I like Laura’s list of to-do and not-to-do for young women at 11D. In the comments, Western Dave follows from this list to argue that a class like home economics has big and often neglected payoffs for high school students (male and female), presumably once that type of course leaves behind the heavy baggage of being an indoctrination center for female domesticity.

I totally agree. One of the best things my mom ever did to for me was to insist I take a typing class during the summer during high school. I hated it at the time but the value it returned goes well beyond almost any other course I’ve ever taken. I wish now that some of the other applied or practical courses I had to take hadn’t been so badly taught. I had metal shop when I was in 7th grade, but the teacher was a jerk: the class really should have been called “Asshole Masculinity for Guys The Teacher Thinks Have No Other Prospects In Life”. Same for the course I had to take in 9th grade on mechanical drawing: the teacher made no attempt to teach it for anyone who wasn’t going to be using the skill in an immediate vocational sense.

I’d even love to see a life-skills course at the college level in a liberal-arts environment. Why not? We have a swim test here, rather infamously. Here’s what would make my list of concrete skills that men and women will find useful to know as adults, some of which I’m still awkwardly trying to pick up now in mid-life, a few of which I’ve never picked up. The key thing here is to insist that both genders have to be exposed to all of this stuff, that nobody gets to opt out on the argument that it’s not manly or feminine. It’s ok if later on people divide these chores according to facility or preference.

I’m leaving aside intellectual skills that are more commonly taught, such as writing or numeracy. Also leaving aside child care, as that is more relevant if and when you have kids or have to take care of someone else’s kids.

Maybe this list is a bit biased towards suburban and rural life. Anybody think of important urban skillsets that are missing from this?

I mostly think that the way that social, emotional and psychological skills are taught in K-12 schools don’t belong on this list, partly because I’m skeptical that they are well-addressed by conventional pedagogy, which easily degrades into well-meaning jargon that has little to do with real-life. Most of the things on this list are concrete, though I think if they’re taught dully (see again my 7th grade metal shop), it’s hard to retain them.


The insides and workings of a computer, and how to replace and add components to one.
How an operating system works. How to customize an operating system. File systems.
How Internet works. How to set up a router. Internet safety and virus protection. Online commerce.
How to operate important software applications: word processor, spreadsheet, image management, presentation software.
Best practices for searching for information online.
The basics of investment and personal finance.
How to file tax returns. How to read a paycheck.
Basics of how to start and manage a small business.
Price comparisons and management of monthly budgets.
Cover letters and resumes.
Basic first aid. Proper use of medicine. Common illnesses. When to call for expert medical assistance.
Basic cooking.
Basic evaluation of food quality in markets. Food safety, especially cross-contamination.
How to drive, including stick-shift. Basic auto maintenance.
How to read a map. Knowledge of mass transit systems.
Basic power and non-power tool operation. Safety training in tool use.
Care of plants. How to plant, including use of shovel and other garden implements.
How to paint interiors.
Basics of home mechanical and electric systems.
Basics of carpentry.
Basic self-defense, including watching for trouble signs from other people.
How to swim.
How to ride a bicycle.
Dealing with poisons, hazardous chemicals, insect bites, common irritants.
Sewing and clothing repair.
Legal rights, small claims courts, basic familiarity with civil and criminal provisions.
Condom use, safe sex, reproductive health.
Simple diagnostics and repair of appliances.
Cleaning of home environments, clothing.
Reuse and repurposing of household items.


What would you add? Take away?

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20 Responses to Practicalities

  1. Alan Jacobs says:

    Tim, did you ever read R. A. Lafferty’s story “The Primary Education of the Camiroi”? Here’s the fourth-grade curriculum of that noble people:

    * History reading, Camiroi and galactic, basic and geological.
    * Decadent comedy.
    * Simple geometry and trigonometry, hand and machine.
    * Track and field.
    * Shaggy people jokes and hirsute logic.
    * Simple obscenity.
    * Simple mysticism.
    * Patterns of falsification.
    * Trapeze work.
    * Intermediate electronics.
    * Human dissection.

    Soon after this they will begin such subjects as ??differential religion,?? ??alcoholic appreciation,?? and ??simple pseudo-human assembly.?? Your list is great, but not at the Camiroi level. I would encourage you to take it up a notch.

  2. Timothy Burke says:


    I think there’s a point in Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love where Lazarus Long lays out a list of this kind, commenting that specialization is “for ants”. That’s in one of the few passages where he finds the time to do something besides get laid or talk about other people getting laid.

  3. kit says:

    I cannot help but wonder who that list would be targeted at, if offered as a course. Almost all of those things are things I learned to do in highschool, just in the course of my life (partly, I’m sure, due to my wonderful parents’ inclination to do things on their own, such as build their house). But I have a hard time envisioning classes on those topics being appealing to those who need them, or useful for those who have them. Of course, I suppose in a highscool context, you could force the classes on kids, but then you’d have all the kids who learned these skills other ways bored. Well, I’ve just talked myself over to the territory of “general problems with highschool”. Still, to bring this stream-of-consciousness comment to a close, given your image of these skills available in a course-fashion, who do you think would actually take such a course?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, that’s sort of the problem. Teach this stuff out of context, as in a conventional course, and it’s almost certainly useless unless the teacher is a god-like master of the profession. I really do wish I’d learned to do some of the things we were supposed to learn in metal shop, but since I didn’t go home to a house where there was a lathe and a press and so on in a workshop or go to work in a job where I employed those skills, even if the teacher hadn’t been an asshole, I wouldn’t have retained any of it. Your average college student in a residential college needs to do almost none of this in their everyday life for the four years they are enrolled. Some of it won’t be relevant until five, ten, fifteen years later; some of it may never come into play.

    Maybe it’s better to think of it the way you do, kit: this is stuff that you should learn growing up from parents, friends, relatives. But then parents need to make a conscious effort to be sure all their children learn some of this, to include boys and girls in various activities.

  5. kit says:

    As when my parents decided I should really learn to cook, and so we made a regular party of it, having friends over and cooking things with them once ever week or two.

    I really do think sometimes that it would be worth trying, as best we can, to shift some of the burden for life-skills and social-skills and moral-skills to one’s community. It’s sort of a benevolent-dictator problem, though: if you get that, it’s great, but there’s no evident way to assure that you will have a benevolent dictator, and there’s no evident way to assure that you will have a community that will help people develop these skills, and a home life that will facilitate that sort of engagement in the community.

  6. Alan Jacobs says:

    Auden used to say that in his ideal model of education for poets ? “my daydream College for Bards” ? poets-in-training would have to keep a vegetable garden and care for a pet. It’s the sort of statement that people assume to be a joke, but I don’t think he was joking at all. He believed that people would write better poems if they had to deal with the both the beauty and the recalcitrance of living things, if they were forced as part of their very intellectual training to have some kind of life outside their heads.

  7. Alan Jacobs says:

    Sorry about the formatting issues. I need to remember that this site doesn’t like em-dashes or curly quotes.

  8. jliedl says:

    I’d add a unit on animal care and safety (everything from domestic pets to larger quadrupeds). I’m always bemused how youngsters don’t know the least thing about how to safely approach a dog or cat. And don’t get me started on how terrifying it is to see young kids run between the legs of a horse or try to pick up the fox that roams our campus!

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    I really need to find out if there’s a WordPress plug-in that handles em-dashes and curly quotes properly. Drives me nuts.

    I like the suggestion on animal care and safety. It’s definitely not just for people with pets.

  10. richw says:

    I found it amusing that your first four suggestions involve technological literacy. Though I disagree some of these should be in a course because nowadays every kid knows how to use Word, PowerPoint, etc. However, if you’d like to promote to students that they learn “How an operating system works. How to customize an operating system. File systems.” (CPSC 45: or “The insides and workings of a computer” (CPSC 33:, I’m fairly certain the Computer Science would send you a thank you gift.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I worried a bit about this, because I also think there’s a profoundly intellectual part of technological and information literacy (searching, knowing computers). But it does seem to me that more people are sequestered away from even the basic entry-level life skills involved than with writing, for example.

  12. Laura says:

    I think the technological literacy stuff is important. They teach very little of that at Bryn Mawr. Yes, there’s some of it in CS courses, but there are no courses dedicated to that and most of the CS students either know a chunk of that before they get there or they learn it along the way on their own or otherwise.

    I once taught a disastrous workshop to the people who maintain web sites on campus. I thought they should understand how the web works. It was a nightmare! These were relatively intelligent grownups and when I tried to explain that they were copying a file from their local computer to another computer that then displayed the file properly for a web browser, they freaked out. I still think they should know it, but it’s harder than it looks to teach.

    We just signed up for high school courses and were told that baking is the most popular class in school and that everyone takes it at some point, usually seniors as a balancing class to their AP courses. They also have preparing for fatherhood and motherhood courses (these are separate for some reason). Because the area served by the high school is pretty diverse, there are lots of practical courses.

    I learned a lot of the things on your list from my Red Cross babysitting course. I learned how to bandage properly, do CPR, give mouth-to-mouth, knew when to call for help, etc.

    I would add to your list canning and storing of food. Both of my grandparents did this and I have no clue. I’ve contemplated growing some veggies this summer and/or stocking up from the farmers market, but I’d need to can some. Both of my grandmothers did this as did Doug’s and they’re all gone now and unfortunately, our mothers did not acquire this knowledge. Sigh. The answer to all your skill needs, however, is YouTube. I learned how to unclog a drain without chemicals that way.

    I also think that in general, people need to be less afraid of trying something that’s hands on. We’ve gotten so far away from not just nature, but the tools we use to conquer nature that we don’t know anything about them and we fear them.

  13. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, though as I learned the hard way when I tried to reconstruct our tub faucet after it started dripping, some experiments are expensive. It wasn’t so much that I screwed up, more that I discovered that the people who lived here before had made a very substandard installation with very low-quality (and now unavailable) parts–but in any event, I think this is one reason also to have classes, to help peole understand where and when the “dive right in” approach is sound and when it might be dangerous or expensive.

  14. north says:

    I would say “basics of carpentry” should include assembling furniture and building bookshelves, but not what we learned in my 7th grade shop class, which was how to make a napkin holder with a routed edge.

    I think this is one reason also to have classes, to help peole understand where and when the ??dive right in?? approach is sound and when it might be dangerous or expensive.
    This is the most important thing I learned from my wilderness medicine classes, and a reason that if you were actually pursuing these skills I’d strongly recommend taking Wilderness First Aid (or the longer Wilderness First Responder class). If you’re in the wilderness, what you most need to know is whether or not you can deal with the situation in question on your own, and how long you have before things go downhill; city first aid classes mostly assume you can’t deal with it on your own and you should get to the hospital in the next 10 minutes.

    I would add some formalized communication skills and group facilitation. Everyone should know how to run a small meeting (even if you only ever use it for family decisions) and have some strategies for talking about difficult issues.

    Also bike repair.

  15. north says:

    Here’s the Heinlein quote.

    “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

  16. CMarko says:

    If I were running a middle school or high school, I would require every student to take a course on decision-making, anger management, and middle-class behavioral norms. As it is, I try to teach this stuff to my students in between math lessons. Some of my students have literally never been told that if they are angry at someone, they can contain their anger and complain to their friends later, rather than yelling and cursing at the person they are angry at. (It’s easier said than done, of course, but some students didn’t even realize that it was an option. They were shocked to learn that I had never yelled at a teacher or boss.)

    I was watching South Park the other day and realized that while I find Cartman funny because he’s transgressive, my students probably don’t see it that way. They appreciate the show as insult humor, but I don’t think they are even aware of some of the social boundaries that Cartman violates–for example, in how he talks to his teachers.

    This is particularly applicable in the low-income community where I teach, but there are a lot of middle- and upper-class kids who could use this too. I went to high school with some otherwise well-educated students who had no idea how to negotiate with an adult without whining or swearing.

  17. Mary says:

    To “Legal rights, small claims courts, basic familiarity with civil and criminal provisions” I would add ability to read simple contracts, with particular reference to phone and Internet plans, rental agreements, and the like.

    To “The basics of investment and personal finance” there’s also the basics of borrowing money, although you probably meant to include that.

    Other things:
    * some elementary stuff about children. Not enough to parent or regularly care perhaps, but I think enough that someone could take care of a older baby or young child for a couple of hours would be useful. A little bit of developmental information about what children at various ages are mentally capable of would be generally handy.

    * on the children front, anecdotally women in particular are apparently under-informed about the wanting children aspect of family planning. That is, the trade-offs of having children at various ages, the way the menstrual cycle works with regard to conceiving, the routine pre-conception health precautions, when and how to seek infertility diagnosis and treatment. This is fairly well covered in the press though.

    * in addition to formal behavioural norms, negotiating skills and the norms in certain high stakes negotiations (salary, car and house purchases)

    * the ability to understand the kind of statistics used in general audience newspaper articles.

    * the failure modes of the human body. By this I mean more than first aid teaches: things like the likelihoods, symptoms and major treatments of common chronic diseases. I made it through an upper-middle class science-y education without having a clue what my family history was lining me up for or what to discuss with doctors and so on. (This would be hard to balance with public health scare tactics in which every lifestyle decision is dooming one to an early death.)

    * basic medical routines: how often to see a doctor, how often to see a dentist, the responsibilities of health professionals and when to seek a different provider

    * familiarity with the bureaucracy of the medical system, including specialist referrals and such (doctors and their admin staff tend to generalise from their frequent patients and assume that one must have been through this a million times, so do nursing staff with minor procedures). In the States I guess you’d want skills in negotiating with your insurers, luckily not so much of an issue in Australia. Perhaps someone should just write this down.

  18. jmg3y says:

    Almost every community has an organization that teaches many of these skills to youth and that is Boy Scouts for middle school and high school-aged youth.

    In meeting the rank advancement requirements ( and with careful selection of the Merit Badges (, Scouts that complete the program learn survival skills, personal skills, repair skills and are otherwise introduced to a wide range of skills and careers, many of which are listed above.

    For example, meeting the Tenderfoot requirements requires doing some cooking, knowing the local poisonous plants, and spending one night in a on a camp out. For another example, look at the requirements to complete the Gardening Merit Badge –

    Girl Scouts may accomplish the same for girls as Boy Scouts does for boys but I’m not familiar with how they function at the level of the Scout. Girls can join Boy Scouting later in the Venturing programs and my understanding is that in other countries the two organizations are not separate.

    Due to the heavy influence of a major national sponsor without which it would likely collapse, as an organization Boy Scouts does have a problem with adult leader policies being on the wrong side of a major social issue. In my experience that policy has little or no impact at the Troop level as it is under the local organization, usually a church or service club, in the community that sponsors the Troop.

    If society values these skills sufficiently, venues are available in which youth can acquire them. Judging from declining participation, I’d say that it does not and that the majority of students beginning to chart their own educational courses will not either.

  19. Timothy Burke says:

    It’s worth considering whether the problem isn’t with the society, but the Scouts, jmg. I didn’t have a long run in the Scouts–a year in Cub, Webelo, and just into Boy Scouting–and it wasn’t the most pleasant experience. That may not be typical, but I do wonder if the decline of Scouting has to do with a fairly static, sometimes stuffy internal culture to the whole movement. (The recent brouhaha over the Girl Scout who advertised for cookies online might be a minor case in point.) But even if that’s not the case, I think the structuring of the Merit Badge program makes it hard for what you do to take hold in your life, which isn’t entirely the Scouts’ responsibility–for example, you complete the Gardening Merit Badge, but then if you don’t garden afterwards, it’ll just be another of those weird, dimly remembered things you did has a kid because for one month or one year of your life, there was some reason you were supposed to do it. I actually remember how to put a reed in a clarinet and where to place my fingers, but I can’t play one worth a damn, and that’s because I took clarinet lessons for about a year before I decided I didn’t like it and wasn’t any good at it and never would be.

  20. jmg3y says:

    In my opinion, the Scout’s experience is determined locally by the older Scouts in the Troop, the Troop Scoutmaster and those parents actively engaged in Troop activities, such as providing adult leadership on hikes, service projects, at summer camp and so on, and any conditions imposed by the local sponsoring organization. In other words, Troop culture is very much local and Troop by Troop and widely variable over time depending on the personalities of those actively involved. I think the more static organizational culture you are referring to is present among the adults at the district and council levels of adult leadership and the activities controlled at that level, such as the summer camps. My experience is limited to that of an active parent who was not a Scout but who sought out Scouts as a place for his boys to acquire outdoor skills and whose boys were successful in that, becoming Eagle Scouts. In part because of the organizational culture that I think you are referring to, I elected not to become further involved in adult leadership.

    I used the plural of venue because it is my impression that other organizations are experiencing similar declines in participation. I also think that the national scouting organization works hard at overcoming problems leading to reduced participation, whatever their origin. Their history shows some disastrous decisions and subsequent recovery.

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