The Downfall and Rise of Practical Knowledge

If you have kids, or have spent any time in the children’s section of any bookstore in the last few years, you are no stranger to the “Need to Know” series of books, usually found in the ‘education’ section.   What Your Kindergartner Needs to KnowWhat Your First Grader Needs to Know, etc.   I used to own both of these books, having bought them when Maya was still a baby, when I knew I wanted to homeschool but hadn’t a clue how that would manifest.    In the introduction to these books, the editors talk about the importance of a common base of knowledge in society.     The books place a huge emphasis on nursery rhymes, fairy tales and history.   There is probably a large section on math, too.   I can’t remember exactly, because a couple of years ago I decided that what those books ‘needed’ was to be put in the recycling bin, where hopefully they could be made into something useful, like grocery bags.   No practical knowledge makes its’ way into any list of what people need to know.   At least not any list compiled by ‘education experts’.    Only theoretical knowledge is important, and so we have a lot of kids who can think theoretically in a classroom, but are lost when practical knowledge is called for in the world in which they live.     And when I say ‘practical knowledge’, I’m talking about things that were taken for granted 100 years ago, or sometimes even 50 or 60 years ago, so much so that an explanation of, say, how to drill a hole in a piece of wood would have seemed absurd.  Doesn’t everyone know how to do that?

Let me give a specific example.   I picked up a book today at Barnes & Noble (from the clearance rack) entitled The Boy Scientist, from the editors of Popular Mechanics magazine.   On the cover is a drawing that looks like it dates from the early 1950′s, of two boys building something electrical;  large batteries and exposed wiring held by rubber handled pliers factor greatly.     Inside the cover, under the copyright info, it reads:

“Please note that the projects in this book were created nearly 100 years ago when safety standards were more relaxed than they are today.”   They could have added, “And when people knew how to handle a hammer, bore holes in wood and solder metal as a matter of course.”

As I started reading through the experiments in the first chapter, the depth of my own lack of knowledge in this regard became painfully obvious.   Here, in their entirety, are the instructions for building a small Bunsen burner:

“An excellent Bunsen burner for small work can be made as follows:  Draw a glass tube to the shape shown, to produce a fine hollow point.  (there is a sketch next to the instructions showing the glass tube with the proper shape and markings, then one of the completed burner. )  Mark carefully with a file and break at A and than at B.  Bore or burn a hole into a cork to fit the tube.  Cut a V-shaped notch in the side of the cork extending to the hole.   Bend the lower tube at  right angles and insert it in a wood block previously slotted with a saw to make a snug fit.   A little glue will hold the glass tubes, cork and base together.   The air mixture can be adjusted by sliding the upper tube before the glue sets.”

There you have it!  No problem, right?  I mean, don’t we all know how to heat, shape and cut glass, bore or burn a hole to size in a cork (or in anything), slot a piece of wood with a saw and then glue it all together so that it functions?

In today’s world, building a Bunsen burner would involve the following:  first you would need to go to a store that sells ‘science kits’.   Because this one involves glass and a flame (after being put together), there would be a huge warning label on the front that this kit is only to be assembled and used under adult supervision.    Then upon opening it, you would find two glass tubes, shaped and cut to the proper sizes.   You would find a cork prepared with a hole and V-shaped notch, as well as a piece of wood with a slot already cut in it.   There would be a small tube of non-toxic glue and a page and a half of instructions with photos detailing the difficult task of gluing the pieces together in the correct order.   There would be no guessing about the air mixture, and no skill involved in building the burner.  No practical knowledge of wood, glass or fire is necessary, and yet you get to ‘make’ a Bunsen burner!

I am appalled.   Appalled at my own helplessness in the face of pretty basic instructions, and appalled that this is where we have ended up.   If I think about it too much, it gives me a slightly panicked feeling.

So, deep breaths.   Ok, now for the good part.   Practical Knowledge is making a comeback.  Not in schools or colleges, god forbid, but in homes and garages and basement studios.   Evidence can be found in the popularity of books like Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand or Matthew Crawford’s Shop Class as Soulcraft.    It can be seen in the thousands of people who attend the Maker Faire’s, both as inventors and spectators.   In a week or two NYCHEA will host it’s December Craft Fair, and I am constantly amazed at what our kids bring in – stuff they have made (not just assembled) – to sell.     Websites like Etsy and Craftzine showcase and sell the works of diy artists and craftsmen.     Maybe, eventually, this will translate into shop class being reinstated in high schools.   Maybe sewing or knitting could be an elective (or even better part of the ‘core’ curriculum).

Theoretical knowledge has its’ place, but that place should be alongside the practical, not in lieu of.    If you get lost in the woods,  knowledge of the chemical properties of fire will not help you keep warm.    Knowing that water is H2O will not help you find any in a drought.   If you are sitting outside, exposed to the elements, surrounded by a bunch of boards, hammer and nails, knowing the mathematical equation about the force created when a hammer hits a nail will not help you build a shelter.    Maybe you think you’ll never need to build a fire, search for water or build a shelter.   Maybe you won’t.   But what about changing a tire?   Or jump starting a car?   What about sewing on a button?   Or boiling water for some tea?    We need practical knowledge to survive.   It also makes us feel like competent, self-sufficient beings.   And some people think using our hands opens up areas of our brain that no amount of reading can.    I know I get my most creative ideas while knitting or crocheting.  (Or standing in the shower, which has no connection with this subject, but is true nonetheless.)

So if you see those books, What Your (insert school year of child) Needs to Know, just know that nothing written inside is anything that would fall into the category of ‘need’.   Instead, why not go to Goodwill or the Salvation Army and buy an old radio, then take it home and take it apart, piece by piece.   Then put it back together and see if it works.

When the music starts to play, you won’t believe how good it’ll feel.

About Amy

Amy Milstein was born and raised on a farm in Indiana, but after 20+ years considers herself a full-fledged New Yorker. She is married with two kids, who do not go to school but are instead life learners. This means they learn by living in the world (real life ) instead of hearing about it and simulating it in a classroom. With her family, Amy loves to travel, read, watch movies, write, sew, knit - the list is endless.
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3 Responses to The Downfall and Rise of Practical Knowledge

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  2. Miriam Brougher AKA Mom says:

    There is a funny email that went around about how teaching math has changed from 1958 to 2008. It falls along the same lines, although may be considered to be politically incorrect these days. But basically, we have moved in the direction of non thinking/doing.

  3. Martha Jansen says:

    So enjoy your blog…I read it nearly every day….even when on vacation this week…today’s blog is great. I remember building “forts” from the stack of used lumber against the barn…kept for future use and creating ink from some kind of red berry…probably poisonous. We couldn’t wait to get outside and usually stayed outside until dark. What fun we had in the “old” days. A friend learned all about electronics by taking apart radios, irons, etc. just as you said, and putting them back together again. Your children are blessed to have a patient and creative mother willing to spend hours upon hours each day with them. Keep up the good work…God bless you….