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Florence Cole as a child

Old and dying skills, common
in previous generations

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How important are the dying skills today?

I well remember an amusing story with a double meaning, an allegory.

The skill of how to kill a sabre toothed tiger

In prehistoric times, cave men taught their children how to kill the highly dangerous sabre toothed tiger. The children became very proficient at it and taught their own children. This went on for many generations and became a recognised standard part of the curriculum in prehistoric schools.

Over time, though, the numbers of sabre toothed tiger dropped because of the success of the hunting. Eventually sabre toothed tigers became extinct. Nevertheless, 'How to kill a sabre toothed tiger' had become established as a traditional subject for children to learn and it was deemed to be 'good for their development'.

It was quite a time before a far sighted prehistoric teacher began to question whether the time spent teaching 'How to kill a sabre toothed tiger' was really time best spent, Wouldn't it be better, he wondered, to spend the time on something more useful?

Unknown author

It was set in prehistoric times and conse­quently didn't offend anyone because it was so clearly just a story. Only after digesting it, did its double meaning become clear. It is in the box on the right.

The story may bring a smile to your face. However, replace prehistoric children with children of today and sabre toothed tiger with any one of the skills that were common among ancestors and it does make one think.

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Which old skills are still worth being taught?

To be fair schools have generally learnt this lesson. They no longer, for example, teach children how to use log tables or slide rules because electronic calculators have become so common. You will be able to think of more examples.

My question is whether it has all gone too far: whether some of the old skills do still deserve to be taught. Many older people, for example, regret the passing of accurate spelling and neat handwriting - and again you will be able to think of more examples.

Of course many of the old skills are still taught in specialist colleges or groups or through apprenticeships - for example wiring plugs and tying particular types of knots. However are some important ones now left out of mainstream teaching?

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My list of skills that ought to be taught today

An example from watching young people knit

In a recent television episode of The Edwardian Farm, viewers saw Ruth Goodman, a modern historian who was living as the woman of the Edwardian house for a year, sitting relaxing of an evening with her colleagues. She was knitting. That was what an Edwardian women would certainly have been doing as would previous generations before her - but those women would never have knitted how Ruth Goodman was knitting. She had clearly never learnt the old skill.

Within a few days there was a repeat of a Miss Marple starring the elderly Joan Hickson. She too was knitting - precisely the way all the English women of earlier generations would have done - women who had been brought up to the skill. It was how every women knitted when I was a child in the 1940s, and how I was brought up to knit.

Knitting clearly fascinates many young people today because it is not uncommon to see them knitting something simple like a scarf. However they do not know how to do it the quick and easy way that their grandparents or great grandparents would have used; their work is laboured and demanding, presumably because they have never been taught the old skill.

My personal list of skills that ought to be taught more widely today comes from watching young girls trying to do tasks which women would have regarded as straightforward in the past, having been taught at a young age how to do them efficiently and effectively. Notice that I say girls and women, not men and boys. I am sure that the same is true for both sexes, but I, being a woman, more easily recognise skills that would normally be associated with women.

The fact that these young people are trying to do these tasks shows that they obviously want or need to do them. Yet the young people I have watched at worst make a mess of the tasks and at best waste time and energy working inefficiently.

Here is my list. Other people would make different lists, but mine comes from my own experience and includes the following:

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