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. (Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Lovep. 248)
No, this is not a post about surviving the apocalypse. This is a post about the oddly pervasive idea that there is some sort of inherent value in being able to survive the apocalypse, despite the fact that the odds are against one’s ever actually needing to.
Consider that Heinlein quote. What do people who aren’t parents and never intend to be parents gain from knowing how to change a diaper? Only Heinlein’s tacit approval. My favorite item is “plan an invasion,” since if you aren’t a head of state, the logistical difficulties of acquiring an army with which to invade seem greater than the difficulty of actually invading.
But the strangest bit of the quote is the “should.” You should be able to do these things, or–what? Not “or you’ll wish you had,” nor “or you’ll suffer the consequences,” because half those skills will never be relevant to any one person’s life. So what, then? “Or you will have sinned?” “Or you are a failure as a human being?” “Or Heinlein will be very cross with you?”
One might suggest that Heinlein is simply elaborating on the adage “variety is the spice of life” and saying that people ought to do an assortment of things every day, but no. He says “should be able to” and that’s what he means. Half the items on the list are only really applicable to people in the military; most aren’t the sort of things one could take up as a hobby. And the last item is dying.
Heinlein isn’t alone; there is a whole widespread mentality that people ought to have skills that are useless to their actual lives. It crops up regularly when curmudgeons realize that young people lack a skill that was once essential–dialing a rotary phone, say–and they declare the youth lazy or incompetent (the youth’s inevitable competence at skills older people often struggle with notwithstanding). Most often, they’re survival skills.
There’s an undertone of resentment here that’s understandable; survival skills are regarded as valuable, but once an average urban or suburban middle-class individual has finished his Eagle Scout project, he’ll discover that being able to start a fire without matches is of no value in daily life. Even if he goes camping regularly, a much more valuable skill is being organized so you don’t forget matches in the first place. If you’ve worked hard to gain a skill only to find that you don’t really need it and most people get along just fine without it, it’s easy to start thinking that the skill somehow makes you a more valuable person than someone who lacks it, a consolation that makes your effort to learn seem like less of a waste. Some people even wish, consciously or subconsciously, that an apocalyptic catastrophe would happen, so that they’d finally have a chance to put it all to use (if you had built a bunker in the 60’s, wouldn’t you have felt a twinge of regret in 1989?).
There is an undercurrent of value here, which is why I’m coming down so hard on this mentality. In the Heinlein quote and among others who share the view, there’s a sense that if you lack those survival skills, you’ve somehow failed as a human being. What about handicapped people, or anyone physically or mentally incapable of performing these mysteriously requisite skills? Even if you carve out an exception for them and say “an able-bodied human being should be able to…”, you’re still placing them in a separate, less valuable class due to their inability to do things they don’t need to be able to do.
Perhaps you are in the army or you have a wood-burning stove or there are other reasons why survival-type skills are really necessary, or potentially necessary, for your life. If so, then by all means, you should know how to do them. Learn the skills you need. Learn skills that will improve your life and the lives of others. Learn skills that you enjoy. And remember that your value does not depend on what you know or don’t know.
Image from Wikimedia Commons.