Buckle up: There’s more to learn

I was 19 years old when I learned how to pump my bike tires. I had been riding it flat for the last couple of weeks, and while I had a pump in my closet, I didn’t know how to use it. I was going to wait until the end of the semester, when I could have my dad help me pump it. Thankfully, a friend showed me how. It took all of 30 seconds per tire.

When I thanked Henry, I was grateful for the next month of riding around campus. I later realized that he had gifted me something much more precious: a life skill.

The summer is fast approaching, which means we students are starting to receive emails that advertise move-out services. These services offer college students a hand with packing, moving and/or storing their belongings until the start of next semester. These are not the first services to advertise on campus. Whether it’s spring cleaning or laundrymen, companies periodically offer to relieve college students of burdensome tasks.

However, they might also be denying students a valuable learning opportunity. In an increasingly specialized world, it is too easy to rely on others for everyday tasks. We are forgetting that learning life skills is important too.

I went to middle school in an English School for Girls, where home economics was among the required subjects — deemed as important as English and science. In home economics, we girls learned to cook in the first semester and to sew in the second. While gathering all the correct ingredients was as painful as every sting of a needle, I learned a lot in those classes. These life skills were seamlessly made part of the British school’s curriculum. Perhaps, there is something valuable in that.

One reason why we are no longer requiring students to learn life skills is that globalization has made everything so cheap. Fixing a button on a collared shirt is no longer worth our time — replacing our items is cheaper than fixing them. Perhaps this explains the prevalence of disposable pencils as opposed to wooden pencils here at Duke. Who has the time to sharpen pencils anymore? (And who even owns a sharpener?)

However, manual skills are not the only way our human capital is depreciating. We are losing our social skills, too. Technology has made it easier to communicate with others in all ways but face to face. Alongside that has come a steep increase in social anxiety among the young. The result? Less human interaction. Consider this: Some students get away with graduating college without ever having to talk to their classmates.

The solution here is simple. Make developing social skills a requirement. To some extent, Duke is already doing this, by requiring all incoming freshmen to take a seminar. However, this is not enough: Other social skills should be developed too. Perhaps, we should encourage students to take classes in public speaking, interviewing or even negotiating. Imagine what well-rounded individuals we would see graduate.

In a lot of ways, we are facilitating our own downfall. With an increased reliance on technology comes an accompanying loss of life skills — skills that everyone had just two generations ago. We rely on calculators to compute simple operations. We rely on ChatGTP for essay ideas. We rely on our Google Maps to take us home.

Just before the end of the fall semester, my friend and I decided to walk to a Christmas Market that was about an hour away. The walk took us through downtown Durham and further out and further out until the suburbs started to look sketchy, and what’s worse, the sun started to go down. We found ourselves an hour away from home with only twenty minutes of light. My friend's first instinct was to call an Uber, which would have cost us $30 but at least would have gotten us home. We ended up walking to a bus stop, looking up the route, waiting, waiting and finally, after two buses, arrived home. That outing really made me think: If our phones had died, I don’t know how we could have made it home that night.

That is just one example of how overreliance on technology can put one in a dangerous situation. If you were lost, you might know who to call — but do you know their phone number by heart?

In the olden days, the average man could identify most local trees, maybe even a few local birds. He could build a decent shed and give a short history of his town. At some point, we stopped carrying with us that toolset of basic knowledge: instead, we ask Google all sorts of things. We no longer need to know the conversion between Celsius and Fahrenheit, how many ounces there are in a cup or how to tie a tie.

In some ways, this is a great luxury. By freeing up that mental space, we can go on learning “more important things” like physics and philosophy. But at the same time, there is an associated cost. We are losing independence.

College isn’t helpful, in that sense. The 21st-century college experience is very cushy. At least here at Duke, we don’t have to clean our own bathrooms, cook our own food or do our own laundry. We can choose to, but we can also choose not to. And we have to go out of our way to learn basic skills such as navigation, home repairs, first aid, budgeting. Maybe that’s one to say for the Navy — graduates at least come out knowing how to tie a decent knot.

Some institutions have been pushing against this disillusionment of practical skills since their foundation. For instance, boy scouts earn their badges by learning how to do everything from fishing to woodcarving to painting. Others do so less directly. Here at Duke, there are classes on photography and personal finance.

As a consequence, we don’t learn some essential life skills until our first jobs. Whether that is data entry or chopping onions, these skills will serve us well eventually. And for most of these skills, it’s okay if learning them takes time. We don’t always have to go out of our way to learn how to chop wood or unclog a kitchen sink.

Yet, I wonder whether the younger generations would benefit if they were pushed more to learn these essential life skills. Everyone comes to college with different backgrounds. Perhaps, we should seize this opportunity to push for better learning outcomes, and for once, not academic learning. Perhaps, it would be preferable if everyone who graduated Duke were a decent swimmer and knew how to ride a bike.

I was 19 years old when I learned how to hang a bear bag during my P-Wild freshman orientation. I don’t know whether or not I’ll ever have to hang a bear bag again, but I sleep well at night knowing that I have just one more skill up my sleeve.

Anna Garziera is a Trinity first-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Mondays.


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