I don’t care for lectures from affluent “I’ll be an expert for a day” commentators who approach subjects that’re minimally interesting to them. Last week The New York Times’ Pamela Paul—perhaps after a lunch with colleague David Brooks, who’s the gold standard for condescending, full-of-shit 800-word exercises in making himself feel helpful and jolly; Brooks is easy pickings for waterboarding, but as long as the Times persists in employing him, he’s fair game—published an “Opinion Column” aimed at parents and kids who attend middle and high schools, suggesting that the return of home economics, woodworking and “automotive arts” classes might break the apparent lethargy caused by reading, writing and trigonometry. This is an observation, as my children are long past secondary school, but it’s pertinent to any curious American wondering what sort of education tomorrow’s ruling, and “heartland” workers, classes are receiving.
Paul, a 1993 Brown University graduate, author of eight books, and Times bigwig since 2011—she edited the paper’s weekly Book Review—does, perhaps to her credit, perhaps not, let some truth trickle into the end of her column. She writes: “Personally, I found shop class scary. It was unnerving to sink a saw into a block of hardwood, to be surrounded by hormonal youths wielding hammers and hot metal.” Long ago, in junior high school, I didn’t find wood or metal shop classes (mandatory) “scary,” but rather clock-watching tedious, mostly because I was all thumbs and produced nothing of value, save a clay ashtray that a friend helped me construct. I didn’t care for the teachers (the distaste was mutual), but made enough of an effort to receive C’s. She continues: “But in a culture that has stripped children of all possible hazards, kids could use a few more risk-taking opportunities, a sense of danger, even.”
Rhetorically, or maybe not, was that the Chardonnay speaking? Anyone who pays even limited attention to the news knows that there are “hazards” aplenty in schools today, public or private, not only the periodic mass shootings, but bullying resulting from careless social media use and teachers—those that are just caretakers for the paycheck (inflated if protected by an AFT union that ought to busted; shitty if not—proselytizing on everything from gender identity to whatever’s happening in Ukraine and now Gaza. (An aside: isn’t it strange that so many horrific videos from Israel and Palestine have overtaken X and TikTok, whereas a minute fraction of that number has been presented from Ukraine and Russia—is the Ukraine War real or a Wag the Dog skit created to enrich defense contractors and politicians? Probably incorrect, but it makes you wonder.)
This Paul nugget is priceless: “Home ec and shop skills especially make sense in light of current environmental and health challenges. For kids who wear fast fashion but care about climate and overconsumption, it’s worth knowing how to darn a sock or patch a hole. Likewise, in a country with skyrocketing obesity and high consumption of processed foods, learning how to make healthy, inexpensive meals is important.” As I mentioned above, if you’re a klutz no class will help in darning a sock. As for obesity, the simple message of “Don’t eat so much” is just as helpful. And, from her rarefied world, Paul doesn’t deign to mention that the inflationary cost of foods at supermarkets is a bigger “hazard” than worrying about time-consuming “extracurriculars” and college entrance exams.
The picture above is of my dad (left) receiving instructions from a DeWalt representative on the new power saw installed in our basement (it was a pretty fancy and expensive tool, but came to the family from one of my mom’s contest winnings, first place in a new jingle for the company). I never touched the contraption, figuring it’d be best to grow up with all 10 fingers. On rainy days, home from his car wash, dad would repair to his “office,” and he was proficient at this kind of hobby, although I’ll be damned if I can remember what he fixed or created. Nevertheless, it was a hobby he enjoyed.
Look at the clues to figure out what year it is: Fidel Castro’s Radio Rebelde begins broadcasting from Sierra Maestra; Bertrand Russell launches The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in the UK; Holly Hunter and Drew Carey are born and Tyrone Power and Pope Pius XII die; the Montreal Canadiens win the Stanley Cup; Notting Hill race riots in London; Pope John XXIII is installed at the Vatican; “The Greatest Game Ever Played” takes place in December; Kate Bush is born and W.C. Handy dies; Terry Southern’s Candy is published; and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah is released.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023