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Labour + Industry

Generation Velcro

What will become of the children who could not tie their shoes?

Dorothy Woodend 21 Nov

Tyee film writer Dorothy Woodend didn't particularly like any films this week, and we liked this essay of hers a lot.

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It's hell, but it builds character.

The other day I took my seven-year-old son Louis to buy some running shoes. "Pick something with Velcro," I said, as he trotted off to roam the racks.

A clerk, hovering nearby, gave me a jaundiced look, "You know we get high school kids in here who have to buy Velcro because they never learned to tie their shoes. Every year their parents would just buy them Velcro because it was easier than making them learn how to tie laces."

I stared at him and he went on.

"The other day we had to special order a pair of shoes for this kid's high school graduation because he couldn't tie his laces, and he needed a pair of Velcro formal shoes."

I put the shoes Louis had chosen back on the shelf, and picked out a pair of lace-up running shoes. It wasn't just that I'd been shamed into compliance by the salesman, but something Jane Jacobs had written about in her last book about the coming dark ages hit home. The loss of knowledge, she said, once vanished, is so difficult to regain -- even if it's something as mundane as tying your shoes.

In case you think this episode is an isolated example, the other day I heard a youth worker, whose job it is to help teens at risk, say that almost none of them know how to tie their shoes. I'm sure this isn't a causal relationship -- wear Velcro, go to jail -- but it made me think. What else have we lost, or failed to pass along, to the generation of kids about to inherit an increasingly compromised planet?

Is this generation heading into a coming dark age with little more than the ability to update their Facebook statuses and watch Youtube, all with laces untied?

Failing memories

When I talk to my mother, ensconced on her farm in the Kootenays, about people quietly preparing for coming disaster, she says the first thing people in her neighbourhood say is "Well, my freezer is full." Then they metaphorically pat themselves on the back for having the forethought to freeze a supply of broccoli and peaches.

"But what happens if the power goes off?" I ask.

She shrugs and says, "The one thing I'm worried about is being able to get seeds." (In case you didn't know, Monsanto has been quietly buying up heritage seed companies for the past while.) Then she says, "I'm thinking about starting a farm school." I tell her it's not a bad idea.

In the Vancouver Sun, Meeru Dhalwala recently wrote a column about wanting to start a vegetable garden, but not having even the slightest notion of where to start. For those of us even just a generation removed from the family farm, already the loss of knowledge is enormous. I don't know how to butcher an animal, build a house or make my own soap, although my grandparents certainly did. To a lesser extent my mother still does. If I told my son to go outside, start a fire and cook himself some food, he wouldn't have the very first clue.

While this generation can text-message, download, update and surf online simultaneously, this constant deluge of information is in fact something of a mirage. Information is not knowledge, nor even close to wisdom. And it is actually getting harder to learn and remember things. In The Overflowing Brain, Torkel Klingberg, a professor of cognitive neuroscience at Sweden's Karolinska Institute writes, "If we do not focus our attention on something, we will not remember it." The inability to concentrate in a world of competing bits of information and constant multitasking has led to brains that can no longer keep up. Suddenly, I see why a podcaster has sought out my mother's repository of practical knowledge.

"We're counting on you, old lady," I tell her.

Is our society 'self aware'?

In North America now, less than two per cent of people call themselves farmers and the median age of farmers in Canada is already pushing mid-50s. What happens when too many people who actually know stuff age and then buy the farm, as they say?

Which brings me back to the question that has me tied up in shoe knots.

If the lights start to go out sometime in the near future, and the Walmart closes its doors, who would really be useful? The answer changes, but basically it comes down to people who know how to do things, farmers, carpenters, doctors, people with a body of knowledge that can be applied directly, physically to the real world. It certainly won't be film critics or bond traders.

In Dark Age Ahead, Jane Jacobs writes that, "A society must be self-aware. Any culture that jettisons the values that have given it competence, adaptability and identity becomes weak and hollow."

James Kunstler shares Jacobs' dim view of the North American future, but he apparently has even less hope for the ability of current population to do the work that needs doing. Kunstler writes often about the great tattooed, hedonistic, neo-Darwinian masses of Americans, who bear almost no resemblance to the hardworking, industrious people of the 1930s, who, when FDR announced his plans to turn the nation around, basically set to the task at hand.

I keep coming back to Kunstler's operatic outpourings of fury and despair, maybe because there is a bitter tang of something that isn't even approached in mainstream media. Kunstler opines that Americans in the 1930s and '40s bear little resemblance to the current crop, and if required to roll up their sleeves, and dig ditches, they might not be up to task.

My grandfather came of age in the Great Depression. His mother died of cancer when he was seven years old, and he basically went to work at the age of 12. The same is true of my grandmother, who never made it past Grade 7 because she had to cook meals in the rooming house run by her mother. Their lives and their stories are unremarkable in some ways, in that they weren't all that unusual. They were born to work and they spent their entire lives doing just that, farming, day in and out, merely to survive. They were almost completely self-sufficient, both in food and in skills.

Life without Velcro

Louis, on the other hand, along with all of his Velcro-shod video game playing friends, has been kept safely inside since he was born. He is probably ill-prepared for the world if it becomes much more harsh. Am I, then, a failure? If your first impulse is always to protect your children, are you actually doing them a disservice? If suffering breeds character, does a complete lack of suffering foster utter helplessness?

This is why the public imagination was seized by the tragic story of 15-year-old Brandon Crisp, who ran away after a fight with his parents about video games. How could a young boy die so easily? Brandon discovered in the most terrible way that the real world bears little resemblance to a video game. It gets dark and cold, and if you fall out of a tree, you die.

Every day, while Louis struggles with his laces, wailing that he can't do it and I should do it for him, I say, "You need to learn to do this yourself, you can't depend on anyone to do it for you."

My own words echo oddly inside my brain, already assuming some larger meaning. It is as much my responsibility to teach him, as it is his to learn.

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