Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Over the weekend my water heater broke. I had to shore up my tentative knowledge of how water heaters work, and how electricity works in general, and fix it. I've been thinking about a couple of things since then: Why did I have to look up so many basic principles? And why couldn't I just call somebody to "save me" and fix it?

So here's my first rant: I went to public grade school, private undergrad college, public undergrad, and public grad school. Why am I entirely self-taught about electrical work? Why did I have to learn all my plumbing knowledge (what little there is) from a friend in my 20s? Why did I have to take Social Studies every year in grade school, but didn't learn a single thing useful to maintaining a dwelling? Don't get me wrong - I know I'm really handy - but why was all that knowledge acquired outside of school?

Is it because I only had a year of high school? (I left after my freshman year and went to college early.) Did you, dear reader, learn anything useful to maintaining a house in high school? In college? Or did you pick it all up from older men in your life?

Nothing I've tackled yet is all that hard or complicated. It's hard to figure out what I need to know, but it's not hard to grasp the concepts or fix the problem. Everybody would be better served if we quit teaching our kids the exports of Costa Rica and started teaching them how the basic functions of a house work. (Economics is important too, but I did a lot of rote memorization and very little theory - Social Studies was just killing time, basically.)

My second point is that I still wouldn't know how to fix a water heater (and it's SO easy and cheap) if I hadn't left Memphis. My dad taught me everything he knows, but that's strictly limited to carpentry. I picked up a basic understanding of plumbing, electrical work, and auto repair from working with my friend S, in my 20s. My dad's solution to any of those problems is to call a friend. He's known most of these people his whole life, and he'll go running when someone's roof is leaking, so they'll come running when a pipe bursts.

Now that I've moved cross country, that doesn't do me any good. I have a couple of people I can ask for help, but if they're busy I'm on my own. I could call a pro, and I don't begrudge spending the money, but it's uncomfortable letting a total stranger in your house when you're the only one living there. If you've been divorced, you know exactly what I mean. (And I did call a plumber, on Sunday morning. He finally called back at 6:30 on Monday night. I was so pissed I didn't even pick up the phone.)

So my other question is what did your parents teach you? Did they teach you even more stuff than my dad taught me? Or to cultivate relationships with people who know stuff you don't? Just go finance a new whatever when the old one breaks? Hit the Yellow Pages?


  1. I wish we had been taught how to fix stuff in high school, it would have been way handier than what I did learn. What stuff I have picked up I learned from watching my Dad when I lived at home, calling my Dad after I left home, scouring the internet and random older men who took pity on me and explained how things worked. Most of the stuff I tackle (toilets, horse trailers, painting, etc) isn't that complicated it's just figuring out what I need to know. I wish somewhere someone taught classes about general home stuff from the very beginning, assuming the people attending the classes know nothing. I would certainly show up

  2. I had home ec for a year or so in middle school (not gender-specific, we all took wood shop and metal shop as well), but that's as far as that went. High school? Nil. College? We didn't even learn how to survive as artists, so we could look forward to a future where we would just live under a bridge and there's minimal upkeep there.

    My father... would have been dangerous with any kind of tool, and let's leave it at that. No, I couldn't imagine him fixing anything. So, learned nothing from there. My mother could be handy when she needed to, but I never stuck around to learn so that's my own fault. Whatever early education I have came from PBS, to be honest.

    I could imagine some outcry from this being taught as a regular subject; a good number of people profit from the ignorance of others when it comes to repairs. Teach this, make the general populace competent, and you have less need for the pros.

    Thank goodness for the internet, though, where I can sometimes learn enough to haphazardly do a half-assed job on whatever needs to be done. :)

  3. I totally agree with you about school. I use maybe 10 percent of what I learned in all my years of school before college, and most of that is math.

    My dad taught a lot of what I know (pouring concrete, laying pavers, basic carpentry, basic car mechanics, electrical repair) but he also taught me how to find the information I need. He's very much a do-it-yourself guy, so he would rather go look it up and figure it out for himself. And I second Sara, thank goodness for the internet!

  4. Not only is there a shortage in education about this kind of thing in the general population, there's a shortage of educated tradespeople who are experts at this stuff! It's one of the issues with the 'everyone needs a college degree" mentality - well guess what, there's no degree for plumbers or expert mechanics.

    I NEVER learned any of what I know about handy-type stuff in school. Definitely not in college! I learned a bunch from helping my dad growing up, and more recently from a few friends with knowledge, and of course I watch YouTube videos before tackling anything new. I think part of it is getting over the "I don't know what I'm doing" mentality and just giving it a go. For the most part, it's not too hard, and if you get in over your head, you can always pick up the phone and call and expert.

    I should also point out the sort of "learned helplessness" that some folks seem to have about even the smallest things. A friend of mine was having issues starting her car, and I asked her how old the battery was. She didn't know, so I suggested she check. Apparently she had no idea how to check, so she took it to the shop to ask them. Uh... three minutes on Google and you'd know how to do it yourself. A little education goes a long way!

  5. I hear this. What DID we learn in school? I think the best stuff I got in English and Woodshop class. I never got to do auto class and I wish I had, but like you, I cultivated friendships... by college I could wire a car stereo, amps and booming speakers, pull an alternator, change oil, tires, batteries, wire a towing harness, yada yada. Sometimes I wonder.. what was the point of higher education? A lot of people are lacking basics!
    And don't get me started on the higher educated who cheated to get thru school (paid people to write their papers) and now are practicing stuff they don't really KNOW.
    That said, YOUTUBE is my new school of education. Anything you want to learn is on there. We wanted to clean the carb on our quad. Lo and behold, there were multiple videos on how to do that exact thing. Youtube will teach us all. I love that you can sit in on Harvard and Stanford classes on there, for free! My own mother learned how to paint hyacinths for this particular antique she was restoring. Turned out fantastic, thanks to youtube.

    Education is ongoing, and after a certain point, you have to rely on yourself to find it.
    Kudos to you for being that kind of "git er done" person. We need more folks like that these days.

  6. Bill required us to know basic car maintenance before we were allowed to get out licenses. I can do a lot of stuff around the house, but prefer to call Bill, who would prefer that I'd just do it on my own :)

    I learned to do a lot of stuff on my own - right or wrong - simply because it was just me and the kids. Bill would do it, but he'd make me learn how, so I could do it myself the next time. People are always amazed when I talk about fixing the brakes on the truck or working on the engine of my car (not so much anymore, I have a new-new car, not a new-to-me car), but I simply couldn't afford to pay someone to do that stuff. I could barely afford to buy the parts sometimes.

    I think Home Depot has some basic home care classes, but I've never attended one. Maybe I should, who knows when I'll need it.

  7. I learned nothing in high school, so don't feel like you missed out on anything there...

    My dad taught me a LOT, and even now, I call him whenever something is wrong and he tries to help me out over the phone. I can't count the number of times he's helped me with my horse trailer.

    My fiance is not very handy and he's more than happy to pay an expert to come out and look at our house/car problems.

  8. We didn't learn to fix stuff in school, and most of what I know is self-taught because my parents didn't do anything like that. We were definitely on the Yellow Pages end of the spectrum.

    And I still am, mostly. Here's my philosophy on this stuff: I am a public heath professional. Other people are lawyers and electricians and hair dressers. I do my job partly to pay those qualified people to do their jobs when I need them. I really enjoy my job and I am effective at it. I might not enjoy those things, and I certainly wouldn't be effective at them. This is why we hire a house cleaner...what she does in 3 hours would take me 9 hours, and her hourly wage is 1/3 of my hourly wage.

    Did my education prepare me for my job? Absolutely. Did it prepare me for the fact that all the lights stopped working in garage last month? Not in the least. Fortunately Kevin's education prepared him for that, and my education put me in a position to pay for his services. I know it's not for everyone, but it suits me just fine.

    Having said that, a little more emphasis on practical life skills would be very beneficial for school kids, I think.

  9. In terms of mainstream schooling- no I didn't learn a darn useful thing about being handy. However, I did equine studies, and they taught us how to fix basic motors, how to wire up floats, tractors and basic fencing. I think that is the most useful thing I have ever learned in a class.
    My Dad has taught me how to renovate a house (god forbid I have to go through that again) but other then that, I'm pretty hopeless when it comes to plumbing and electricity. I'd love to do a couple courses, just so I have a basic clue of what's going on in my house.

  10. Good point, DP - I certainly didn't go to law school to learn how to repair a water heater. (I do know how to look up the standard of care that the plumber should be using and sue him, FWIW.) But my point is that this is basic stuff people should know, whether they hire it done or DIY.

  11. I learned large amounts of useless information in high school. I have learned a huge amount about the world and become a great Jeopardy player from reading books voraciously since I was a kid (honestly really grateful I grew up without a t.v.). My step-dad taught me quite a lot about how to survive in the world, but I still wish I had learned more mechanical and (any) electrical things from him. Though I think he does actually call a friend for electrical work, and yes he has that good ole boy network which is SO invaluable. He is a logger with a full shop with every tool and piece of equipment and large machinery a person could ever need. So I know how to run an excavator but unfortunately am worthless on the electrical. I agree that often the repairs aren't that difficult, it's more the diagnosing and finding out what you need to know about the nature of the beast, as it were. My husband is pretty handy but in an undeniably slap-dash way and we bought a fixer-upper type home 2 years ago, so I am becoming much more involved and finding myself in situations like yours. All I can say is..just think how handy you'll be 10 years from now. And, make sure you pass down your valuable knowledge to some young girls who will need it some day!

  12. While we're on the topic of deficient educations... how about basic anatomy, physiology and health?! How about financial literacy?!

    Maintain an automobile or repair a household appliance... shouldn't we also be proficient at maintaining and repairing our bodies? And look where lack of basic financial skills has gotten this country.

    It's simply criminal that we graduate from high school without knowing how to care for out physical and financial health.

    Sorry for the mini rant Funder. To answer your original question - learned most everything from my Dad - basic carpentry, auto maintenance, plumbing, electrical...

    I met with an electrician over a month ago, showed him a pretty major job that isn't in my or my father's skill sets... after three more phone calls still no quote. Infuriating...

  13. CFS - I actually don't think financial literacy classes would help. I read this the other day and thought it was pretty spot-on. The problem isn't that people don't understand how to save, the problem is willpower / our entire culture.

    And bodily health. What are you going to teach? "Eat less than you expend"? I think they already teach that, and it doesn't work for some people (me). Eat vegetarian? Eat primal? Eat real food, in moderation? What about exercise - do lots of cardio? Lift weights? The topic's too big and the advice is constantly changing. Again, I think it's not that people lack the basic knowledge, the problem is that our whole culture is messed up.

    The only time I watch TV (live, on-tv, not DVR'd) is for football. That's 9 hours a week* right now. I bet I see a hundred pizza commercials in those 9 hours, and if I didn't live so far in the boonies that only icky Dominos delivers to me, I'd totally have ordered one. Advertising is that pervasive and that good. I'm not immune to it; I just try to limit my exposure.

    Anyway! Not trying to disagree, just giving you a different look at your very valid points. :)

    *Sunday Ticket Red Zone Channel has NO COMMERCIALS. They should give it to me for free because I won't shut up about how much I love it.

  14. I just got done ranting about this on my blog ! :)

    Fortunately I learned most of what I know from following my dad and grandad around. But I agree that although I am handier than 95% of the populace my education is incomplete. I'm a dunderhead when it comes to wiring (at least safely). Nobody at my house wired, so I never learned it from anyone else either.

  15. I think a lot of what you learn depends on what region you went to school in. I went to Jr. High and High School in New England, and I remember taking Home Economics where we not only learned some basic rules for setting places and how to cook, but at the end everyone had to cook one thing and share it with the class. Everyone shared the recipes, and since you saw them make the food it was easier to follow. In Science class I remember learning how a closed circuit works, and we had excellent health education. Unlike my friend's husband, who learned abstinence only in High School and therefore didn't know that pre-cum contains sperm, which resulted in their having an unplanned pregnancy. :P I learned a lot from my parents, like how to properly frost and decorate a cake from my mom (she had a side business of it) and how to drive a boat in the bay while avoiding rocks and sandbars from my dad. Having said all that, I really think a lot more education should go into learning at least enough about basic home and vehicle stuff that you can at least tell when you're getting screwed.

  16. Jason - I had your post in the back of my head, I think. I read the one last week and didn't really have anything to say at the time, but I think it's been simmering back there :)

    GreyDrakkon - See, that's cool! You got a good (public?) education! Like you said - it'd be good if people knew enough to know when they're getting screwed.

  17. Two perspectives, here...

    I got my start in fix-it skills from my first husband--He wasn't worth much, but he knew a lot about how to do stuff. And when his arthritis got so bad that he couldn't do stuff anymore, he would direct me doing it. I learned plumbing, electrical, carpentry, and how to change a U-joint this way.
    I do have to say that I agree with dp that it's nice to be able to pay someone else to do the U-joints these days, but I really enjoy doing my own stuff around the farm (plus I just hate to pay someone to do it, if I can do it myself...same with eating out, except I'm fine with someone else doing the cleanup!).
    As far as my college education? I worked my through the first time as a dorm commons server-then-cook. While I have NEVER earned one penny off that first degree (Theater Arts) I supported my family for over twenty-five years as a cook in various settings. At least having finished the BA got me straight into grad school when I did go back at 40...

    Now, from an educator's point of view, I agree with whoever said that the expectation/emphasis on getting to college neglects a lot of practical matters. And it's only going to get worse, as things like shop, PE/health (which has shifted more these days towards lifetime fitness rather than team sports , in a lot of places, CFS), and the arts are not "on the test" so are being dropped in this time of budget crisis.
    There's something to be said for a "two-track" system as early as high school (rather than waiting for the junior college/tech school split-off), where those with more intellectual leanings do a more liberal arts progression, while those with more hands-on interests focus on the technological skills of their desired field.
    Unfortunately, that doesn't allow the "thinkers" to learn any of the practical skills, so I guess we're back to your original gripe!

  18. Youth is wasted on the young. :)

    If I could go back and take high school again, I would add three more hours to the day. I needed accounting and auto shop for a start. And where were the classes that help you figure out what kind of insurance you need and how much? ...And the class that helps you figure out what you want to do with your life BEFORE you start paying college tuition?

    Most schools don't even do Driver Ed anymore. You have to go through a private service or a summer course.

    My dad is fairly handy, and the internet is a godsend for basic car repairs. What amazes me is that I work in an office full of college-educated people, many middle aged, and somehow I'm the only woman who knows how to make the toilet stop running or flip a switch in the fuse box.

    I live in a rental so I do still call someone else for home repair help, though. Unless something is on fire, I get the landlord to handle it!

  19. Funder-

    Not to disagree with you either - I should have been more specific ;)

    I'm not saying we need to learn more about how not to be obese, I mean we need education in basic physiology and anatomy. How our bodies function. So that we can have better awareness of our own state of health. So that we can communicate intelligently with physicians and insurance companies. So we can maintain some measure of autonomy over our health.

    And regarding financial literacy - it's not "just don't spend more than you make" - it's basic sound investment practices, how to plan for retirement, how to utilize credit properly...

  20. I took "farm mechanics" as an elective in college, and it was one of the few practical courses I ever took. I can weld (both arc and gas), etc, thanks to this course.
    My dad was handy but old school, so the girls were limited to handing him tools, lol!

  21. I went to school in the days before girls were allowed anywhere near the "Industrial Arts" classes, and a group of us fought long and hard for the right to take 'boys' classes. We were told we would distract the boys if we were in the class with them (apparently this wasn't a problem in English or Math or Science, just Industrial Arts), and there wasn't money in the school budget for a class just for girls. Curiously, the boys did get to take cooking classes - though they learned to make pizzas while we were taught tuna casseroles.
    My dad taught me some carpentry and painting skills, but nothing on cars or electricity or plumbing as these weren't things he did himself. He died when I was in my mid-twenties, and from that point on I just learned by trial and error, or from books or internet.

    I'm a firm believe that all kids, boys and girls, need to learn how to care for themselves and a home - basic cooking and cleaning and basic home repairs.

  22. Don't even get me started. When I went to HS girls still have to wear dresses, and Home Ec was mandatory. Girls could not take shop class.
    I can honestly say, knowing how to make a basic white sauce has not improved my quality of living.
    Rewiring the fixtures in my house, however, improved my quality of living quite a bit. So did installing a new floor, tile, and molding.

    HS should teach banking essentials, loan essentials, retirement and budgeting, tool handling, minor electrical and plumbing issues.

    You wanna be practical with math? Figure out how much flooring you need to buy to fit, when each section will hammer in 1/32 of an inch compression. Over the width of the floor, that can add into INCHES of extra flooring you have to figure out how to rip and install so it doesn't look weird.

    But I can say, in French, "You are stupid, and not very nice". High school at least left me with that useful piece of info. (Not "Where is the train station?"


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