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If I can’t do basic arithmetic on weekends, I forget my own name

January 2, 2016

I was at a bus stop lately and a woman speaking to my mother made some passing comment about “back when people knew how to count”, the implication being that Young People don’t. Hmph! The snide arrogance of it. I thought we youths were supposed to be the arrogant ones. Honestly, if we said about them half the things they say about us, people would call us ageist. By the time you get to the age where you’re in a position of power and the opinion of your elders doesn’t matter, you’re not a Youth any more and you don’t get brazenly insulted in the street.

Then the other day, I was in a restaurant with another of the oldies, who was working out her section of a joint bill on pen and paper. She’s done this before. It takes her ages, and we usually have a big cloud of confusion over the result anyway. I can’t say for sure, but I suggest that this might be something to do with calculating it manually. When I suggested she use a calculator instead, I was treated to the comment that since we have brains, we should use them.

Indeed, I do have a brain. A brain with common sense that tells me that, when you have a tool that does the job with perfect accuracy in a tenth of the time, you should use it. In your free time, do as you will, but when performing a necessary task, you should get a grip and use the damn tool. I can’t remember the last time I tried to break a watermelon apart with my bare hands, because we have knives that do it more effectively.

Turns out people 50+ or so define the concept of using one’s brain differently. There seems to be some perception amongst even the constantly internet-dwelling oldies that technology makes us stupid, as opposed to more efficient. I want to remind them that a calculator doesn’t run off lies and dark magic. It’s basically a very, very fast abacus that moves its own beads so you don’t get cramp.

“Calculator” is almost an inaccurate term for it – it doesn’t do the calculation all by itself, it simply does the grunt work of adding-up. Calculation is a logical process, the breaking down of a problem into its component pats. It’s knowing what to put into the calculator, knowing that 1+1+1+1 is the same as 4×1 and that you can use that knowledge to your advantage.

There is a reason why GCSE mathematics has a “Calculator test” as well as a “Non-calculator text”; you can ask people more complex problems, because you are measuring their ability to figure out how to solve it, not the practical process of adding 1+1+1+1 very quickly, which is what a calculator does. The algorithm that makes the machine understand multiplication and division comes from a human brain – a human brain that understood these basic ma thematic principles in the same way that everyone does. These algorithms were devised by human logic, human principles.

Of course we use our brains when we use a calculator and other technologies. We simply use a different part. We’re still constantly making equations and estimations every second. I’ve never bought into the idea that the only way to keep your brain focussed is to laboriously write numbers in between two parallel lines. This is a contrived usage of it, which we don’t need; there are genuine reasons to use it every day – thinking about politics, the sciences, world issues, economics. When we have a limited amount of time in this world, I can’t see the value of spending too much time revising basic arithmetic when we could be using our brains to consider and tackle more important and more interesting problems.

It may be that some older people feel they may be exercising their brain and improving their memory by doing arithmetic That’s fair enough, but not when it’s expressed as though Young People are all lazy and stupid for not doing the same. Young people don’t tend to forget how to add 17 to 28, even if it takes a while to count it out. If fact, there is no reason to write it. Using this starved young brain of mine, I figured out in two seconds that 17 + 28 is the same as (3×10) + (2×8) – 1.

I was never that good at maths, but I still instantly came up with an efficient way of solving a randomly generated problem. It’s like riding a bike in that way; it’s not a skill that you’ll lose if you don’t practise it. In the unlikely event you will have to do it with your head and perhaps a writing aid, anyone who ever knew how to do it will be able to do it.

Meanwhile, there’s not a single aerospace engineer who doesn’t use a calculator Turns out, they don’t need excuses to use their noggins. They’ve got so much calculation to do, without a computer it would be impossible to deal with it all. And herein lies the important point; basic skills aren’t something which we can afford to focus on too much, any more There’s too much to know, and each successive generation is expected to know more than the last.

It’s downright cheeky for older people, whose information has been falsified or made irrelevant by time, to suggest that younger people are daft for not knowing what they know. I don’t know, off the top of my head, how to use a manual typewriter. I thought about getting one from a charity shop once and was treated to a stony look by a 50+ woman when I asked how it worked. She mimed typing. Despite my youthful looks, I have in fact been typing for 17 years – since the age of eight. I’d be willing to bet money I am faster and better at it than she is. What I don’t know how to do is change the reel or the paper, because I’ve never had to before.

For jolly good reason. Having since tried a typewriter, under the romantic notion that it is a better typing implement because it doesn’t get slowed down by computer viruses and internet connection, I realised quickly that this notion is total bollocks. I’d forgotten that once upon a time there was no such thing as copy-paste; no inbuilt spellchecker; no delete button. Word processing software improved everything, and I know how to use it, but not a typewriter. I’m missing nothing.

Changing the reel on a typewriter is not rocket science, but having never seen it done, of course I didn’t know. The fact that it isn’t rocket science is kind of the reason why I don’t know; it isn’t worth wasting time learning. The skills I am picking up are foreign to a good proportion of my elders… and they will be irrelevant to my grandchildren. Such is the way of time, and long may it be so, because it means we are moving forwards.

I hope that I will accept this when I’m older too, as opposed to looking down on people who don’t know how to use a printer because we don’t use thin-sliced pieces of tree to relay information, any more I hope I don’t grow into the kind of old person who drifts away from complex thinking, technological interest and basic reason, in favour of practising year-one maths on a piece of scrap paper. “Nine… plus … three … I did it, Geoffrey!”

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