Have you ever had the pleasure of standing in a cashier’s line when, for any number of reasons, the computer goes down? Have you had to deal with the vapid stare of the clerk who informs you that they will be unable to complete the transaction because they can’t make change without the computer telling them what it is? Fellow “old heads, ” we have lived to see the “end of days. ”
I began to work in my family’s business when I was 9 years old. My grandfather taught me how to count change backward to the customer from their total charge and ending at the denomination that the customer provided. Today, the best you can get is the recitation of the number spit out by the computer. Right or wrong, that’s what you get and the cashier will never catch an error based on the total. They are the much anticipated drones from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It’s not their fault for 2 reasons:
1. The perception of a skill as unnecessary tends to extinct it
2. The expectation of poor performance virtually guarantees it
I have to say, for the record, I am not anti-technology. Ask any person over 50, they will tell you about what the kids of today don’t know how to do. If you asked the same question 50 years ago to the same group of people, the list of skills would be different but the sentiment would be the same. In western culture, when we learn an easier way of completing a task, we tend to discard the previous technique as archaic.
I remember when I was a child and the new toy was the Texas Instrument calculator. I was in elementary school when they came out and I couldn’t wait to discard my pencil. I was at a point in my mathematical career when arithmetic functions completed by me had about a 25% chance of being totally wrong. My father told me that I could not use our household’s new toy until I had mastered the pencil and paper method. Words cannot express the disdain I had for my father that day. (By the way, thanks Dad. )
The thing is, the advent of technology allows us to let precursor skills “go gentle into that good night. ” We don’t anticipate needing them again; so, what’s the point? The point is that there is not always electricity to power our toys. The point is that we are not always in a situation when our toys are handy when the need for accomplishment is present. The point is, no matter what Bill Gates might say, sometimes the computer is wrong. Anyone who relies solely on software for editing can tell you how their computer burned them.
There is another aspect of learning a skill. It gives you a better understanding of the theory behind the mechanics of an operation. This understanding allows for growth. This understanding allows us to recognize errors emanating from process flow. It facilitates more through critical thinking. I admit that as you bask in the glow of new fangled technology, “the old way” seems mundane and uninspired. Still, there is intrinsic value.
Consider the Stradivarius violins constructed in the 18th century. Craftsmen and computers have replicated the design via reverse engineering centimeter for centimeter for centuries and yet they could not reproduce the sound of the world’s most prized violins. It turns out the sound difference in the Stradivarius is not the product of the wood or the shape but of the chemicals used to kill the insects in the wood. Who knew? More importantly imagine the man-hours it has taken over the centuries to recapture that information.
Who knows the teenage workforce better than Ray Croc’s McDonalds? I have it on good authority that all of their cash registers have pictures of the items they sell instead of numbers to ring up the amounts and this is the trend in fast food establishments. It makes sense that if you put pictures on the keys and teach the pictures you will have fewer numeric errors based on bad calculator keyboard skills. It also makes sense that once a cashier knows these pictures the calculating can be completed much faster by the computer with no intervention from the cashier. There is no doubt, that it is just good business sense.
It makes sense but there is an opportunity cost. That cost is that the store communicates a lower standard of intellectual expectation to their employee. Maybe it isn’t a big deal that you get that message from a job. But, what if there are several levels of lowered expectation in a given culture?
Let’s pretend that schools tested kids to determine their general level of education of kids upon graduation from high school and before they administered these tests the governing bodies responsible for education had a certain expectation of the general performance. Let’s pretend further that upon testing the graduating seniors it was discovered that they were generally testing drastically lower than expected and it became the hot topic on everyone’s lips. What kind of message would it send to children if instead of insisting that they meet the criteria by providing additional resources to educate them to the expected level, we lowered the expectations of the test and spent the bulk of their academic career conditioning them to take this test?
In my “fictitious" scenario, I think the message is pointedly clear. The message is shouting at these children that the people who are charged with facilitating the development of their mind, their most valuable asset, do not believe that measure up to the task. It is unfortunate that human beings require so much affirmation from one another. If they didn’t then these types of circumstances would be rendered irrelevant. The reality is that people, especially children, require positive reinforcement for intellectual development. When the messages around them say they can’t, is it any wonder that these children meet the expectations?
In short, (I know it’s a little late for that) I say as parents we must trumpet our children’s potential especially when they don’t recognize it in themselves. We must set the bar high. Inspire our children when they fail. Applaud them when they triumph. But most of all, we must dissuade them from the notion that “easy” is an end unto its own and prepare them for the struggle that begets joy of discovery and enlightenment. To borrow from Dylan Thomas again, we must teach them to, “rage against the dying of the light. ”
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