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In Defense of the Manual Arts

harvesthandsYou’ve read a lot of articles from me promoting a liberal arts education, which we teach at Monticello College.

But there is a lesser known side of our curriculum — the manual arts, which are not something the average American thinks about in the 21st century.

But a hundred years ago, the vast majority of Americans were engaged in the manual arts everyday.

In fact, excluding the last 60 years of developed nations, manual arts were the reality for nearly the entire global population.

Without the manual arts, most of what we enjoy almost unconsciously, would not exist.  In our high-tech, synthetic, and artificial world, we have reached a “roman” sense of existence — the only difference from then to now — we just have more sophisticated slaves.*

In his thought-provoking ebook, The Future of American Education: 8 Trends Every Parent Should Understand, Oliver DeMille explains that we now outsource most things that traditionally have been handled by families and communities.

This idea of outsourcing seems to be a national pastime, albeit there does appear to be a small underground resurgence of the manual arts illustrated by websites such as theurbanfarmingguys.com.

One of the reasons we have disowned the use of the manual arts is due to the steady progression of technology.  The advent of labor saving devices (LSDs) has improved our lives in many ways.

It has also been the underlying source of a whole host of sedentary lifestyle diseases. Where is the balance?

From the advent of the Industrial Revolution, saving labor changed the world from mere survival to producing a cash crop beyond subsistence or allowing a farmer increased discretionary time for more favored pursuits.

By the 1970s the workingman was able to produce much more with a fraction of the backbreaking labor required a century before which stabilized into a 40-hour work-week…increasing discretionary time even further.

It also freed the American housewife of many undesirable chores, and like her spouse, freed up significant “my time”…but to what end?

If it was to allow them to relax a little more, no harm done. If it permitted more time to give to others or to develop talents that would be good too, but unfortunately for most of people, it led to their less ambitious side with copious amounts of time being devoted to the latest entertainment and diversion.

It allowed them more time to engage in recreation and entertainment on the weekends, often ignoring family, relationships, and service to neighbors, and expanding into long weekends which monopolized the traditional Sabbath for non-Sabbath day activities.

MA4-291x300By the 1990s we were thoroughly absorbed by a numbing consumerism, life had gotten pretty easy so labor saving was really no longer the goal.

But keeping up with the “Jones,” and securing the latest fashions or gadget, or the newest car, or a bigger house was. This really exploded with the advent of computer technology, gaming, and home entertainment from the late 1990s to the present.

The latest chapter in our American LSDs story is resulting in skyrocketing obesity — 70% of all adults and 30% of children in America suffer from poor health and diseases not seen two decades ago.

According to Popular Mechanics (2011), every man should possess certain basic manual art skills.

They provided a list for men to become more manly, clearly an indication that males no longer possess these skills.

Removing anything on the list that was technology related, I am including the remaining 16 manual arts that the modern man has apparently lost:

  1. Sharpen a knife
  2. Patch a radiator hose
  3. Frame a wall
  4. Back-up a trailer
  5. Build campfire
  6. Use an ax properly to chop wood
  7. Fix a dead outlet
  8. Navigate with a compass and map
  9. Fillet a fish
  10. Get a car unstuck
  11. Paint a room
  12. Mix concrete
  13. Clean a gun
  14. Change oil in a car (and know that the filter needs to be changed too)
  15. Paddle a canoe
  16. Fix a bike flat

Today there are 184 million active Facebook users in America (that’s 60% of our entire population) spending more than two hours a week on Facebook. But if you factor in all online activities (all social media, all gaming,  all youtube viewing and other online videos, etc) the percentage sky rockets to almost 25 percent of our awake time.

For the average American over the age of 16 that can be as much as five hours a day, every day or the equivalent of an entire work week per month. This does not include texting, and playing games on our iPhones.

This is all time wherein we are distracted from our loved ones, our community and our social responsibilities.

How do we not see that this is a monumental waste of our national resource of labor, not to mention a decline of our national character?

LSDs and the specialization of the consumer age has not only made us inept to care for ourselves, it has driven the cost of living many times over what it was just fifty years ago.  Are our lives really better and more satisfying now compared to the 1940s?

Working as a youngster on a dairy farm in the mid 1970’s, I worked along side sixty year-old men who never had high cholesterol and very little arthritis. They had no weight problems (a little pudgy — they were in their sixties) and were active in every other way. They could put in a 12-hour day of hard farm work as easily as I could.

Yet today I see countless 30-something men who are overweight, soft, and would likely expire at the thought of hard physical labor.  What has happened to us?

We have forgotten the enjoyment of using our hands, the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes from “doing it ourselves” and the security of self-sufficiency.

We have forgotten that human beings are still needed for the most basic necessities of life — food still grows in the ground and must be harvested, fruits still needs to be picked from the tree, cloth is still manually fed into the sewing machine, and fossil fuels and natural resources are still wrenched from the earth — by hand.

Not having personal experience in the manual arts is one level of losing our humanity and threatens civilization.

Every congressman, police officer, corporate CEO, surgeon, diplomat, teacher, real estate agent — in short, every American citizen would make better decisions, have better morals, and lead happier lives if they were more engaged in the manual arts.

In fact, we challenge our readers to do just that — find ways more deeply engage in the manual arts.

The manual arts are a natural cure for egoism, self-deception, and obesity.  The manual arts are an instinctive remedy for a troubled mind and eliminate the need for sleep aids. The manual arts will increase health, vitality, and improve your view of the world.  The manual arts enhance our powers of observation and appreciation.

Many of the manual arts involve dirt or soil or being outside in the fresh air — it is spiritually grounding and emotionally balancing.

Some of the least stressed and happiest people I know are masters of the manual arts.

*At the peak of Roman culture there were seven slaves for every roman citizen. The Romans had for the most part completely shunned the manual arts, becoming increasingly dependent on slave labor and the importation of their food supply. We have reached a similar existence.  We are becoming more and more dependent on exports and even the manual labor done in this country is emotionally and culturally relegated to a certain segment of our population.


Shanon Brooks is the President of Monticello College, the Director of Education and Training for Humanitarian Visions International, S.A., and a contributing editor of the Center for Social Leadership. He co-authored Thomas Jefferson Education for Teens.

Shanon and his wife Julia are raising their six children in Monticello, Utah.


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  1. […] Technology is a true labor saver, but wait until you see the list of 16 Manual Arts Modern Man No Longer Does. […]

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