I enjoy the old books that have advice, recipes, old hacks on how to do just about everything you might
want and some things you never thought of. You don't necessarily learn much of use, and some old formulas sound pretty quacky, but you can put together a pretty good idea of what folks were up against, and how they coped with a variety of issues, from feeding the family to bookkeeping on the farm to handling a sore throat. This morning, for instance, I learned about a delightful tomato recipe to accompany calf's head for dinner, the right way to decide how old your bees are, and how to figure a bovine's weight by measuring various dimentions and applying a mathematical formula.
I am quite certain I will never need any of these, or at least I am not preparing to serve calf's head with or without side dishes. But I marvel at how resourceful our ancestors were, and how they stretched all available resources, including education. I know my grandparents never went to high school, but they prospered. I know as a little fellow Grampy had a hard time with numbers, especially fractions, until one day his teacher say down with him at lunchtime and explained using a cookie from her lunch. He never forgot that teacher nor how she stayed with him until he grasped the concept. This leads to my memories of seeing him at the table after supper doing all his own figuring his expenses, his income, his bills, and taxes. He could talk knowledgeably about “capital gains,” and other values that remain a mystery to me.
Every now and then these days you hear someone saying that kids don't learn anything practical at school any more and there should be more classes on balancing one's checkbook (who actually does that these days?)
sewing on buttons (tee shirts don't even have buttons), and so on,
without realizing that most of these things were learned at home just by getting involved with life, not at school. Reading, 'riting, and 'rithmatic may not be enough for sure, but they were planned to be useful for the future, and so many young people had enough at the end of 8th grade to write decent letters (the letters to the editors in old newspapers are delightful), figure the farm finances, and read long into the evenings for joy and entertainment. You could stand up and make points at town meeting, put up enough food for the winter and know how to figure how many pounds of millet seed to order for that field above the barn.
I bet Grampy could have taken that formula for turning size into weight, run the numbers, and have been able to tell you if that was an accurate way to figure or not. He may not have even needed the table I found for figuring how to change the volume of a rectangular container into bushels – it may have been ingrained after years of eyeballing it. I can't picture Grammy needing a recipe that told her to cook zucchini like you cook cucumbers – we never had zucchini and who cooks cucumbers? (If you do cook cucumbers you apparently cook them in gravy, in case you are interested). I know none of this is helpful in real life any more, and I am glad for all of the history and science and art my kids and I were educated in. But I also believe that you don't need to burden the schools with lessons on how to darn your socks or cook a decent meal. We've got families and old books for doing that!