Something that scares me about today’s society is what I perceive to be a loss of skills. I fear that in our hurry to be seen as modern and progressive we are too quickly giving up the skills of the past in exchange for what we imagine the future will look like.
My teaching career started in a subject called “Industrial Arts” (which had a strong focus on vocational skills) and then moved to Design & Technology when I moved to the UK. D&T as a subject has been caught up in an existential struggle recently between those often perceived as “old school” teachers who value skills and practical learning and those who would like to “drive the subject into the 21st century” with 3D printers, robotics, iterative design and increased “academic rigour.”
I don’t want to get caught up in that particular debate in this post, but it seems that the second camp is currently winning out. I recently spoke to a service engineer who inspected my workshop equipment. He confirmed my impression that over the last two or three years there has been a significant reduction in traditional manufacturing equipment in schools and a shift towards “cleaner” workshops which use laser cutters and 3D printers instead of morticers and metal lathes. Is there still a place for teaching how to make dovetail joints in the age of 3D printing?
I for one feel sad about this shift. It seems that practical skills are being lost at an alarming rate, not just in the subject but in society at large. Despite my own training, my own practical skills don’t even compare to my own dad’s. I still call him up when I have trouble with my car. And even thought I have taught Food Technology to high school students, my own cooking doesn’t come close to my mother’s. With more automation, digitalisation, and even driverless cars on the horizon, it is hard to see this changing.
Does this matter? Is trying to preserve skills just nostalgia? Will any of these skills be needed in the future? After all, no one needs to know how to make flint knives anymore…
There is of course some value in preserving traditional skills in the same way that museums preserve aspects of our past. But I for one think there is much more to it than that.
The fact is, no one knows what the future will look like. There has recently been a massive push to reintroduce cooking in schools as skills in this area have now passed an entire generation by. It turns out that microwaves and convenience foods weren’t the revolution in eating that some predicted.
And another example. I recently went with my wife to a breastfeeding clinic. A health professional there explained that in the past, relatives were called on if mothers had difficulties in this area. Now, less and less people have skills in this area and government-funded programs have become necessary.
Last year, the BBC published an article where a professor of surgery claimed that students were losing the dexterity to sew: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-46019429. Maybe robots will do surgery in the future. But what will happen if they don’t?