In praise of the domestic arts

When I talk about the ‘domestic arts’, I’m not just talking about the ironing. I’m talking about everything that goes into the management of a household and the nurturing of the family that resides within it. From the construction and maintenance of a dwelling to the growing and preserving of food, from the management of the household budget to the raising of the next generation. And, yes, the ironing. These are all essential skills. But we’re losing them.

When I was at school, things like home economics and woodwork were for those who were less academically able. Everyone else was steered gently towards languages, literature, maths and science. Towards the things that would look good on a university application. And so, several decades on, I can speak various languages, undertake complex financial calculations and model the gravitational field around a black hole.

But I haven’t a clue how to fix the roof of my house, to preserve the vegetables that I grow or to repair my clothes when they wear through. And this troubles me. It troubles me because I am reliant on others – often large, distant, anonymous companies – to provide for me in ways that my forebears would have had no problem providing for themselves. My skills are specialised, but the needs of my family are not.

Even today, the development of practical or vocational skills is seen as a lesser calling than the study of more academic subjects. Further education remains the looked-down-on cousin of its higher education counterpart. A rapid career path into the square mile is seen as preferable to the steady learning of a trade that will allow one to provide for one’s family – and to contribute to one’s community – for years to come.

As Wendell Berry (some of whose essays I have just read, which has prompted this train of thought) puts it, the ‘fine’ arts have taken precedence over the ‘domestic’ ones. As a society, we place value on our scientists, our bankers and our financial technology entrepreneurs, while neglecting those who nurture our young, who make our clothes, who care for our old and infirm, and who grow the food that we need.

The domestic arts may not always be exciting, but they form the foundation of our households, of our communities and of our society as a whole. We, quite literally, cannot live without them. Yet we attach to them so little value. And we seem to care not as we lose them to the past. It is time, therefore, to restore the domestic arts to their rightful honoured place. We must grow our food with diligence. We must fix our fences with enthusiasm. We must iron our shirts with pride.

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