Obsolete Skills

gear shiftThe other day, I was teaching a teenager who has just gotten her driver’s license how to drive a manual transmission. I’ve never taught anyone to drive before, so I found it quite challenging to break the necessary skills down into a series of steps a newbie could follow.

“Put in the clutch, start the car, put the car in gear, release the parking brake, give it a little gas and let out the clutch at the same time.”

“Where’s the clutch?” she asked.

Oops. My instructions weren’t basic enough.

I learned to drive a stick shift first. Back in the day, my parents didn’t have anything but manual transmission cars and drivers’ ed classes didn’t use automatics. While I’d ridden in a few automatic transmission cars, by the time I learned to drive I had spent most of my life watching people drive manual transmissions. I didn’t know how to manage the timing of shifting gears, but I knew where the clutch was and that it was necessary for shifting gears.

clutch, brake, accelerator

clutch, brake, accelerator

But my young friend has spent most of her time in automatics. It’s not just driving stick that’s new to her; it’s the whole concept of how a stick shift car works. She had no background for understanding the system.

She’s very sharp and coordinated, so after about ten minutes she was developing a feel for how much gas to give the car when you’re moving from a dead stop — the most difficult skill to master.

I’m glad to help her, but I’m not sure it’s all that necessary to learn to drive stick these days, unless you’re planning to be a race car driver or go into the long-haul trucking business. Fewer than 7 percent of new cars sold in the U.S. have manual transmission.

I prefer driving stick. I’m convinced that it helps keep you more alert when driving because it gives you something else you need to pay attention to. Plus if you’ve ever got a dead battery, you can always start the car by turning on the key, putting it in second, getting a quick push (ideally you’re on a slight downhill), and popping the clutch.

But it’s likely to be one of those skills that will fade away with time. I’ll miss it, though I’m not sure it will be much of a loss. Besides, I suspect that by the 22nd Century, cars as we know now them will be a thing of the past, like driving a horse and buggy is today.

Teaching my friend how to drive stick got me to thinking about the other things I know how to do that are disappearing. I got exposed to hot type printing in my early days in newspapers. I don’t have printer’s skills, but I can read upside down and backwards, which is how you have to read a block of type set in place for the printer, since it reverses when it prints. I didn’t do it long enough to do it as well as my mother, who could read that way well enough cut a story that was too long without having the printer pull a galley proof. But back when I practiced law, I did find it useful for reading documents sitting on a prosecutor’s desk when I was trying to get a deal for a client.

Actually, I have more experience doing paste up for offset printing. The typesetting machines for offset printing produce copy in column widths and it’s regular text, so it’s easy to read. You paste it on a cardboard sheet, and if you need to adjust it, you use an Exacto knife. Of course, most modern printing goes straight from the computer to the printer without this step.

I also know how to lay out a newspaper page with pencil and paper so someone else can do either the hot type or the paste up. Now, of course, that’s done on the computer, and as print newspapers disappear, the whole process changes, because good layout for print and good layout for the Web, not to mention for mobile apps, are very different.

I can also develop negatives from camera film and used to be hell on wheels in a darkroom. I was never a great photographer, but I could do a lot with an enlarger: crop, dodge, change the amount of exposure, affect the lighting. No one needs to know how to do any of this anymore. And with Photoshop, one can do more with a picture than I ever dreamed of doing in the darkroom.

What else? Well, I once could read a slide rule. I wasn’t bad with an adding machine. I ran a cash register back when you had to enter the price, not click on a picture of the item or scan in the PLU.

For that matter, I’m pretty good at doing basic arithmetic by hand or even in my head as the result of learning some number sense shortcuts when I was in junior high school. Though I don’t think that skill is obsolete. Yes, I use a calculator or a spreadsheet program to balance my checkbook, but the fact that I have a general idea of what the answer should be before I start makes me less likely to make a stupid mistake.

I also learned to type on typewriters — both the manual and electric kind. The machines I learned to type on have become obsolete, but typing is still useful.

Here’s the thing about these skills: All of them made me employable once upon a time, but they wouldn’t be worth listing on a resume today. Even typing skills aren’t useful today unless you know how to use a range of computer programs.

Times change. Tools change. It seems to me like things change faster than ever, but they have been changing at a rapid rate for the past 150 years or so. It occurs to me sometimes that my grandmother was born before the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk and lived long enough to see Neil Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

We’ll all mourn some of those disappearing tools. I’ll miss the stick shift and if I were to live long enough for the car to disappear, I’d mourn even though when I look at the vast stretches of parking lot and highway that mar our landscape, I curse our automobile-centric culture. And there are a few tools that produced a better product than the easier-to-use items that replaced them. But a lot more of the tools were cumbersome and have been replaced by things that do the job much better.

And change is good. Like shifting gears when you’re driving, it keeps your mind sharp.



Obsolete Skills — 18 Comments

  1. Europeans drive stick shift almost exclusively. So if your teen wants to travel, it’s a useful skill.

    • I’ll bring that up the next time we do a lesson. Though between the hybrids — many of which are developed only for automatic transmission — and the coming driverless cars, I think the world is moving away from that sense of control one gets with a stick shift. Though Europeans just might be as determined to hold on to the old ways as I am. I plan to keep driving stick as long as my knees hold out.

  2. Lovely nostalgia – and it seems like there’s a story or three in them thar skills!

  3. I can drive a stick. If you need to learn, it helps to know how to ride a bicycle with gears — then you have a muscle-memory grasp of the principle. My daughter was unable to learn — too impatient and not long on fine-motor skills. (In her line of work she prefers tools with higher calibers and a big feet-per-second number.)
    And I can knit, crochet, make fringe, twist cord, mend jeans, applique, piece quilts, and make bread from scratch. None of these will help me in the zombie apocalypse.

    • Those skills might be useful in the climate change/economic collapse apocalypse, though. If we lose a lot of modern civilization, the ability to make clothes and food without modern machines will be quite useful. It comes to me that I can also ride a horse, though riding (and repairing) bicycles might be even more useful.

  4. Great post! I’ve been mulling over my obsolete skills, and oh my, have I got a few. I join you in the obsolete skill of typing on a manual typewriter. Anyone remember the satisfactory thunk of slamming your fingers against the return to slap the carriage of a manual typewriter over to start a new line? Anyone remember the mess of changing a ribbon? And how about the joy (ugh) of attempting to fix an error with White Out? Now that’s a skill.

    Nancy, I also learned to use a razor to edit layout. And what about all those copy editing marks I was forced to learn as a journalism student? They are dead and buried. Anyone who knows what I’m talking about, please raise your hand.

    Oh, and the fine art of using carbon paper is another skill that has vanished from the earth. (How many people even know what carbon paper was?) Finally, let’s have a moment of silence for the portable Smith-Corona manual typewriter — heavy as heck — that I took to with me Clarion back at the dawn of time. I loved that machine. I wish I’d never sold it.

    • Well, BNA — or I should say Bloomberg BNA — was still using proofreader marks to correct errors on page proofs for its print publications last time I checked. Though the print versions are only there for the old fashioned lawyers who still want them.

      Yeah, I remember that return. In fact, when I graduated to electric typewriters, I kept waving my hand up there, looking for the return. It’s kind of reaching the for the clutch and the gearshift when driving an automatic, which I’ve been known to do.

      • It could be worse… your left foot could hit that nice wide power brake pedal – while you thought you were speed shifting. Oops!

  5. My grandfather grew up in rural Kent in the 1890s, and never saw a car. By the time he died in the 1980s, not only had people walked on the moon, we’d already stopped sending ’em. It’s like his life entirely bracketed something, a period in human/technological development. If/when we leave orbit again, it’ll be another new stage, not an inherent next step.

    • Your grandfather and my grandmother were of an age. She, too, lived long enough to see the end of the Moon program. Though she was driving from an early age. That was in West Texas, where the car changed things quite a lot.

  6. I thought about all the skills that we were taught in school that women would need: shorthand, typing (which includes correct insertion of carbon paper), filing (which began to go high tech with IBM punchcard sorting, after I graduated), card catalogue knowledge, PBX machines, hand-cranked calculators, and all the accoutrements busy secretaries would need for their male bosses, and of course those homemaking skills.

    Well, a lot of those homemaking skills seem to be coming back into fashion. I see younger people proud of their knitting, crocheting, quilting, and sewing, things I thought I’d never see again. Ditto for cooking from scratch.

    • Good point. Some skills come back around. But the secretarial ones are certainly dying out. Though I know a lot of journalists who use shorthand, even today. Me, I try to use a keyboard for that because I don’t know shorthand and I type a lot better than I handwrite.

    • There is a Zen pleasure to things like knitting and crocheting. To create something right under your fingertips is very primal. I am glad that these arts are not dying as the punchcard or the IBM type ball did.

      • The type ball and punchcard were interim technologies and not likely to be much mourned. I loved the first correcting Selectric I had, but I love computers much, much more as writing tools.

        If we all had to knit or crochet or weave the material for all our clothes, those activities would be less pleasurable. Certain old-fashioned ways of doing things make great hobbies, but were drudgery when all the women of the household had to do them all the time to keep the family clothed.

        As for cooking: I would not like to do as my great-grandmother did and cook all the meals for family and a hotel on a wood-burning stove. But gas stoves (I hate electric ones) and other modern appliances make it easy to cook a good meal from basic ingredients. And the increased access to good vegetables and other real food also makes that simpler. The so-called convenience “foods” are not much of an asset, imho.

        • Yes, it is instructive to read even relatively recent works, like LITTLE WOMEN, and realize that Meg, Jo et al were knitting socks because no Walmart was available. If a soldier needed a sock, someone, probably a woman, knitted it for him, and if there was no one then he went without. Modern clothing manufacture has completely altered the way we think about fabric and handiwork.

  7. I learned to drive a car with a manual transmission; and when I got back behind the wheel again just recently, I’ve had to drive an automatic – which I hate because I do believe they make us lazy. My left foot kept on looking and feeling for the clutch that wasn’t there; and it kept running into the floor! It was annoying and funny, but would have looked weird to my passenger if I had one.

    The best thing I love about growing up as and X-Gen (born in the 70’s growing up in the 80’s), I got to see a lot of new things replace the old. I was around long enough know what vinyls/records were and cassettes as well as the change over to cd’s and dvds… so I wasn’t born into a time where I didn’t know how to work them. I learned how to knit and use sewing machines (not the computerised ones) and also hand-sew and do tapestry and needlepoint. So, I’m a pretty patient person too when it comes to the handcrafts.
    I learned to type on the manual typewriters, electric typewriters and when I went to high school, my high school was one of the first to have laptops – which took around 10 minutes to ‘boot up’ and another 10 minutes to ‘cool down’… I’m now only months away from my 40th birthday and I still get funny looks from the younger generation when I pull out a book you can buy on iTunes, but I would much rather read it traditionally. It’s just the way I am.
    Another thing I love to do is cook from scratch… I mean, no packet mixes, no takeaway foods, no call them up and go and pick up dinner… I get out a recipe book and start making dinner at 4:30pm for a 6pm sitdown at the table. I love doing that most nights. I also love making pancakes from scratch too. 😀 Yep, no pancake mixes for me… all nourishing, eggs, flour and milk go into my pancakes… and you can tell it’s home made too!

    I don’t understand why people find the traditional way of doing thing such a drag; when it can be a way of life, a way of slowing down, a way of learning how it all used to be without microwaves, without rushing around and getting stuff done before yesterday’s gone and tomorrow’s started.

    • You remind me that my favorite insult for bad drivers (which, unfortunately, only the other people in my car can hear) is, “Where did you get your driver’s license, Sears and Roebuck?” To understand this insult, you need to know that there was a time in the U.S. (and probably in other countries) when there was no test to get a driver’s license. This was before my time, but not my father’s: He drove for close to 80 years on the license he got at 14 by going into the sheriff’s office and plunking down a few bucks. I think tests for licenses came in sometime in the mid 1930s, at least in Texas.

      You also have to know that Sears used to issue a huge catalog once or twice a year and that you could order damn near anything you needed from it, including kits for building houses. (Those Sears Craftsman houses from the 1920s are considered classics now.) I do recall the catalogs, though we lived close enough to Houston to drive into a real Sears store when we needed something.

      That is, I’m aware of not only the changes during my lifetime, but have a feel for the changes that took place during my parents’ lives.

      Like you, I still prefer a manual transmission. But fond as I am of old fashioned manual typewriters in principle, I’d much rather write on my Mac. And having spent hours in a law library lifting heaving books around (and law books tend to be very heavy), I really appreciate the advent of electronic research.

      Gas stoves were a great improvement over wood burning ones, but electric stoves are annoying.

      A mix is good. You don’t have to be the early adapter for every new tech around.