By DIANE R. CHODAN
Nowadays, parents are urged to buy computers so their children can succeed in school. When I was young, marketers touted the value of a set of encyclopedias in every home to help children achieve.
My father, the original curmudgeon, took exception to that thought process. First of all, he pointed out that an encyclopedia would have to be read to provide any benefit. Was it really worth the expense to use the set the few times that papers were assigned?
Next he argued that the encyclopedias sold in the grocery stores (such as the Golden Encyclopedia) were not the same quality as the Americana, Britannica or World Book. The better sets were quite expensive, and because we weren't wealthy we had to consider our purchases carefully.
Finally, he said that there was value in looking up a topic using more than one source. There were several types of encyclopedias in the Dunkirk library, so rather than investing in one set, I could go there to do my research.
Dad was right. One of the best papers I ever wrote was inspired by the differences I found in the entries in the three encyclopedias in the Dunkirk Free Library. The paper I wrote about Hinduism was good enough to earn me an A in high school and by slightly rewriting it an A in my college class about religion.
I have been thinking about the parallels between the marketing of computers and encyclopedias. The thoughts have been simmering in my mind since a presentation about computers before a Board of Education by the fourth grade teachers and a conversation with that school's media person who wanted to upgrade the system using Excel funds quite some time ago.
I couldn't see anything obviously wrong with the computers so I asked the media person what it was that the present system couldn't do.
He said, "Well, they're old."
I followed up with, "Yes, but what is it they can't do?"
Instead of an explanation, the answer was a sarcastic "Well, do you want them to go back to writing on slates?"
With great difficulty, I held back the sarcastic reply, "Maybe, if we could go back to a time where basic knowledge, like spelling and grammar, was valued." (Besides kids do use white boards, which really are very much like the slates of the old days.)
I am so old that I lived B.C. (before computers and calculators in the classroom). I practiced something called long division in fifth grade. In high school, I learned to compute the square root of a number manually. I considered myself lucky to own a manual typewriter. I used it to type my term papers in high school and college. Often I had to retype an entire page when I didn't line up my footnotes correctly or left out a line.
Yes, this is all so much easier with calculators and word processing software. I love the capabilities of these modern tools, and don't want to go back. A push of a key and the calculator computes my square root for me. My word processing program goes to the next page automatically, and I can work with my document before printing it. If I make a mistake, I can go back and fix it without retyping the entire page.
Still my original curmudgeon idea that the computer is merely a tool that can be used well or poorly applies here. What exactly are your children doing with that computer you were urged to buy? Typing using incorrect finger placement? Playing violent games? Using Facebook to harass each other? Passing along jokes of questionable taste on email? Using Wikipedia as the ultimate authority? (I have a friend, a library media specialist in Saratoga Springs, who says Wikipedia is often in error.)
I was appalled when one of the fourth grade teachers said it was wonderful that the computer had the capability to act as electronic flash cards for children. When I looked at the software for my daughter's school in the 1980s, I specifically rejected those programs which were no better than electronic flashcards. Computers are expensive, and I reasoned that flashcards are so much more economical as flashcards, an aid easily constructed by a teacher or purchased for a minimal cost. The one thing I did concede in the 1980s was the novelty of the computer for these. Now I think that the old fashioned type might well be the novelty.
There was an acronym, gigo, (garbage in garbage out). One of the units on English that the teachers presented tried to teach about sentence fragments. One example of a fragment was "Soar above the clouds." This is not a sentence fragment. It is an imperative sentence. The subject of that sentence is you (understood). I immediately thought of writing a children's book in which a mother eagle challenges her eaglets "Soar above the clouds."
A social studies unit the teachers were using for history gave information about the Underground Railroad. However, it left out one of the best sources for our local history, "Sketches in the History of the Underground Railroad" by Eber Petit. Since fourth grade history deals with local history, this was a significant omission.
I think it is important to provide an outstanding education for our children. I do think that computers have a place in that education. I just want parents, teachers, and administrators to think about what is being provided. It is not enough that the schools provide computers. I would urge parents, teachers and administrators to look at what is actually being accomplished instead of being delighted that the school provides the most up-to-date computers or being upset that it doesn't.
Diane Chodan is an OBSERVER staff writer. Comments may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org