Declining mechanical aptitude

In the past few years that I have been following this site, I?ve observed a steady but certain decline in the apparent mechanical aptitude of posters; especially with such questions as, ?what are shock absorbers and where do I find them?? Now I?m not poking fun at someone for not knowing something, and I?m not focusing on the high-tech computer controlled devices that are now so prevalent. It?s just my point that youngsters growing up today have not garnered the knowledge nor the curiosity to learn such basic stuff that I see being posted here.

In my teen and later years, it seemed that all my peers were pretty well versed in the goings-on of automobiles, and mechanical things in general, and could confidently handle many of the questions being posted here. Our culture differed then when most of us grew up with the mindset of having to make do with what we had. That forced us to either learn how to fix things or do without. I suppose that is the price to pay for economic wealth. It is fortuitous that there are still a few knowledgeable mechanics around today to help these posters, but when these few are gone, will there be someone to help, or will we become dependent on a very small field of auto specialists who will acquire the billing acumen of doctors and lawyers.

Sorry to ramble on so much. Just wanted to share my views and show my appreciation to those experts that serve this site so well.

I think you’ve hit on one of the bigger points, the economic wealth factor. I think there’s another point that’s also fundamental and that has to do with continuous development. Each generation builds upon the previous and the knowledge base grows. We apply our intellect to more complex problems today than our parents and our children will continue that trend. For example, how many people today make their own butter or bread? Just one example of how technology allows people to move on to bigger challenges in everyday life with each successive generation.

Another area that has had major decline is in electronics experimentation. Just look at Radio Shack today versus 20 years ago. The parts area used to be the major part of the store and now it’s a couple of bins way in the back. We used to have all sorts of stores selling electronic parts and gizmos that you had to build to make something. Now, electronics are a commodity and almost no one makes anything for themselves and very few things are repaired these days. It’s a throw away society…

#1 A lot of it has to do with the technology of cars today. 35 years ago when I first started working on cars they were a LOT easier to work on. Then as they got more complicated I learned the new technology slowly. Today to start working on cars you’re hit with all the technology all at once. Most people are overwhelmed and don’t even try.

#2 Some things have gotten a lot harder to to (especially if you don’t have special equipment). I use to change my own shocks…now every car we’ve owned in the past 20 years has struts…and my trucks had struts in the front and shocks in the rear. So NOW that job has to be farmed out because I don’t have the equipment and don’t want to buy one of the cheap spring compressors and HOPE it holds the spring down.

#3 Vehicles are a LOT more reliable today then they were 35 years ago (at least the ones I owned). My first car was a Chevy Vega. I got back from Nam and that’s the first car bought. I had very basic automotive knowledge. But my car needed extensive automotive knowledge to keep it running. I was still in the Army making about $350/mo…so I couldn’t afford to take it anywhere…Out of necessity I HAD to learn how to work on my Vega. If my first car was as reliable like my wifes 96 Accord I probably never would have gained any mechanical knowledge. There was no need.

My oldest son is leaning toward Mechanical Engineering. Hopefully he’ll go to MIT like his sister. He LOVES working on cars. Wants to work in the Auto industry in some capacity when he graduates college. We’re talking with college recruiters…MIT and only a couple others LOVE kids with some mechanical ability…instead of all book knowledge. He’s way ahead of 99% of applicants in that regard.

As an old geezer I find my mechanical aptitude declining. I used to do most of my own work on my cars–oil changes and lubrication, tune-ups, carburetor, fuel pump, generator and water pump replacements, etc. I traced down electrical problems and diagnosed engine problems. I assume my two latest vehicles (a 2003 4Runner and a 2006 Uplander) have spark plugs, but I don’t where these spark plugs make their home. I have a great independent shop that keeps me going. I still have a 1978 Oldsmobile Cutlass that I purchased new and I can repair most things on that car. This is why I keep it around.

The same is true with my electronic equipment. In the days of vacuum tubes, I repaired my radios and televisions, assembled my high fidelity amplifier from a kit, and so on. I couldn’t begin to make a repair on a printed circuit board today.

I learned how to keep things going because we didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. When I was on my own, these skills were very helpful when I was starting out and we didn’t have a lot. I was also old fashioned and didn’t believe in making purchases on time.

The skills that I did learn in keeping my automobiles and electronic equipment going had another payback. I teach computer science and statistics. The knowledge I learned in keeping mechanical and electronic equipment operational has paid off in helping students run down bugs in their computer programs or in attacking a problem where statistics need to be applied.

I have to work much harder at my teaching than I did 30 years ago to spark students’ curiosity. One of the things that saved our nation during WW II is that many of the servicemen had worked on their cars and could easily be trained to work on the tanks and planes and other equipment with internal combustion engines. Many of our servicemen had tinkered with radios and could be trained to work on radar as well as aircraft radios. We had this advantage over our enemies. I’m not certain we would have this advantage today.

For me, there was a satisfaction in being able to keep my own equipment functioning. In today’s throw-away society, I’m afraid our young people miss out on this.

No User Serviceable Parts Inside!

I repair products that say this on them, all the time. However, I think manufacturers are encouraging consumers to throw things away and get a new replacement. Look at shoes. People used to resole and have heels replaced. Designer drinking water. Just toss the bottle out. Younger people are growing up thinking they either throw things out or they must hire out any repairs. Toasters and vacuum cleaners used to be repaired, but relative costs of replacing vs. repairing, make repairing more expensive than replacing.

I will say that had I not learned (taught myself, basically) to maintain/repair my car, house, appliances, fill my own containers with tap water, etc., I would either be broke right now or have no savings. Come to think of it, Isn’t that a part of a national epidemic? It wouldn’t surprise me if we start running into people that don’t know you can brew your own coffee at home (like Starbucks!).

P.S. There is Hope! I am teaching my son (age 21, college student) and daughter (14) to carry on my tradition. It is working, finally. My son usually calls from college when his car “breaks.” The last time he called when it was “repaired!” He and his buddy put brake pads and rotors on themselves at college. I was both proud and feeling a little less useful than I was before. He has seen me save several hundreds of dollars, in a few hours, by DYI. Children learn by example.

So many polysyllabics…

There’ll be those around to help. Today’s automotive technology programs, and the ASE exams that graduates have to pass, stay right on top of the new technology. These programs are heavily and actively supported by the manufacturers with training, equipment, parts, systems, and even enire brand new vehicles…which, much to my dismay, are crushed after the manufacturers replace them with newer models. Visit your local community college program. I’m sure you’ll be amazed.

The real question is will there be anybody left who can tweak a 4-barrel carb into submission?

Persuant to electronics, it’s all gone thin film. I grew up during the transition from gas tubes to transistors. “Doping” was the modern technology. Now complex circuits are “grown” on alumina and fused silica substrates. Research labs are even building circuits out of atoms now. It’s all beyond me.

The next generation may have to deal with biological circuitry, perhaps living circuitry capable of learning and morphing.

The next generation is already here… biological circuits have already been demonstrated in a lab. It’s only a matter of time till they scale up the technology.

I think the training and technology is there. The problem I see is people wanting to learn it. When I was growing up…I went to a private high-school. We were pretty much all nerds. But a good number of us were interested in working on cars.

My son is a geek/jock…And yet he has ONE friend that is interested in doing any of his own work on cars. Some of his friends show a interest in cars…but they don’t they’d all rather have someone else do the work.

Our culture denigrates “Blue Collar” occupations. “Let someone else do that. YOU need to go to college and become an Investment Banker!”

That will change when our current standard of living is cut in half…

Some of us “White Collar Workers” like to get their hands dirty and do their own work. My wifes Lexus dealer doesn’t understand why I haven’t brought her car in for service. When I told them I do all the servicing…they didn’t understand that. I think we’re their ONLY customer who does their own maintenance.

Why should mechanical aptitude be different from other aptitudes today?

Just as fewer people nowadays possess decent mechanical aptitude, it sometimes seems that the majority of the folks out there also lack the ability to communicate properly in their native language. As evidence, note how often people in this forum ask questions about a problem with their “breaks” (sic). Most people nowadays seem to think that the two words, “a lot”, have somehow morphed into a new non-word, “alot” (sic).

More often than not, people use the word “loose” in place of the word “lose”. Few people use the word “led” properly, and instead, they incorrectly substitute the word “lead” in its place. Or, how about the people who refer to a “web sight”, rather than a “web site”? I could go on and on regarding this topic, but, in general, I have observed that a huge percentage of Americans (including most adults, I believe), are unable to correctly use most of the homonyms in our native language.

Or, how about geographic knowledge? Surveys have shown that most Americans seem to think that the state of New Mexico is a part of Mexico, rather than being part of the US. A recent study found that when college students were asked to identify 7 states on a map of the US, most could only identify 3 out of the 7. I have heard people say things like, “We are going to France and to Italy, and then we are going to Europe”.

Just the other day, Senator McCain indicated that Spain is located in “Latin America”. Senator Obama mis-spoke and stated that he had visited 57 states. Many years ago, I was interviewed by a Superintendent of Schools who asked me to cite the most interesting course that I had taken in my undergraduate studies. I replied that my course in the History of Southeast Asia had been really interesting, and he then launched into a monologue that indicated his belief that Korea is located in Southeast Asia!

Knowledge of history is also sorely lacking. Just ask anyone below the age of…perhaps 40 or so…to put a series of historical events such as The American Revolution, The War of 1812, The Civil War, the two World Wars, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War in the correct sequence. I can virtually guarantee you that those younger than 40 or so will be wrong in most instances.

Or how about basic citizenship knowledge? Most people nowadays cannot identify their Congressman or their Senators, nor can they tell you the length of the term in office for these positions. Many people cannot provide the name of the Vice-President of the US when they are questioned on this topic.

I think that there has been a general dumbing-down of our society in recent generations, and this is surely not a good sign. Yes, I also decry the apparent decline in mechanical aptitude, but at least car repair or appliance repair can be delegated to another person for a fee. Unless someone is very wealthy, it is not possible to delegate one’s writing to someone else, and it is not possible to have someone instantly provide geographical or historical knowledge when needed.

As Pogo the Possum told us years ago, “We have met the enemy, and he is us”!

My personal feeling on white vs blue. High school simply is not enough education. Going to college gives you a great basis (usually) to work with at least in the first four years. And then if “blue collar” is what you decide you have a distinct advantage given your extra education.

There’s a difference between knowledge and being able to think. I know people who know where Alaska is…They can point it out on a map…tell you who’s governor…How many people live there…they can spout off stats all day long about it…but they don’t have a clue on how to navigate their way there. Give them a map and compass and a full tank of gas and they’ll end up Mexico.

Knowledge is one thing…being able to apply that knowledge is something completely different. The converse is also true. When I was working on my MS in applied Mathematics I taught a couple undergraduate math and cs classes. I had a couple of kids in the class who had GREAT ability. But they refused to gain the knowledge. Great problem solvers…but you need knowledge too.

What you say is true, but I think that there really is a “sense of direction”. I have known many very intelligent, well-educated people who were also good problem solvers, but they apparently lacked a sense of direction. When I was a teenager, I knew someone who literally lost his way when driving around the block in an urban area. (Okay, he actually wasn’t very bright, but this guy had absolutely no sense of direction.)

Then, of course, there are people who absolutely refuse to prepare for anything or to help themselves. Many years ago, my brother was a summertime toll collector on the NJ Turnpike. In his first week, he had an incredible number of people ask him, “How do I get to Florida?”. (Not, “How do I get to the Southbound NJ Turnpike?”, but “How do I get to Florida?”) At first, he would launch into a detailed description of how I-95 had different names in NJ, Delaware, Maryland, etc., and how to keep oneself on course. About a week later, after realizing that these people were actually beyond help, he began giving them his new directive, “Straight ahead–You can’t miss it!!”

I’m a lab manager in the Electrical Engineering dept. of a university. This past summer I had a Jr. HS student from the city summer jobs program. This 13 y.o. boy had never used a hammer!

And, if he was asked to write an essay on the topic, he likely would have stated that “alot” of his friends had not used a hammer either!

I think the concept that people with great mechanical aptitude are chosing to use this ability in jobs that are better paying than auto mechanics a valid one.

The number of people that are smart enough (book and practical) to excel at auto mechanics and chose to be auto mechanics, is getting smaller.

Many people don’t realise how poorly auto mechanics are treated by the Dealerships,and the flat rate system.

If your smart enough to excel as a auto mechanic you are smart enough to excel in a field that will treat you as a valuable employee,and you won’t have to put up with the horrible life of a auto mechanic.

The best chose to leave.

In response to Mike’s post, you may be right about the “willingness to learn” deficiency. For the past few dacades, over 50% of the advanced and professional degrees in the math and science fields have been going to foreign students. I’ve had countless discussion with academic folks about the cause. Sadly, it seem that the primary and secondary educational systems in this country are not requiring proficiency in mathematics and science, or even in reading comprehension or critical thinking, in order to become a high school graduate. Far too many HS grads simply do not have the foundational skills to proceed down scientific pathways of learning.

As it applies to automotive technology, kids learn how the systems are put together and troubleshooting protocols, but unless they understand the physics behind it and have critical thinking skills, they often can’t understand the “why” of it. They sometimnes cannot figure out for themselves thing sthey haven’t been taught.

You folks have hit the nail on the head (pun intended). My belief is that much of the knowledge you apply in diagnosing or fixing something is now so intuitive – perhaps learned way back as a youngster – that you could reassemble an engine if it were handed to you as a basket of parts, including all the nuts and bolts just based upon your knowledge, applied logic, and deduction. I don’t believe that this is recently learned ability; this has likely been a part of you since childhood. Even those entering a trade school most likely already possess much of this basic ability.

There’s truth in what you say, but I think there are more parts to the problem. In addition to innate talent, which I believe you either have or you don’t, there’s also skills, and those you need to learn. Sadly, many students that have the innate talents simply don’t get adequate foundational knowledge to be able to successfully move forward in postsecondary education paths to acquire the knowledg and/or skills.

I recall trying to teach a high school graduate basic MS Excel. I tried numerous approaches to convey the idea that she had to tell the cell what to do, as in “cell, please equal (enter equal sign) cells A1+B1”. She remained bewildered. I eventually wrote “A=B+C” on the board and asked her if she understood what that meant. It turned out that she had had absolutely no introduction to algebraic equations whatsoever.

Sadly, our primary and secondary educational systems are too often failing to give their students very basic skills. Skills are what enable us to apply talents.