When I was a young teen, I read a sobering statement: Most Americans would starve to death standing next to a cow in a field of ripe wheat. In other words, most people don’t have the faintest idea how to obtain food from elemental sources. A hundred years ago, there were very few people in America – even in urban areas – who wouldn’t at least have an idea what to do with a cow and some wheat. Today … not so much.
For 5,000-plus years of civilization, mankind has honed hundreds of survival skills. How to build a home from raw materials. How to make a fire without a lighter. How to hunt animals with only the most primitive of tools. How to make those primitive tools. How to raise crops, harvest them and preserve them through the upcoming year. The list of skills we’ve forgotten is endless.
And here’s what bugs me: We’ve forgotten 5,000 years’ worth of skills in less than four generations. I consider this a tragedy, but it’s nearly unavoidable in a modern society.
What’s happening among our young people is even more shocking. It seems a lot of millennials lack life skills that are so basic, so fundamental, that older people wonder how they’ll survive on their own.
I’m not even talking about stuff like driving a stick shift or cooking from scratch or sewing on a button. Forget anything do-it-yourself such as building, repairing, plumbing, or wiring. Those skills are gone. Pfffft. No, we’re talking even more basic, more fundamental tasks than that.
How about – sharpening a pencil? Using a book dictionary or encyclopedia? Using a map? Writing a letter longhand (not even in cursive!)? Washing dishes by hand? (“They don’t even know to turn cups upside down to drain,” a housewife once told me in wonder.)
This shortage of basic life skills was driven home by a 2010 performance art video I recently saw entitled “Interior Semiotics.” According to Wikipedia: “In the eight-minute piece, the performer spent two and a half minutes opening a can of SpaghettiOs. She then poured the can into a pan and added water (there is dirt in the mixture as well), while reciting a nihilistic poem [omitted due to profanity]. This was followed by her rubbing the SpaghettiOs on her shirt while reciting the poem in reverse. … The performance was ended with her urinating into the empty can of SpaghettiOs … and taking off her shirt to wipe the remains of her performance.”
OK, whatever. I’m sure it was meaningful at the time. The thing I found amazing wasn’t so much the student’s performance art, which was ridiculous to the point of loathsome. No, the amazing thing was the two and a half minutes it took her to figure out how to use the can opener. As the crowd watched, no one looked pained at her inability to open the can. No one looked like they want to jump in and help. Instead, they all sat in rapt attention and watched her fumble with something that literally should have taken 10 seconds.
Here are the first two minutes of the video:
This makes me wonder: How were these young people raised? What on earth did they do whenever they were presented with an unopened can? Did mommy and daddy always do it for them, or did they have no canned food in their house because they always ordered takeout? I’m not being facetious here; I genuinely want to know, since this seems to be a level of ignorance crippling in scope.
Some will argue these types of skills are archaic and unnecessary. We live in a technologically superior world, with digital information at our fingertips. I fully admit millennials can run circles around me regarding personal electronics (I still don’t have the faintest idea how to text). Yet we all need to eat. Will they spend the rest of their lives being fed by someone else?
Yet neither side in this debate focuses on a more important issue: the changing relationships between body, mind, and environment. In a digital world, young people lose a crucial element of sensory feedback. Millennials grew up more likely to make their Sims mow digital lawns than to feel the mower against their hands in their own yards. The shift is escalating for young Homelanders [defined as those born after 2003], who are trading in books and toys for iPads and experiencing less kinesthetic learning – playing through physically touching and doing – than any generation before them.
The replacement of sensory-analogue with command-digital feedback is changing these younger generations in ways that have yet to be fully explored. Older generations memorized facts, internalized spatial “maps,” and developed muscle memory for physical tasks. What will happen as millennials and Homelanders grow increasingly removed from this type of learning? Will they lose an internal sense of space and geography? No one has truly sorted out the costs and benefits of this disembodiment.
The blame cannot be placed entirely on millennials, of course. The older generation neglected to teach them many basic things. To their credit, the more cognizant millennials are aware of their ignorance. In what’s being called “retro allure,” many are signing up for “life skills” courses to remedy their skills deficiency. They come away pleased by their newfound abilities, and thus discover something their elders have known for years: It’s far more satisfying to know how to do something yourself, than it is to pay someone to do it for you.
These are, of course, generalities. I’m pleased to report there are hordes of smart, competent millennials who outscore their elders on practical skills. These are usually the kids who grew up with hands-on parents, performing blue-collar work from the time they were in diapers. These are kids who can hunt and field-dress a deer, cut and split firewood (using both a chainsaw and a maul), cook dinner from scratch, sew a dress, fix a car, assemble a bicycle, and budget their money. These are the young people to whom I will gladly turn over the future of America.
But to all the millennials out there incapable of using a can opener: please learn. Someday it may keep you from starving.
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