Notes from the Glebe

The Loss of Cultural Knowledge (In Microcosm)

Oct 05, 10:45 PM

by Nick Borchert

This little expository rests upon the premise that the disappearance of practical skills from middle-class America is a bad thing. The persistent illusion that humankind has progressed beyond the necessity of physical labor has no place here. It is one of the chief efforts of this journal to aid in dispelling said illusion, but in this particular case I am taking for granted a reader sympathetic to our cause. If you do not yet believe that the abstract character of human labor has contributed to cultural diseases like oil dependency, environmental degradation, moral relativity, and the McDonalds “Drive-Thru,” then go read the likes of Ralph Emerson, Henry Thoreau, James Howard Kunstler, and Wendell Berry. If you have done as much, and you still do not believe it, then close your browser.

For you others, let’s try for a moment to grasp what has happened. How has it come to pass, for example, that a nation which was made up of 95 percent farmers at its founding and 45 percent as recently as the turn of the 20th century has today relegated gardening to the status of a hobby, culturally on par with, say, stamp-collecting and video-game playing? And if we fancy ourselves different here—that is, if we have come to recognize the value of activities like growing food and building and fixing things, then how is it that the cultural knowledge which our ancestors inherited for these activities has today passed from memory?

Take my own case. My paternal great-grandfather was a farmer. My grandfather, being not the eldest of his thirteen siblings, did not inherit the family farm, and instead went off to college and a career in accounting. But in spite of his move to the white collar world, he retained a great many practical skills. He was, for example, an amateur carpenter—he built the wooden playground in my family’s backyard and the grandfather clock that sits in our living room. He knew his way around under the hood of an automobile and he was chief handyman and repairman when anything broke down in his house.

It might be supposed that with such a lineage, I would have inherited at least some measure of practical know-how. Not so. My great-grandfather cultivated the land for a living; I am just as likely to uproot your spinach crop as your chickweed intruder. My grandfather was a carpenter; I have difficulty assembling a ready-made desk from Ikea. I can’t fix the toaster, I can’t figure out what’s wrong with the water heater, and I don’t know why your car is making that sound. At least I can console myself with not being the first in the family tree to inherit manual inability; my father, M.B.A., C.P.A., fares marginally better than me as a handyman, but only by virtue of longer experience with things he doesn’t have the experience to deal with.

So blame Grandpa! Well, maybe not. Another case study suggests that the instance of my family’s descent into ineptitude may be part of a larger cultural trend. Let’s look at my brother-in-law. (I am here considering men only, because women probably have had or still have more variables working against them insofar as acquiring practical skills is concerned.) Although he has some experience hunting and fishing, he recently confessed to me that, if pressed, he would probably be unable to clean his own game. And beyond the ability to fire a rifle and bait a hook, his practical abilities extend about as far as mine.

His father, on the other hand, fares better than mine. For one, he cleans his own game (and my brother-in-law’s). He is also a sailor and a gardener, and he knows the basics of electric wiring, plumbing, and auto mechanics. That is to say, he is, like my grandpa, a passable handyman. His profession? Project manager at a major bank. So whence comes this technical competency? I’ll tell you the root of my theory at least: his father was a welder.

In both of our case studies, the first-generation white collar worker has retained practical competency, while the subsequent generations have lost it. What does this mean? Them confounded kids doesn’t respec’ they’s elders? Partly. But it also suggests that people who earn a living with their hands assign a greater priority to passing on their practical knowledge than do their white collar counterparts.

My great-grandfather, though he knew my grandfather would not inherit his farm, likely made every effort to ensure that his son was equipped with all of the practical skills that had sustained him throughout his lifetime. He knew the value of self-sufficiency, of growing one’s own food, of being caretaker of one’s own home. So willing or no, his young son learned how to grow, build, and repair.

More than likely, my grandfather would have liked his own son to be able to service his car, or build the playground in his own backyard. He may have even taken for granted that my father, being a man, would somehow or another acquire such knowledge, since probably all of the men he knew could do these things. But he also knew that my father would never want employment for want of manual abilities. He knew, from experience, that this was a world where the most marketable skills were practiced with pen and paper, not with nail and hammer. Whether his son could build and repair the things in his home would not matter when he had the economic means to buy them and have them serviced by people who earned a lower income than him. So if the son did not show a natural curiosity or aptitude for mechanical pursuits, that was okay in the end. What had priority was discipline in the classroom and an understanding of the economy.

I do not claim that the trend I have described here will hold for every family, but it does seem to be indicative of the cultural attitude of the past several generations. The sons of blue collar workers inherited their fathers’ cultural knowledge, but their sons never did. The home economy was laid to waste because we assumed that the cash economy would provide for all our needs and desires. But for a population largely incapable of operating the dishwasher, lean times may be ahead. We face oil shortage, inflation, climate change, and economic spiral, all of which could change the rules of labor and purchase that we have become accustomed to. The grocery store, that magical spring of endless bounty, might well run out of food; we may not be able to pay the electric bill, or there may be no electrical company left to pay. If these things happen, we are going to be required to re-learn a great many of the things we have allowed ourselves to forget, and fast.

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