Load just about any game on an electronic tablet and hand it off to a three- or four-year-old. Chances are they will easily learn how to play the game. In fact, you will likely find that they play the game at least as well as you do, perhaps even better. What marvels our modern children must be! Far better than their slower, less advanced elders, right?
Take a look at typical teenagers. Most of them carry mobile ‘smartphones’ and just about all of them have access to the Internet. They are all adept at using devices to socialize online. But it’s not just social networking and gaming. Most of their reading and shopping is also done electronically as is their research, fact checking, and navigation. Many of their ‘get-togethers’ take place online, probably in immersive gaming environments. If not, chances are that some online tools were used to arrange for the face-to-face ones.
Not much like us older people, huh? Unlike our younger counterparts, for whom the online environment is an integral part of their daily lives, for so many of my (older) generation, it’s an add-on; a place we go to from time-to-time—maybe even frequently—to bring some added value to our lives.
Here it comes. You probably know this but let’s just state it anyway:
While the younger people love and respect, very much, us older people that intersect their lives, they are generally of the mind that we are not in touch with what they consider today’s world. They find our efforts at using technology to be crude and clumsy. Yes, they appreciate the fact that we do try and keep up with their world but they ‘know’ deep inside that us poor backward fuddy-duddies are far too stunned (colloquial—means somewhat stupid but in a lighthearted way) to really keep up. While in many respects we are to be taken seriously, it still remains that for most of the things that matter to them we’re really a part of the past, maybe the present, but not really the future.
There’s a companion to this. We, the older generation, are aware of this contention. Not only do we acknowledge that it’s at least partly true but we go so far as to try and adjust ourselves to this new world while trying to prepare them for a world we know will be much different. Well, at least some of us do. Yes, I know there are many who refuse to acknowledge that there may be change ahead, refuse to try and deal with it and yes, there are those who actively try to block it…for all sorts of reasons that may seem justified to them but which, to me, sound just plain nutty. Not that a sober sense of skepticism isn’t a good idea, mind you! But yes, most of us to try and adapt and accept that the next generation’s world will be a different one.
Through all of that, we are still at some level or other viewed as a bit out of touch, and will never be able to fully engage as they do.
Perhaps that deserves a closer look.
From time to time I find it useful to revisit my grade-school-aged self, after first encountering the tools and implements used by my grandparents and great-grandparents. For grandfather: hand tools for woodworking, sails and oars for fishing boats, hand-lines for catching cod. For grandmother: washboard and tub, gardening tools, a coal-fired stove for heating and cooking. The list is, of course longer, but those suffice. They seemed, at the time, so crude and those who used them, well, they had to be so deprived; so backward! How good it felt to be living in the modern age. How…superior! Poor things; they never got to be great and enlightened like those of my generation.
Time, has a way of changing your perspective. You gather more information, make comparisons, run “What if’s.” Time has done its work and it’s become increasingly evident just how much skill want into making those tools that seemed so crude. More importantly, it’s now so clear how much skill went into using those tools well. Today, wooden planks are made in sawmills designed for just that purpose. Because the tools do that one job, you don’t need to be that skilled to make a long straight plank; not today.
The planks that were used to make “The Mystical Rose,” my great-grandfather’s Western Boat (colloquial, two-masted fishing schooner, around 30 tonnes 10-15 m in length and 4-5 m width), though, were made by hand using a pit saw. You try it! Not only is it hard work, requiring considerable strength and endurance, but it takes enormous skill just keeping that beast of a tool running straight so the planks come out even.
And that only gives you the planks for your boat.
You also have to: cut the timbers for the keel then the ribs and then shape them, attach the planks, caulk the hull with oakum and pitch to keep the water out. And, after all, it’s a working boat, used in the cold, windy northwest Atlantic so it had better be made well because it will take a beating. Fine; that gives you the boat. Now you have to sail it out and back. To say the least, sailing is a highly skilled activity.
You also have to know how to fish. That involves launching a small rowboat out there on the open ocean where the swells are generally much higher than you are. Oh, and you are using a hand line—something that’s not easy to do under those conditions. The fish you catch have to be cleaned, salted, cured in the sun and then packed away.
You’re also a businessperson. The boat has to be built and managed. You have to maintain a crew and, of course you have to buy bait and supplies and sell your product.
Years ago visitors to my home province used to love laughing at the ‘dumb fishermen.’ It stung, but, to be honest, perhaps, deep inside, my teenaged self also assumed there was truth in that story. After all, many of them could not read and they certainly could not do the kind of math I’d been taught. That was then. In time I came to see and appreciate all the skills and abilities they had and so, came to appreciate the differences that existed in our needs and approaches. There’s no way I could ever do the things my grandfather did. That is, not unless I’d had the benefit of the particular form of intensive education he had experienced. His education did not take place in a typical school. It was more of an apprenticeship; he worked under the care and guidance of his father and fellow crewmates and, in time, became a highly skilled master at many crafts.
The thing to note in all of this is that his skills were for his particular time, his particular situation.
Likewise, my grandmother, using only hand tools that seem so crude by today’s standards, she was able to make clothing from…sheep (mostly—come on, they did have access to cotton and linen), wash it by hand and prepare food using materials obtained almost exclusively from the local area, the only exceptions being flour and molasses. Molasses has a particularly interesting back-story but that’s for another time.
Now, of course, their time and their situation have passed and while we may mourn the loss of the widespread knowledge of woodworking, of sailing, of fishing and of managing the business we all have lives to live in our own time. We can’t dwell on the past too much. Yes, it’s worth preserving if, for nothing else, to serve as a reminder to all of us down the road that it has, indeed been a long journey and those who came before us deserve respect and gratitude.
But there’s more; far more.
This post is not about fishing or making your own food and clothes.
Granted it’s unlikely that our own children will need to build boats by hand any time in the foreseeable future so let’s not talk about that or, in fact any of the ancient skills now doomed to eternal obsolescence. Let’s think, instead of one part of the back story behind those skills.
What do all the ones mentioned have in common?
Let’s go back to the tablet-based game mentioned at the top of this piece, the one that the three-year-old could master so easily. Do you think it would be possible to build an autonomous device that could play that game? Well of course! The game has some rules that are easily understood, especially by any computer.
How about the act of starting with some hand tools and some trees and ending up with a two-masted western boat? How about the automaton that does that?
Not a chance, because it’s far too complicated to be carried out by a single machine.
Let’s back it off a bit, then. How about just catching a softball batted out from a toss-up pitch from home plate? Most kids in my day could do that reasonably well. How about the automaton? Not so well.
Same reason each time. The act of sensing and selecting sensing the raw objects (trees) and eventually crafting them into a workable sailing vessel, while doable for a highly-skilled person is, for now, an impossible thing for us to do artificially. Even the act of catching a somewhat unpredictable toss is similarly unachievable—although, in fairness, the latter task is getting considerable attention from those who wish to make autonomous cars and killing machines.
Playing the computer game and reading text are, by comparison, rather straightforward things. They are ‘bounded’ in that there’s not a whole lot of uncertainty, and, as such, can be reduced to a set of procedures that a cheap machine can be made to do.
So why are the latter tasks the ones that we make all the fuss about? Perhaps it’s because those are the ones that ‘everyone’ is talking about. You know how it is, when a large group of people start talking about the same thing then that thing, whatever it is, takes on a life of its own. After a while that thing becomes the most important thing. Sometimes the attention is warranted. Sometimes, though, it’s not; it’s just a case of everyone going along with the herd thinking that the collective must be right.
Sometimes the collective is not right. This is one of those times.
Don’t misunderstand the message. This is not to suggest that reading and writing are unimportant and simple. Furthermore, this is not to insist that the skills associated with modern communications technology are unimportant. Reading, writing and, in fact, all forms of receiving, processing and representing information are vital in our time. What’s more, the evidence shows, without any room for doubt, that if we want brains to develop in such a way that these ‘higher level’ processes are done well then we need to start early when those same brains are still at maximum plasticity.
This is not saying at all that we should not work on those skills. Got it?
But that’s not the point here. What is the point? In a word: balance.
The skills that young people are developing when they are running around grabbing and manipulating objects are much more important than we think. We’re busy adults who seek some degree of order and familiarity in our lives. We therefore see the activities as random, wanton acts of physical destruction so we interpret them to be things to be curbed entirely. “Those kids need to learn discipline!” we exclaim as we do whatever it takes to make them stop, whether that is glaring at the parents, passing laws that says they must be on a leash (figuratively speaking of course) or…handing them a shiny tablet to make them stop.
And the last one is easy to justify because we figure we’re giving them something ‘educational.’
Well, in my opinion we are and we aren’t.
How about this as a different way to frame it all up? Yes, young people can’t be permitted to ‘run wild.’ While they do need quite a long time and quite a lot of experience to develop those exceedingly complex physical sensing and manipulative skills there’s no doubt that they also need to learn the social mores that keep us all in a more-or-less functional society. This means that we should expect them to spend considerable time interacting with the physical world but in a social environment that also stresses the adoption of reasonable limits. While it’s always okay to question authority, they also need to know where the limits are—that there are things they simply should and should not do ‘just because.’ Yes, feel free to run around and explore in your backyard, at home at friends’ houses (subject to the owners’ rules) but not at the restaurant, museum or concert. At those places, different rules apply.
And the books, tablets, computers and such? They, too, have a valuable place; a place that is also visited frequently, not just when people need the kids to ‘be quiet.’
They should learn when those quiet times are too, and not have to ‘fake it’ by being distracted by shiny electronic toys instead of learning to become thoughtful and reflective.