Whether it’s for something as serious as cancer or as routine as a kidney stone, no one likes to hear that they have to go under the surgical knife. But such unhappy news is often lightened once a patient has the chance to talk to the surgeon and realize that he is in good, capable hands.


Unfortunately, those good, capable, surgery-performing hands may be an increasing rarity in the years ahead. According to Roger Kneebone, a London professor of surgical education, the last several years have seen a decided change in the abilities of medical students: they are having greater difficulty working with their hands.


As Kneebone explains to The Guardian, this decline is directly related to the decline of hobbies and school activities which force children to work with their hands:

“People are no longer getting the same exposure to making and doing [things] when they are at home, when they are school, as they used to.”

Kneebone goes on to imply that skills learned in shop class, home economics, or other more extra-curricular courses have been thrown out of school with unforeseen consequences:

“We are talking about the ability to do things with your hands, with tools, cutting things out and putting things together … which is really important in order to do the right thing either with operations, or with experiments. You need to understand how hard you can pull things before you do damage to them or how quickly you can do things with them before they change in some way.”

Such skills have often been replaced by virtual reality games and activities performed on screens. These activities, while realistic, are no substitute for actual hands-on experience, explains Kneebone, for real-world experience broadens understanding and spatial awareness.


This expert advice adds a new element to the ever-burgeoning argument of tech executive parents who have decided to withhold tablets and smartphones from their children. Their protestations are driven by the negative effects digital devices have on the brain, and have sometimes been pooh-pooed by others. But now it appears that the negative effects could extend beyond the brain and into the realm of normal living.


The fact is, working with one’s hands enables an individual to exert not only the body, but also the mind. Alexander Hamilton recognized this fact in his Report on the Subject of Manufactures:

“To cherish and stimulate the activity of the human mind, by multiplying the objects of enterprise, is not among the least considerable of the expedients, by which the wealth of a nation may be promoted. Even things in themselves not positively advantageous, sometimes become so, by their tendency to provoke exertion. Every new scene, which is opened to the busy nature of man to rouse and exert itself, is the addition of a new energy to the general stock of effort.

Tech may be the way of the future, but does that mean we should preclude the more basic, every day, hands-on labor that has been a part of culture for generations? If anything, the evidence seems to suggest the opposite, namely, that the advancement of a technological, highly-educated society first requires an adeptness in working with our hands.


NOTE TO READERS: The original headline of this article, “Why Medical Students Are Suddenly Struggling to Conduct Surgeries,” was changed in order to more accurately reflect that the main angle of the article was the opinion of a single source.



[Image Credit: Airman 1st Class Andrew D. Sarver]