show me that stuff. Sadly, he was sick my whole life and died when I was a kid. I’d love to know how to handle myself with basic car repairs but never had anyone who could show me. What I know of woodworking I learned from middle school shop class, books, and my own experimentation – which is why I still don’t know how to use a plunge router – hard to get that from a book! My older brother taught me stuff like how to throw a baseball and a football but I think he didn’t pick up most of his practical knowledge till adulthood, and I’m still handier around most tools than he is.

I actually tried to join my local boy scouts when I was a kid, on the grounds that they were doing useful stuff and girl scouts was all about making leather bracelets and doing art projects. But of course they didn’t let me in.

Around my house I’m the one doing the repair jobs, which is great until we hit one that I don’t know how to do. Plumbing and wiring are my weak areas. Fortunately my husband has some electrical experience and is able to supplement me there, and we have a great electrician who gives free advice by email.

At least we can both change a diaper and balance equations; he can cook and build a wall and I can balance accounts and program a computer…we’re getting there!

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4335 posts in 2373 days

#15 posted 04-13-2013 03:23 AM

It is sad but true. Those that can fix things around the house with basic skills have become an endangered species.

-- Live to tell the stories, they sound better that way.

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