Reading, writing, arithmetic – a lost art?

Lynn Moncus

Each year as school begins, this retired professor has a few bad moments because I still miss the classroom and the excitement of being around young people, but those moments pass when I listen to some young people and realize I would be most out of place as either a student or a teacher.

As a student, I was most fortunate to attend school when the “Three R’s” were still being taught. Before I retired, I discovered that two of those “R’s” were being neglected because all too many college students had much trouble with reading and writing and needed the presence of some of those strong elementary school teachers we were privileged to have. I gathered they were also a bit limited in their understanding of arithmetic. but only recently did I learn that some young students don’t even know the word arithmetic. That really caused me to pause since I knew those two children were bright and perky.

Fortunately, a slightly older teenager explained that the word isn’t used much any more as all studies tend to come under the heading of math — not mathematics. Although still dazed, I asked the children to do some simple subtraction and was slightly appalled when they asked if I had a calculator. We then spent some minutes doing the very simple problem without the benefit of calculator or pencil and paper. Feeling slightly older than dirt, I staggered home to contemplate the wonders of the world.
Now, I’ve been told that expensive calculators are required for a person if he wants to take a course in chemistry. Obviously, I don’t belong in the classroom! Our chemistry professors would have frowned on the use of such a crutch because they were fairly sure we knew basic arithmetic and higher mathematics and could put pen to paper to balance those endless equations by applying our knowledge. We could and did and had great fun solving those problems, despite the number of sheets of paper we used just to solve one simple problem.

All of these crutches, such as computers and calculators, have gotten in the way of real learning and have limited the abilities of today’s youth to do independent thinking. By using various grammar checks and spell checks on the computer, the poor dears think they are really reading and writing. By using calculators, they also think they are learning higher mathematics. They tend to be completely lost when asked to do something on their own. Writing an essay by hand is a real trial and shows the many limitations in both grammar and spelling. Solving a simple mathematical problem without a calculator is downright impossible for all too many students.

Yes, we are aware that these inventions have opened many doors to mechanical achievements, but they have closed the doors to practical knowledge. They have also created almost total dependence. For instance, if a cash register breaks down, many young people don’t know how to count change and have to call on the old timers to step in until the machine is repaired. If those same young ones are writing an essay on a computer and decide to use a semi-decent vocabulary, they will find that the spell check doesn’t know the word and must then try to spell by ear to see if the gadget can find the correct spelling. If it can’t, they don’t really know how to use a dictionary and must then revert to their usual monosyllabic vocabulary.

Obviously, my few bad moments have passed, and I’m ready to admit that I don’t miss the classroom enough to withstand the shock of entering one again.