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By Jen Hutson, CDA mom

Be sure to read the first two articles in the Common Arts series!
Dead Things: Lessons of a Novice Taxidermist and Naturalist
Find A Lost World in Two Square Feet

Also, check out the slides from Jen’s “Common Arts, Transformed Hearts” presentation at Curriculum Night!

It’s the End of the World As We Know It

“It could be worse,” your oldest assures you sarcastically, “I haven’t seen any zombies yet.” You turn away and survey the barren landscape silently. “I’m sooooo hungry! When are we going to eat?!” your youngest begs. Your wife, ready to give birth at any moment squeezes your hand. “Honey, we have to find shelter, now!”


Civilization feels like a lifetime past. Everything you needed was once a click away. Any skills you lacked could be substituted by a call to a contractor. But without warning, the “great shutdown” occurred – a failure of all technology, societal collapse, and WHAM – you were dropped into an apocalyptic world. No phones, stores, cars, homes, hospitals, internet, restaurants or handymen.


You try to recall your limited outdoor experience from the past. But even your campsites included electricity and plumbing. Can you use dirt to filter creek water? Can you rub rocks together to make a fire? Are those mushrooms delicious or deadly? Can you catch a fish with your bare hands? Do you smoke meat with smoke? And, finally, are you facing north, south, or is it west?


Your oldest yells something about movement in the distance. Is it an animal or a nomadic gang of apocalyptic bandits? You wonder if you have time to cleave a rock into a point and then use that point to fashion a wood spear to defend your family. Time doesn’t appear to be on your side. “Run to the trees!” you yell to your family.

Now, let’s pretend this story came from an old Choose Your Own Adventure book. 

What a relief, right? That means you have options and may choose from the following:

1. Run into the woods, which leads you to:

a. A tragic bear encounter
b. Poisonous berries
c. A dramatic fall into a ravine, and the unfortunate break of your femur

2. Stand your ground and throw rocks to protect your helpless family from what turns out to be:

a. A gang of lawless thieves who take what little you have and leave you for dead
b. What turns out to be an altruistic gang of x-physicians who share their shelter and deliver your new baby safely


Common Arts: So What?


Examine the written and cinematic evidence and you will see those who survive an apocalypse possess skills and internal resources that are rare in our contemporary society. The idea of an apocalypse is absurd, I know, but it demonstrates how far we’ve wandered from the skills of our relatives and ancestors.


The aim, apocalypse or not, is for us to learn these lost skills for ourselves.


“Are you kidding?” you ask. If societal collapse is unlikely, and we can continue to outsource our needs via the digital economy, why should we care about these lost skills, known as the common arts? 


Because, I say, they are essential for full living. 


The common arts offer a true, good, and beautiful way to provide for our needs and to pass rhythms and practices down through our families and communities. The process, in my rudimentary equation, looks like this:


A skill builds a story → creates a history brings meaning to our lives


The common arts conjoin our head, heart, and hands. Without them, we live out of a disconnect that is as ubiquitous as is it neglected. We are whole organisms. What we do with our hands makes its way to our hearts. Likewise, if our hands are empty, our hearts will lack as well. 


“We can also make it all the way to middle school without ever having lit a match, tied a shoe, told time by the sun, or made our way around with a paper map…Along with losing skills of the hand, the fullness of the arts of head and heart begin to languish…It is hard to be free when one lacks skills necessary to survival and must rely upon artificial structures of business to provide for all basic needs.”¹ 


Learning these skills will enrich your life. And in the off chance everything does go to hell someday, you’ll be ready. Unlike the feckless father in our apocalyptic fable.


What are the Common Arts and Why Demonize Fire Starters?


“The common arts are the skills that provide for basic, embodied human needs through the creation of artifacts and the provision of services.”²

Sounds fancy, but put simply, common arts were once the how of living. They provided the framework and rhythms of the home and family for thousands of years. Our contemporary way of living is nascent still. Think back to your parents and grandparents. They were likely apprenticed in common arts to a degree that we are not. Perhaps they cooked or canned, practiced home remedies, fished, gardened, hunted, worked with wood or metals. 


If our grandparents practiced common arts, why don’t we? Why has this knowledge diminished with each subsequent generation?


I blame fire starters. (Or at least I borrow them as the object of my cautionary tale.) I confess they are used in our backyard frequently. And we use them because they remove most of the otherwise necessary planning, setup, and frustration of a fire. But, if we never acquaint ourselves with the craft of making fire, arranging it, creating our own spark, then something in the meaning of the flames is absent. How do we recover this meaning? I’ll return to this question soon.


First, let’s discover what happened to these lost skills or common arts.


Where Are We and How Did We Get Here?


Raise your hand if you are pro-industrialization. (All the hands go up, right?) Most people aren’t interested in homesteading and living an agrarian lifestyle or being tied to the land and its capricious weather patterns. Industrialization and its subsequent revolutions transported families from a primarily agricultural life to one based on the manufacture of goods. These revolutions altered how people provide for their families, and how they relate to one another and society as a whole. In the process, many beautiful ways of living and being were lost. 


My aim is not to decry the Industrial Revolution or paint the period prior as idyllic. Industrialization brought many needed advances such as in medicine and quality of life. But the flipside of industrialization was that the time saved in labor did not translate directly into freedom as advertised. We did not gain freedom so much as distance. Families began outsourcing their needs via mass production and became dependent on an economy of goods and services. We became further specialized and further removed from the skills required to meet our needs. And likewise, further from many gifts demolished by this new economy. Our relationship to each other and creation changed as well. And although the sentiment was present in even in ancient history, society, at times, views the work of one’s hands with contempt.


“Today we outsource most of our basic needs…. We fall back upon the fruits of the labor force, and our own income, more than the work of our own hands…. While this is not a bad thing in itself…the distance between ourselves and the baseline skills that fulfill our basic needs is widening by the year…. We not only don’t do for ourselves now, we have forgotten how to do for ourselves, and that costs us in profound ways.”³


The Apostle Paul & Common Arts 


Paul discusses labor in 1 Thessalonians. Most careers in the ancient world relied on labor. Now, several thousand years since, the industrial (and digital) revolutions have reduced the frequency and the value of labor. It is no longer a necessity for families, but rather a way to fill out one’s leisure or retirement. A sure sign of affluence in modern culture is the outsourcing of manual work, for after all, our time is money, right? That is, until all we have is time. But common arts skills were not only about income for ancient (and recent) peoples, and neither should they be for us.


Now about your love for one another we do not need to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love each other. And in fact, you do love all of God’s family throughout Macedonia. Yet we urge you, brothers and sisters, to do so more and more, and to make it your ambition to lead a quiet life: You should mind your own business and work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody. 1 Thessalonians 4:9-12 ESV


God intended us to be his children but also co-laborers with him in good work. Reacquaint yourselves with God’s instructions in the garden and ponder how work, specifically production and stewardship, gave shape and meaning to Adam and Eve’s lives.



Our work honors God, and our labor can be a work of godliness. Jesus was in fact a carpenter, like his father Joseph. Did God not bring purpose to Jesus’ years of labor and carpentry? Or are we to believe they were a wasted period of waiting? Paul’s epistle to the Thessalonians reminds Christians of the honor in work. He recognized that responsible believers would bless the church and the community and that labor was a part of one’s daily calling. Explore this list of ancient professions to see how many common arts are included.


Reclaiming Our Lost Gifts

So how do we reintegrate these skills into our lives and labor with honor? Am I calling for us to reconstruct our lives from the ground up? (Who has time for that?) No! Take a deep breath. We need not be renaissance men and women or independent homesteaders. What we can be are people whose lives are enriched by the work of our hands. We can restore the old wisdom of common arts to a place of honor in our lives. 


My grandfather home-fashioned many of his tools. At 87 years old, we found him standing on the roof of his farmhouse, recoating shingles. The thought of hiring out the work did not enter his mind. My grandmother gardened and canned and sewed clothes from feed sacks. Many of these items are now family heirlooms.


And although tangibles are essential, common arts skills are not only valued for an end product. They are just as much a process, a way of being in the world that brings wisdom. The practice of these skills season us, as if we were a good soup. Think of how soup is seasoned and adjusted over time till the unique flavors combine into a singular expression with depth and dimension. The common arts season us with wisdom and appreciation so that we too have depth and dimension. 


Some of these intangibles include:

  • A cultural or community history
  • Family traditions
  • Discipleship
  • Identity
  • Wisdom 
  • A love of learning
  • Purpose for the day


Some might say that common arts have the power to preserve a generational ethos within us that would otherwise perish.


And while common arts might ensure surviving an apocalypse; they certainly ensure thriving in our current epoch. 


For a full list of common arts to begin considering, see below and watch for our next article in the series.

Produces Outcomes

Produces Artifacts Produces Both









Animal Husbandry













And for those not up on post-apocalyptic cinema – try something on the list below. Please preview the film to make sure the material is appropriate for your family.

  • I am Legend
  • The Road
  • Book of Eli (my favorite, but not for the faint of heart)
  • Mad Max
  • Zombieland
  • The Quiet Place
  • WALL-E
  • Bird Box
  • The Girl with All the Gifts
  • 9
  • The Day After Tomorrow

Be sure to read the first two articles in the Common Arts series!
Dead Things: Lessons of a Novice Taxidermist and Naturalist
Find A Lost World in Two Square Feet


  1. Christopher Hall, MAT, Common Arts Education (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2021), 35-36.
  2. Christopher Hall, MAT, Common Arts Education (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2021), 19.
  3. Christopher Hall, MAT, Common Arts Education (Camp Hill, PA: Classical Academic Press, 2021), 19.

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