Oops! We Hit the Disconnect Button by Mistake

February 19, 2011

I have a deep and abiding love for education.  It opens you up to new worlds and broadens your horizons.  It exposes you to the customs and mores of other cultures and acts as a deterrent to prejudice because it allows you to see yourself and your beliefs in the larger scheme of life.  It’s like standing at the foot of a majestic mountain and knowing that your importance pales in significance.

Perhaps this, more than anything else, is why I mourn the loss of what education was meant to be.  It is no longer about opening the mind to evaluate new concepts, to teaching a child how to think, how to develop critical thinking skills, how to make sound judgments, and how to be a valued member of society.  What we see today is a travesty of what education started out to be.

Many of the students that are turned out today seem to have difficulty applying the principles of what they have been taught. A friend was teaching Business Law at a college and one of his students complained about the failing grade she received on a test.  She went to the Dean and told him that she didn’t think the grade was fair.  It seems that my friend expected her to apply the principles of what she had learned and she couldn’t do that; she could only memorize the information but didn’t know how to apply it.

There seems to be a major disconnect between theory and application that so many students are experiencing.  Education no longer seems to be about challenging minds to learn something new just for the joy of learning it.  Too many students today are missing the satisfaction one gets from those Aha! moments.

One of the mainstays of education has always been math; it is definitely a matter of theory and application and used to be a necessity of life.  Students knew how to add and subtract; they even knew how to multiply and divide.  I don’t see too much evidence that these skills are still being taught.  What I see today is that people of all ages, particularly the young, may know how to operate a cash register but they rely on the printed receipt to show how much change to give the customer.

At the checkout counter, when the receipt was being printed for my purchase of $4.90, I asked the cashier to let me give her ten cents so she could give me a five-dollar bill.  The expression on her face was priceless.  She said she couldn’t do that; she had to give me $4.90.  No amount of explanations made her see that ten cents plus $4.90 equals $5.00.  She counted out the $4.90 and then I gave her the dime and asked for a five-dollar bill.  She couldn’t do that either.  After I gave her the dime, she gave me a dollar bill.  Then I had to give her five one-dollar bills for her to give me the five-dollar bill.  She never made the connection.

I wish I could say that this experience is a rarity, but it isn’t.  Most people, at some point in their lives, are asked to pick up an item at the store for someone else.  This involves handling money and having to make change without a cash register doing the calculations electronically.  If they can’t perform this simple task, how do they manage it?  I’m not talking about people who have legitimate learning disabilities and have difficulty understanding the concept of numbers; I’m talking about people who haven’t been properly trained.

In the old days, before calculators, if you understood the concept of addition and subtraction and you didn’t have paper and pencil, you could do the counting on your fingers and toes.  As primitive as that may seem, it was a skill that had practical application.  

I wonder what people would do today if all their electronic equipment malfunctioned and no one could fix them.  I wonder if they could even figure out how much money someone owed them.  In my mind, I can just hear someone asking, “Where, oh, where, is a good abacus when you need one?”

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