Dropping the Slide Rule

Written in conjunction with Thomas Czinkota, my brother

We just concluded the fall school vacation. Between us brothers, we have three children, 6, 7, 10 with whom we spent the week in conversation , playing and thinking. Here are some of the issues which we addressed but are not sure that we solved:

Are children overworked ? Over time growing societal surpluses have made it possible to enjoy the fruits of our labors. We no longer learn only because we have to, but because we want to and can focus on learning about history, enjoyment, art, music and beautification and poetry.
Even though the need for learning has changed,  the process and conditions of learning have not been altered to provide for a more relaxed childhood. Kids are increasingly overscheduled little beasts of burden with more work of greater complexity carried in ever expanding rollaway knapsacks. The available knowledge has increased very much. Yet, our children keep on learning the way their parents did. Are we perhaps maintaining an outdated approach, applying it to vastly increased quantities of content with a greatly diminished half life ? Could it be that all we are doing is cramming our children’s brains with more useless stuff?
We exert pressure on our children so that they learn. Just as high pressure can transform coal into diamonds, perhaps our children grow more talented. We  punish them for not doing sufficient  work. Boredom is no excuse. Of course, shouldn’t we ask why the same child is not getting bored by TV shows, discussions with friends, or the combing of  dolls.
In a pharmacological  society, many kids are provided prescription pills to cure what once was seen as typical child behavior. We have even seen children who have their own personal assistant charged with keeping them focused.
But there are also procedural learning questions:  

Why do children still memorize? Memorization had its origins when there was no print, no dictionaries, and therefore no ‘institutional ‘ retention. Priests and monks had to memorize in order to pass on society’s knowledge – they were the living word.
Today, we have Google, we have Bing, we have Wikipedia; all systems which remember things for us. Of course, it is said that by subscribing to Wikipedia we are buying into the hidden agenda of secretive editors. Well, why not ? For centuries we’ve bought into the hidden agendas of the secretive editors of the Oxford Dictionary. Even the monks and scribes who laboriously produced manuscripts, added or eliminated details. So the flexibility and adjustment of materials has a long tradition.  
How much knowledge does a child realistically need? Will (or should) the acquired knowledge, ever be useful for anything? Does it make sense to dispense knowledge in  a shotgun approach (we give you everything and hope some of it helps) ? How about a just-in-time approach where you download information and instructions just when you need them?  
There is always a great reluctance to move away from existing patterns. There used to be a firm conviction that only the slide rule would maintain the algebraic memories of children.  Well, it’s been more than 40 years that Texas Instruments has come out with the cheap plastic calculators which even did square roots – are we all so much dumber now?
When Biro the Hungarian, invented the ballpoint pen, its use was prohibited in schools. The end of Western civilization as we knew it was predicted if we would cease to lower steel feathers into ink. So where are we today?
How about the perennial efforts to write cursive in beautiful fashion? What’s that really worth? Isn’t everyone writing with their keyboards – able to select any writing style ranging from Times New Roman to Britannic Bold or Verdana. As to spelling and grammar, the computer can fix most egregious problems – minor ones tend not infringe to on communication and understanding.  
The increase in kitchen equipment has not really resulted in more free time for spouses working in the kitchen. Is all that learning technology also not going to help free up our children from their time of work ? If not, should we still add new materials of new relevance?
Who is in charge of reducing learning materials? We always add but rarely delete. We visited Jena, in formerly East Germany, where wonderful things are done with glass. Alas, all the lens grinding skills accumulated over the centuries,  are now done by computers, which do things more quickly, more precisely, and above all, more cheaply. Knowledge lost or made obsolete?
After our vacation together, we ask ourselves whether it isn’t much more important to spend time with our children to play more, listen to and perform more music, exercise in more sports, engage in more theatre productions? We need to explain to them the things they need to know – for example about morals, values, a sense of excitement and pleasure; about the facts of life, that prices are typically not the result of costs but of demand and supply; about  friendship, the enjoyment and benefits of new people networks; about the  juxtaposition of consumption versus savings. With such knowledge our children might not be able to avoid a global trade and financial crisis, but at least they will understand it and react to it.

35 thoughts on “Dropping the Slide Rule

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