[Sorry for wall o' text]
I come from a family of drivers, people who love the car, the freedom and control a car gives you as well as the overall driving experience. Naturally, virtually everyone in my family is a fan of motorsport, namely rallying and Formula 1. Neither side of my family is American either (Japanese and Brazilian). So everyone, naturally, learned to drive with manual cars. That was and still is the only option for them.
In Brazil, where economy reigns supreme, the idea of having something that can be more expensive to fix/replace at any given time, or may take more than what your average mechanic's tool-kit has in it is anathema. So everyone in my father's family always drove manuals. They were cheaper, and generally speaking the only thing available in everyday, non-luxury cars. The other thing is that over there, the roads are totally different. Long stretches of mountain, 2-lane roads connecting towns and farming communities dozens of miles apart. And even though these roads are badly maintained, being a Third world nation and all, they're all a blast. They're also a place where if for some reason you break down, you want to be able to push start. Help wouldn't be coming.
This was partially the environment I learned to drive in when I was well below the legal driving age (another typical thing there; nobody starts at the driving age, and no one ever really asks). There's nothing more exhilarating (or more terrifying, maybe) than a drive through the Serra (which in most stretches lacked guardrail) in some underpowered, yet well maintained car like a Fiat Punto, swapping your own cogs, and trying desperately from keeping your brake fluid from boiling over sometimes, just to get from one town to the next. There's traffic in the few big, but badly designed cities, and somehow, everyone manages to drive a manual there too without complaint. In Japan, it's different, mainly because the scene there has always been more modern European in terms of cars--high tech cars, and a vibrant performance scene. But still most people there know how to drive or own a manual transmission equipped car.
When I came back from stints living overseas in my high school years and had to start studying to get a U.S. license, we still had a manual car. My father refused to let me skate by on an automatic. But I was bewildered by how many people here in the U.S. let a slushbox control their driving experience. No wonder fewer and fewer people my age like driving; driving an automatic car through developed suburbia holds no candle to being in a manual car on a good, or even mildly interesting road. People now are too concerned with their phones, or in-car-entertainment to care either.
My Focus is my fiancee's first manual car. I taught her how to operate the transmission, and she picked it up to a very decent skill level in short order, and now says she'll never own an automatic again. So I don't think it's a matter of people not being able to learn it anymore or that it has no place in American motoring. I think it's incumbent upon those of us who know how to teach others so that they can see what they're missing. I think if more people appreciated the simple pleasures of making a car do exactly what you want, when you want it, understanding how to coax it, cajole it, and control it, and have a man-machine relationship with it, we'd have less vehicular appliances and more memorable, enjoyable cars.
My father recently started driving an automatic 5-series Beamer, but I'll cut the guy some slack, and he's 64, with knees that aren't what they used to be.