Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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I also sometimes write for Samizdata and Biased BBC.)

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Tuesday, January 11, 2005
Gormless modern youth, the decline of education and (as promised in the blurb of this blog) a sewing angle. This post has everything.

Via Kimberley Swygert of No.2 Pencil and Joanne Jacobs I found an article in the Scotsman about "life incompetents": people who lack basic practical skills. In their Home Economics classes they learnt about egg packaging design rather than how to boil an egg.

When I was a teacher one of my colleagues told the staffroom a story about a female pupil who was missing several buttons from her shirt. The teacher told the pupil to "fix" her shirt, meaning "sew new buttons on."

The pupil answered, "It's alright miss, my mum gets paid on Friday and she'll buy me a new shirt then."

I can't remember after all this time whether my colleague told that story first hand or as something she herself had been told. What I do remember is that half a dozen teachers present chipped in with their own stories of helpless kids and helpless parents. It's a real phenomenon.

Does it matter? Some of the comments to Kimberly Swygert's post say that they don't need to know how to sew because they know a tailor who does. Fair enough, that philosophy worked for Henry Ford. But as another commenter says, there will be times when the job interview is in thirty minutes and the missing button is in the bottom of the suitcase. I doubt that the mother of the girl in my colleague's story was going to be paid a lot come Friday, not if she had to wait until then before buying a shirt. Better for that family if they had had a basic sewing kit somewhere in the house. They don't cost much. I got a perfectly usable kit in a Christmas cracker.

On the other hand, the supposed sturdy practicality of past ages often stopped dead when it came to a man doing "woman's work" or vice versa. Many men of my father's generation literally could not boil an egg. And many women of that generation literally did not know how to use a screwdriver. My own father was some way along that spectrum, although in his case it was because he was a typical un-handy bookworm rather than because he was sexist. When my mother died I thought he was going to be quite unable to feed himself decently. As it turned out, I was wrong. He got by adequately for several years simply by spending more, on ready meals and boil-in-the-bags.

It's a solution, but an expensive one. (A mostly irrelevant memory pops up: I once went shopping for my father with my libertarian friend Max who was visiting me. I picked up some expensive ready meals out of Waitrose freezer, made some comment about their cost and added facetiously, "Oh well, it's not my money." "Socialism disproved in one sentence," said Max. And so it was.)

Back to life incompetence. Is it the fault of the schools for ceasing to teach practical skills? Another way of asking the same question is, why are parents no longer teaching them? (Assuming the perceived decline is real. I think it is.) I am inclined to believe that this is a case of the State steamrollering in, replacing naturally evolved ways of doing things with a mass produced government version, and then withdrawing or degrading the service just when everyone had become dependent on it. Then again I always think that. Look at healthcare. Look at education. Look at welfare.

Yes, let's look at welfare. Any discussion of the modern lack of life skills tends to get round to welfare dependency and welfare passivity eventually. This next anecdote is first hand: it happened to me. One time I had an appointment to see a woman who had a lot of social problems. Very few of them were her fault, and in many ways she was dealing with them quite courageously, but, sadly, she had absorbed the dreamy attitude to keeping appointments that is commonplace to people on the dole, and she didn't show up. (If anyone wants to pick a fight with me about my outrageous stereotyping of welfare recipients, I'm game. I speak as a former dole scrounger.) When I finally caught up with her and gently suggested that she make a note of her apointments in a calendar she said, "OK, I'll ask my social worker to get me one."

I was too flabbergasted to do more than nod and smile. It wasn't just that she forgot or didn't write down the odd appointment - we've all done that, me more than most. It wasn't just that she, in a perfectly nice and unaggressive way, didn't seem to get that it might be a problem. It was that having agreed that a calendar would be useful the means of getting one that felt natural to her was not to pop into a stationers and pay a quid but to shift the onus onto her social worker.