65. Anachronisms

I don’t have a CD player, and don’t want one. I’m irrationally angry at compact disks. They became instantly popular about a week after I released my first recording – an LP. The CD is probably an improvement, and the LP, an anachronism. (Actually, at this point I don’t have a record player either, and don’t want one. I listen to tapes, and to the radio.) I’m not doing anyone any harm by sticking to my old ways.
In education, there is a strong tendency to stick with anachronisms. At the end of sixth grade, my teacher advised me to take Latin. He knew I wanted to be a doctor, and he knew I liked learning foreign languages. He said Latin would provide a good basis for learning foreign languages, and would be very important for a doctor. I now know Latin better than most doctors do, I think, but I wish I had taken Spanish, or some other language spoken by people born after the fall of the Roman Empire. Later, I took Russian, and I occasionally get a chance to speak with Russian people.
There is a debate going on over the Internet: Is Long Division a Useless Skill? While I don’t think it’s useless, I do think it’s often taught at the wrong time and for the wrong reason. It’s taught to children who have no idea why it works; they struggle to learn the algorithm, and many learn how to get the right answer. I think the reason they learn it is that their parents had to, and their teachers had to. Very few adults ever use long division.
Anachronisms abound in school curriculum. Not as much in Wellesley, but even Wellesley has some, or did back when I taught there. Children spend an inordinate amount of time learning how to tell time by looking at a circle with numbers and hands on it. They also spend lots of time learning how to form letters. I don’t think that’s an anachronism quite yet, but let’s keep an eye on it. If something takes a lot of time and energy to learn, it ought to prove useful later.
There are things we learned in school that children should learn. There are things we didn’t learn that they probably should. And it will be easier for them to learn those things if we provide extra time by weeding out the anachronisms, or at least making them optional. As we prepare children for the twenty-first century, it’s good to stop once in a while and make sure we’re not wasting time preparing them for the twentieth century.

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