There are several variants of a list in circulation with skills our grandparents could do but the majority of us can't, for instance, 7 skills your grandparents had and you don't. Examples include ironing really well, sewing, knitting, crocheting, canning, cooking a meal from scratch, writing in beautiful longhand, basic DIY skills... What have the majority of us lost by not having these skills, which I'll call granparent skills for short, anymore?
As Lizzie Fricker argued today in a workshop held in honor of Charlotte Coursier, trust in other people is common and is a pervasive element of human life. We defer to the knowledge of others (testimonial dependence) and to their expertise (practical dependence): we rely on experts to tell us what the weather will be like, to fix our car, to give us a new haircut. Often, this deference is shallow and dispensable (we could in principle do it ourselves), but it can also be deep and ineluctable, as when we rely on electricians and other specialists.
This division of cognitive labor provides us with enormous gains, but does an increased reliance on testimony and expertise of others also come with costs? Fricker feels we do not reflect enough on this question, especially as the extent of both testimonial and practical dependence seems have increased dramatically in recent years. People increasingly rely on Google rather than internally stored semantic knowledge, and they increasingly outsource practical skills – navigation with maps, dead reckoning, and compasses is replaced by user-friendly technologies like GPS devices.
Both testimonial and practical dependence are unavoidable. It is impossible not to rely on testimony. To take an example Fricker gave, suppose I want to find out for myself what Australia’s like for myself rather than relying on other people’s say-so in books and the like. Even so, the fact that I trust I am in Australia after a long and exhausting flight depends on my trusting transmitted knowledge about the shape of the Earth and its geography. Similarly, we have unavoidable practical dependence. For instance, people who start a self-reliant community where they grow their own food and the like are still going to rely on each other (e.g., one person tends the cows, two others build a shed) to make this work. And they rely on the broader society, e.g., laws that deter people from ransacking their community).
Still, it seems that when we rely on satnav rather than our own sense of orientation or reading a map, we are losing something. But what is the loss? One might think there’s something morally praiseworthy about practical self-reliance. However, it is not obvious why being self-reliant would be morally better than being dependent. For instance, someone who puts all her energy in growing wheat and making bread has less opportunity to devote her energy to things she finds morally more pressing, such as fighting world poverty, than if she just went out and bought her bread. Pure ludditism won’t do either – it’s unclear that darning, knitting and sewing are intrinsically more valuable.
Fricker offers two suggestions why the loss of skills is worrisome: first, risk management: by losing how to navigate using more basic techniques, we are increasingly dependent on technology that could break down and leave us utterly helpless. This is a sense in which some degree of self-reliance comes in handy.
Second, she suggests that having skillful practices of self-reliance may still be valuable in an Aristotelian sense that they contribute to human flourishing. Grandparent skills may be revealing something about what it is to be human, and might be conducive to human wellbeing and flourishing. However, one may counter that grandparent skills are replaced by other skills which might likewise contribute to flourishing. Younger generations may not be able to quilt or darn socks, but many know basic programming, how to design a website, and how to use a variety of social media.
One way in which grandparent skills differ from this is that they are multisensory: knitting has a wonderful tactile feeling. My grandmother could certainly afford to buy her grandchildren and greatgrandchildren clothes, but she delighted in knitting for them. Making a fruit conserve successfully, cooking a meal from scratch, have gustatory and olfactory elements. I miss writing with a fine fountain pen that smoothly glides over the paper (although, as a left hander, it never quite worked that well). By contrast, most novel skills (programming, web design etc) are very visually oriented, usually involving staring at some screen. It is no coincidence, I think, that my memories as a child with my grandparents are so rich and multisensory - the changing palet of odours of soup as ingredients were added, for instance. One should take care not to romanticize these skills, however. Washing clothes by hand (something my grandmother did when she was recently married) was no pleasure, but an unending stream of diapers, hot water and calloused hands.