Romanticizing the past is a passionate avocation, and an easy one to indulge in, as long as you overlook advances such as organ transplants, clean drinking water, and child-labor laws. That said, some cultural bygones—letter writing, parlor room discourse—really do have their merits. It's time to examine, if not resurrect, a few lapsed pursuits.
By Kate Bolick published November 1, 2010 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
THE ART: Meaningful Conversation
"The most fruitful and natural play of the mind is conversation. I find it sweeter than any other action in life," wrote the 16th century essayist Michel de Montaigne. Few things are in fact as pleasurable and fertile as engaging in good talk. Whether you're falling in love or entering into friendship, open-ended, seemingly unimportant conversations are essential to building intimacy. They are also the means by which we learn, via other people, how the world works. Talking forces us to clarify our perspectives, as well as recall our experiences: A meandering chat unlocks doors to memories long ago stored away.
Increasingly, most of us lack the time and the focus for this most basic of human activities. "Non-goal-oriented conversations are a great luxury now," says Daniel Menaker, author of A Good Talk: The Story and Skill of Conversation. And when we do have a spare hour or two, we often spend it in less satisfying forms of communication. Many people think nothing of checking their BlackBerrys over dinner. Such "conversing" makes one statement loud and clear: Our interlocutor isn't valuable enough to warrant our full attention.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Empathy, Intimacy, and Knowing Our Own Minds
Looking down at a handheld device, rather than into the eyes of your conversational mate, isn't merely rude; it also sabotages the exchange of nonverbal cues that help sustain rich and meaningful attachments. "We're all facial coders," says Dan Hill, founder and president of the market research firm Sensory Logic. "Humans have more facial muscles than any other species on the planet, and we're hardwired to read all 43 of them. Half the brain is devoted to processing visuals. To not use that ability is to simply throw away precious real estate."
Reading others' faces and emotions is a key component of empathy, and some argue that the ability or willingness to empathize is on the decline. In a study conducted this year at the University of Michigan, researchers found a 40 percent drop in empathy (as measured by questions about feeling concern for the less fortunate and putting oneself in another's shoes)among college students from 1979 to 2009. A sharp plunge began around the year 2000—just as the digital era as we know it kicked into high gear.
As Stanford sociologist Clifford Nass, author of The Man Who Lied to His Laptop: What Machines Teach Us About Human Relationships, puts it, "Face-to-face social interaction is hard. If we don't go through a period where we're forced to master the hideous process of learning how to talk with other people, we never will."
And digital communication breeds confusion. Researchers recently concluded that email communicators "hear" what they're writing based on their intention, while the emailrecipient often misses that nuance. For example, a statement meant to be sarcastic can be read as insulting.
While it's easy to point to "kids today" as the foremost abusers of good conversation, it's often today's kids who complain the most about the inability to connect, says Sherry Turkle, professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT and author of the forthcoming book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. "Over and over in my interviews, I hear teens talking about not getting 'full attention' from others," Turkle says. "What they are nostalgic for is not a technology but a person who was there, just for you."
VERDICT: We Can't Let Meaningful Conversation Go Silently Into the Night
"It's not like it's simply nice if you can have them—conversations are necessary for creating wisdom about the self and others," says Menaker. Without conversations that take us on spontaneous journeys through ideas and opinions, we can't know what we think and we can't get into the minds of others.
THE ART: The Handwritten Letter
My 65-year-old father has taken to scanning old family correspondence and emailing me the documents. It's wonderfully disorienting to open a computer file and discover my late mother's distinctive scrawl, or a birthday doggerel mailed to me at summer camp from my adult brother at age 8. And it's surprising to remember the many varied and creative ways we used to stay in touch, whether sending cassette tapes (remember those?)or typed letters animated with quirky illustrations in the margins. Life used to be one long, paper snowfall.
STATUS: Near Extinction
These days, life feels less like a paper snowfall and more like an ice slick: everything whizzing past on a hard, shiny screen. In a recent survey commissioned by Yahoo!, 78 percent of respondents between the ages of 25 and 64 said they consider email a substitute for handwritten letters. Last year, the amount of mail sent through the U.S. Postal Service plummeted at its fastest rate ever. The handwritten letter—and all of the individuality it conveys—is going the way of the Red Panda.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Delayed Gratification and Meaningful Processing of Information
While conventional wisdom holds that email and social networking sites like Facebook encourage quantity of relationships over quality, the fact is, people do share intimate details over email. Etiquette expert Peggy Post insists that sometimes an email can feel more intimate because of its immediacy, such as when expressing condolences. An email can be "more spontaneous than a letter, and less intrusive than a phone call," says Post.
But the immediacy of email robs us of the giddy excitement that used to come from finally getting a glimpse of a long-awaited envelope, stuffed with possibility, in the mailbox. We've sacrificed the attenuated pleasure of anticipating a letter, as well as the gravitas that comes from knowing our words won't reach someone else for at least a week. An angry email is all too easy to send into the void. An angry letter, however, is often ripped up, as the sender knows somewhere in the back of her mind that the feeling will be embarrassingly pungent by the time it arrives. As Lord Byron said, "Letter writing is the only device for combining solitude with good company."
The handwritten letter can also foster verbal fluency. "We're moving from an eloquent mode of correspondence to an ever more utilitarian one," says technology journalist Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. This isn't merely an aesthetic concern. The medium we use to express what we think actually transforms the way we think. "Recent discoveries in neuroscience tell us that new technologies actually change our habits of thought," says Carr, "and that these new habits become wound very deeply into our neural circuits."Heavy online multitaskers, for example, have less control over their short-term memories than lightmultitaskers.
Deliberate letter composition is, further, a way to process our own experiences. Psychologist James Pennebaker has shown that people who write about their traumas, for example, report better moods and health compared to those who are asked to write about mundane topics.
Finally, letters used to be the way to announce, with fanfare, an upcoming party or event. Getting an evite in the inbox—nestled between annoying work tasks, bank statements, and mass advertisements—muddies it by association and takes away the twinge of excitement and import it would have if it sat alone on a table, on a beautiful piece of stationery.
VERDICT: We're Keeping in Touch More Than Ever, but in a Less Thoughtful Way
The handwritten letter is never coming back. That's unfortunate, considering that a loved one's handwriting is a unique feature that captures his or her spirit. And letters do "feel" more intimate than email, even though that sense of intimacy is more illusion than reality. If it weren't for email, in fact, I might not have seen my mother's old letters at all—the computer is the sentimental conduit, not the destroyer, of authentic feelings. Perhaps the biggest reason, then, to mourn the letter is the loss of a time lag between exchanges that can temper our feelings and focus our thoughts.
THE ART: A Do-It-Yourself Mentality
Once upon a time we made everything by hand, growing our own vegetables, raising the sheep that provided the wool we then spun and knit into sweaters—labor-intensive pursuits most people were happy to leave behind once new conveniences came along. The "back to the land" movement of the 1970s was an attempt to right this imbalance, which today is more pronounced than ever; the outsourced global economy wholly divorces people from the origins of their products and foods. Once again, there seems to be a collective yearning for the lost art of making, finding, and fixing what you need.
"The impulse to tend to things and repair them is really a desire to make your world intelligible," says Matthew Crawford, the author of Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work. "There's a satisfaction that comes from getting to the bottom of things. But new devices really don't invite our intervention."
STATUS: Staging a Comeback
In our increasingly digitized world, activities like refinishing the wooden door frames in your home yourself and seemingly pro forma behaviors like cooking dinner and setting the table actually restore our sense of order. From the explosion of do-it-yourself home renovation shows and books to the proliferation of knitting stores and backyard chicken coops, city dwellers and suburbanites everywhere are increasingly keen on getting their hands dirty.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: A Sense of Calm and Self-Efficacy
Crawford argues that the need to figure out how things work is universal, but he suspects our awareness of it "atrophies when you live in a world that so consistently thwarts your attempts to get a handle on it." Crawford is a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia who also runs a motorcycle repair shop. Fixing motorcycles not only allows him to connect with his environment, it provides as much intellectual stimulation as does critiquing philosophical texts, Crawford argues. "Repair work thoroughly resists being reduced to a simple set of procedures. It always requires improvisation and adaptability. As a result, you feel like you're using your own capacities. There's an attentiveness involved; it gets you outside your own head. You have to listen, you have to smell, you have to look carefully."
For the grease-averse, the same benefits derive from gardening, cooking, or other domestic activities. The common denominator is an active, problem-solving orientation toward one's surroundings.
Making and repairing things "compensates for the fact that experience of individual agency can be quite elusive at work," says Crawford. "If you have a problem with your boss and you're a carpenter, you can say 'It's plum, it's level, and its square, go check it yourself.' But if you don't have concrete standards like that, you're never quite sure where you stand, and so you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you in the office." It's exhausting, perhaps more so than physical labor.
Humanities professor Camille Paglia recently argued in the The Chronicle of Higher Education that the students at the art schools where she's taught for the past forty years—among them ceramicists, woodworkers, and jazz drummers—possess a "calm, centered, Zen-like engagement with the physical world." In contrast, she sees "glib, cynical, neurotic elite-school graduates roiling everywhere in journalism and the media...ill-served by their trendy, word-centered educations."
VERDICT: We're Slowing Down and Rolling Up Our Sleeves
Crawford laments the dwindling popularity of (and funding for) shop classes in American high schools, and the enduring, if false, attitude that trades such as plumbing and electricity are beneath bright young people. In an era where college-educated people's jobs can easily be outsourced to another country, guess who is still raking in business? Yet in the realm of hobbies, the do-it-yourself movement is clearly gaining traction. Perhaps most especially for those who are in office jobs where teams get credit for hard-to-define results, eating a salad you grew in your own yard or getting an old bike to ride smoothly once more is a sweet victory.
THE ART: The Renaissance Personality
Remember all of those drawing-room scenes in 18th century novels, where the ladies play études on the piano, converse with foreign visitors in their native tongue, and even recite poems, while the men recount sporting feats, argue about politics, and trade witty anecdotes? Everyone seemed so...refined. Even in more recent decades, the scholar-athlete-artist has racked up awards and social cachet for his or her breadth and depth.
But in a time where geeks who tweak software lord it over well-read, well-traveled dilettantes, a broad cultural education seems less like something to admire and aspire to.
In lamenting the decline of what he calls the cultivated person, Tracy Lee Simmons, author of Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin and a professor at Hillsdale College, couldn't resist summing up the situation with quotes from the Roman big guns: "Virgil said, 'Fortunate the man who can understand the causes of things.'" (It's difficult to decipher the causes of our sociopolitical environment when we're busy monetizing video mash-ups.) And "Cicero said that 'to not know history is to remain forever a child.' By 'child' he meant intellectually unformed, and probably a little dangerous."
Whereas snagging a high-quality spouse was often the motivation for well-roundedness in Jane Austen's time, today's young suitors tend to flaunt one or two attributes or areas of expertise.
Professors still sense a thirst for knowledge among students, but there's no longer a sense of shame at cultural illiteracy. "I asked a smart young woman which president held office before Reagan," Simmons says. "She didn't know. When I gently chastised her, she said, 'But I wasn't born then!' She felt that let her off the hook, whereas a student from a previous generation would have been mortified."
Young people aren't solely to blame for being narrowly formed, however, when music, art, and foreign language programs are the first to get slashed in cash-strapped schools. And in a bad economy, a liberal arts major can seem like too much of a luxury to undertake.
WHAT'S AT STAKE: Well-Rounded Humanists Who Will Do the Right Thing
The cultivated person appreciates beauty and nature, is in touch with nuanced emotions, and is thoughtful and self-abnegating. Simmons holds up his acquaintance David McCullough, author and historian, as an exemplar. "David is a quietly passionate person. He always writes his books on a typewriter. Everyone asks why he doesn't use a computer to speed the process along, and he replies that he wants to slow down, because he wants to create something that will be valuable in 50 years."
While the cultivated person chisels away at his own character every day, the uncultivated person "goes for the carrots in life," Simmons says. "They want to be beautiful, loved, and rich. None of these things are bad, but what we do to get them can be bad. The Greeks would call such people doulos, or slaves: slaves to passions and appetites. The cultivated person doesn't want to get rid of his appetites, he wants to control them."
VERDICT: We're More Educated Than Ever, but We're Not Sure What's Worth Knowing or Why
Any student can find the answer to any question in mere seconds, thanks to Google. But the ability to discern which information is accurate, and what we should do with the knowledge we have, seems to be a skill that is dwindling day by day.
A caveat applies, however: Well-rounded people have always been in the minority. Still, those who set aside time for learning a variety of subjects and art forms can take heart from the musings of the English sage Alexander Pope: "A little learning is a dangerous thing;/Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:/ There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,/And drinking largely sobers us again."