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Return of the Manual Arts

TWFWe have spent considerable space in these posts discussing education, particularly the liberal arts.
This post is dedicated to the lesser known side of our curriculum—the manual arts.
Manual arts are not something that the average American thinks about in the 21st century.
But a hundred years ago, the vast majority of Americans were engaged in the manual arts everyday.
In fact, excluding the last 60 years of developed nations, manual arts were the reality for nearly the entire global population. Even now, most of the seven billion inhabitants on earth engage in the manual arts daily.
Without the manual arts, most of what we enjoy almost unconsciously, would not exist.  In our high-tech, synthetic, and artificial world, we have reached a “roman” sense of existence—the only difference from then to now—we just have more sophisticated slaves.*
imagesIn a very thought-provoking article by Oliver DeMille, The Future of American Education: 8 Trends Every Parent Should Understand, DeMille gives us a glimpse of what we have become:

Since 2001 a number of social commentators have noted that as a society we are outsourcing more and more of the things that were typically done by families (one of the best works on this is The Future of Business by former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich).
For example, the following list includes things done almost entirely by families in the year 1900:
Food Growing
Reading Bedtime Stories
Sexual Intimacy
Home Repair
Taking Care of Animals
Yard Care
Role Modeling
Teaching Religion
Massage Therapy
The list has changed in the past century, and the victim has been the family.  Perhaps the “Big 5” on the list are:
Childcare, which has been outsourced, especially in urban America, to professional childcare institutions.
Food Preparation, which has been outsourced to fast food and pre-packaged meals.  For example, 1999 was the first year in which expenditures in the U.S. for fast food exceeded expenditures for groceries. 
Entertainment, which used to consist of families reading together or activities like group picnics and outings.  Today, even when families are together, they usually sit facing away from each other toward a television, movie screen, or sporting event.
Teaching Religion, which was once seen as the role of parents with the preacher lending a helping hand, is now almost entirely outsourced to the pastor or Sunday school teacher or to some secular alternative.
Education, which historically was overseen by parents who hired and evaluated teachers and did much of the instruction themselves, has now been almost fully outsourced to “the experts.”
Another huge trend, which already has drastic consequences that are only beginning to be understood, is the outsourcing of counseling between husband and wife (discussion of their fears, anxieties, worries and fondest dreams) to expert counselors.
Perhaps the 54% divorce rate in the U.S. is connected to this; as Allan Bloom** pointed out in 1987, people live, sleep and sometimes eat together, but they don’t think, dream and work together toward a common goal in the same way that our grandparents did. This delegation of intimacy to the experts may yet be the biggest trend of all.
And what is the impact of using videos or DVDs in the place of reading bedtime stories to toddlers?  The outsourcing of our families and the things only families can do well is a growing trend, and a very sobering commentary on the future of our society.
Historians might compare it to the fateful practice among French women in the 1750s-1780s of not nursing their own children—of instead turning them over to wet nurses. Few would argue that this was the only cause of the bloodbath and societal fall in the French Revolution in the 1780s, but almost everyone agrees that this was a significant part of it.
So, with all these duties being outsourced, what is left that only the family can do?  According to the new economy – nothing.  The leading view today is that “It Takes a Village,” that even love can be outsourced to teachers, coaches, clubs, and mentors.
The truth is that it does take a village, a community, but a community of families working, playing, cooperating and facing obstacles together, not a community of government institutions.

This idea of outsourcing seems to be a national pastime, albeit there does appear to be a small underground resurgence of the manual arts illustrated by websites such as
One of the reasons we have disowned the use of the manual arts is due to the steady progression of technology.  The advent of labor saving devices (LSDs) has improved our lives in many ways.  It has also been the underlying source of a whole host of sedentary lifestyle diseases. Where is the balance?
images (1)Labor saving devises or the greater concept of saving labor has an interesting history.
From the advent of the Industrial Revolution, saving labor changed the world from mere survival to producing a cash crop beyond subsistence or allowing a farmer increased discretionary time for more favored pursuits.
By the 1970s the workingman was able to produce much more with a fraction of the backbreaking labor required a century before which stabilized into a 40-hour work-week…increasing discretionary time even further.
It also freed the American housewife of many undesirable chores, and like her spouse, freed up significant “my time”…but to what end?
If it was to allow them to relax a little more, no harm done. If it permitted more time to give to others or to develop talents–that would be good too, but unfortunately for most of people, it led to their less ambitious side with copious amounts of time being devoted to the latest entertainment and diversion– Television– late morning and afternoon soap opera TV series such as the “Dark Shadows” or “General Hospital”, and time devouring shows such as “The Price is Right.”
It allowed them more time to engage in recreation and entertainment on the weekends, often ignoring family, relationships, and service to neighbors, and expanding into long weekends which monopolized the traditional Sabbath for non-Sabbath day activities.
MA4By the 1990s we were thoroughly absorbed by a numbing consumerism, life had gotten pretty easy so labor saving was really no longer the goal, but keeping up with the “Jones,” and securing the latest fashions or gadget, or the newest car, or a bigger house was—this really exploded with the advent of computer technology, gaming, and home entertainment from the late 1990s to the present.
The latest chapter in our American LSDs story is resulting in skyrocketing obesity— 70% of all adults and 30% of children in America suffer from poor health and diseases not seen two decades ago.
According to Popular Mechanics (2011), every man should possess certain basic manual art skills.
They provided a list for men to become more manly, clearly an indication that males no longer possess these skills.
Removing anything on the list that was technology related, I am including the remaining 16 manual arts that the modern man has apparently lost:
1. Sharpen a knife
2. Patch a radiator hose
3.Frame a wall
4. Back-up a trailer
5. Build campfire
6. Use an ax properly to chop wood
7. Fix a dead outlet
8. Navigate with a compass and map
9. Fillet a fish
10. Get a car unstuck
11. Paint a room
12. Mix concrete
13. Clean a gun
14. Change oil in a car (and know that the filter needs to be changed too)
15. Paddle a canoe
16. Fix a bike flat
To this list, allow me to add a few of my own:

  1. Use a skill saw and/or nail gun
  2. Plant, grow, and harvest a crop
  3. Build a habitable structure
  4. Properly and safely shoot a gun
  5. Butcher an animal
  6. Cook a meal
  7. Prepare food for long term storage
  8. Build a solar panel/wind turbine and generate electricity

While writing this post, my 22-year-old daughter looking over my shoulder and seeing the topic, stated that of her closest 15 male friends ( ages 20-30) only one had competency with all the items on the Popular Mechanics list. Things that four decades ago any self-respecting man did himself–only specialists can handle today.

3rd World farmer is just a game, but it gives you a taste of what reality can be like in some parts of the world.
3rd World farmer is just a game, but it gives you a taste of what reality can be like in some parts of the world.

Today there are 184 million active facebook users in America (that’s 60% of our entire population) spending more than two hours a week on facebook, but if you factor in all online activities (all social media, all gaming,  all youtube viewing and other online videos, etc) the percentage sky rockets to almost 25% of our awake time.
For the average American over the age of 16 that can be as much as five hours a day, every day or the equivalent of an entire work week per month. This does not include texting, and playing games on our iphones.
This is all time wherein we are distracted from our loved ones, our community and our social responsibilities.
How do we not see that this is a monumental waste of our national resource of labor, not to mention a decline of our national character?
We are so far removed from reality that we even believe that we can get a sense of the plight of the third world farmer through playing a video game!
LSDs and the specialization of the consumer age has not only made us inept to care for ourselves, it has driven the cost of living many times over what it was just fifty years ago.  Are our lives really better and more satisfying now compared to the 1940s?
Working as a youngster on a dairy farm in the mid 1970’s, I worked along side sixty year-old men who never had high cholesterol and very little arthritis. They had no weight problems (a little pudgy maybe—they were in their sixties after all) and were active in every other way. They could put in a 12-hour day of hard farm work as easily as I could.  Yet today I see countless 30-something men who are overweight, soft, and would likely expire at the thought of hard physical labor.  What has happened to us?
We have forgotten the enjoyment of using our hands, the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from “doing it ourselves” and the security of self-sufficiency.  We have forgotten that human beings are still needed for the most basic necessities of life—food still grows in the ground and must be harvested, fruits still needs to be picked from the tree, cloth is still manually fed into the sewing machine, and fossil fuels and natural resources are still wrenched from the earth— by hand.
Not having personal experience in the manual arts is one level of losing our humanity and threatens civilization—not remembering that someone is practicing the manual arts right now—is a much deeper and catastrophic failure.
wheatWe believe that every congressman, every police officer, every corporate CEO, every surgeon, every diplomat, every teacher, every real estate agent; every American citizen would make better decisions, have better morals, and lead happier lives if they were more engaged in the manual arts. In fact, we challenge our readers to do just that– find ways to more deeply engage in the manual arts.
One  of the greatest advocates of the manual arts in my opinion is The Boy Scouts of America program. I think in many ways, this program favored the engagement of  the manual arts and helped in the building of  stronger and more self-reliant citizens.
The manual arts are a natural cure for egotism, self-deception, and obesity.  The manual arts are an instinctive remedy for a troubled mind and eliminate the need for sleep aids. The manual arts will increase health, vitality, and improve your view of the world.  The manual arts enhance our powers of observation and appreciation.
Many of the manual arts involve dirt or soil or being outside in the fresh air—it is spiritually grounding and emotionally balancing.
Some of the least stressed and happiest people I know are masters of the manual arts.  The manual arts play a very real role on our campus and our students attest to this fact by find solace and even comfort in the working on the farm and even in the wilderness that surounds us.
The real test is for you to test yourself against the list above and
*At the peak of Roman culture there were seven slaves for every roman citizen. The Romans had for the most part completely shunned the manual arts, becoming increasingly dependent on slave labor and the importation of their food supply. We have reached a similar existence.  We are becoming more and more dependent on exports and even the manual labor done in this country is emotionally and culturally relegated to a certain segment of our population.
** Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom


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Comments (11)

  • Lindsey McGuire

    Can I be ironic, in the hipster sense of the word, if I share this article on facebook? It was very helpful and inspires me to do even more with the manual arts…thanks!

    March 21, 2013 at 4:58 pm
  • debbie pond

    Ok, I’m going to post it, too. Maybe pin it. I concur with all the above. The comment on marriage hit a cord. I’ve had divorce in my family, and I had a similar thought. AND, I was reminded of some changes I still need to make.

    March 21, 2013 at 5:19 pm
  • dean brooks

    the problem is well stated the answer obvious lets go to work in the garden

    March 21, 2013 at 5:32 pm
  • Anna

    I cannot agree with you more!

    March 21, 2013 at 9:01 pm
  • Mama Rachel

    OUCH. I’ll be pondering this one for a LONG time. Great thoughts!

    March 22, 2013 at 9:38 am
  • Brandon M

    Wow, I actually know more things on the list than I expected. My biggest issue that has held me back on learning skills was the expert mentality. I always had to rely on experts and I couldn’t do things because it was not in my field.
    The last few years I have broke free of that mentality and it is amazing how simple most tasks are if you just put your mind to it. Sure I mess up along the way but that is what life is about.

    March 23, 2013 at 8:39 pm
  • Rad

    Wow, the platitudes have not gone out of fashion, Dr Phill is out and alive, Please forgive me for being so dumb that I cannot figure things on my own. I need somebody to keep my marriage together, then another to eat right, that will bust the marriage, than a psychologist to say “we are all crazy anyway”.
    You people have not grasped the real problem.

    March 25, 2013 at 2:36 am
    • Shanon Brooks

      I’m game, so what is the “real problem?”

      March 25, 2013 at 10:33 am
  • dean brooks

    GOD is GREAT beer is good people are crazy.

    March 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm
  • Gene F. Danforth

    Awsome Article.
    Are we out sourcing thinking also. A comment from several parents have wondered how our young people think today.Home schooling our children has been a wonderfull experience. I have learned much.
    Like the last days of the Roman Empire the masses are spending their time being entertained. It has become a growing addiction that doesn’t require much thinking.

    March 25, 2013 at 6:11 pm
  • Kurt Case

    What a wonderful and thought provoking article. I wholeheartedly agree especially with the part about the feelings of accomplishment and ‘pride’ with the use of our hands to create. We are shortchanging our youth as well as ourselves by not engaging in the manual arts. We become simple automatons with only the simplest set of preprogrammed actions. Let us look back and move forward, not to be confused with ‘leading from behind.’

    March 25, 2013 at 7:00 pm

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