The Demise of Slide Rules, Abaci, & the Appropriation of the Googolplex

When I was in my early teens, I recall my father, a teacher (of English Literature incidentally), lamenting the loss of geometry from the standard school curriculum. While I could not understand his frustration completely at the time, I did infer this: we appeared to be losing the ability to learn something that held secrets that would forever forward be lost. Even at that young age, I remember feeling something very unfair was happening. I believe that more than ever today. Indeed, a good grasp of geometrical theorems might help me during those occasions in the mountains when I would dearly like to understand how far I am from a mountain peak. A little prowess at astronomical concepts would allow me to find direction without the use of google. How my father learned to use the slide rule with such fluency, and others the abacus, I have no idea. To me they were, and as a result likely always will be, as unintelligible as, well, a slide rule.

In my father’s mind, our learning was being whitewashed. Perhaps to stem that tide, within the same timeframe he set out to teach me Latin. I think he did so driven by a compulsion to sustain, in the education of at least his own child, the power inherent in the kinds of knowledge being lost and the advantages he perceived they would provide in life. I think he was onto something, and I am grateful for the effort he made. I have often found those few things I was able to retain to be useful ever since. In his mind, the institutional expectations of our learning were being whitewashed. In my mind, here, today, I believe, for most, the power provided by many tools of understanding, along with the skills to use them, have been and are continuing to be, well, googled (to the detriment of the googolplex itself).

I’m not sure of the nature and trend of education discourse 50 years ago. I am certainly not aware of the perceptions held by education academes a century ago. That deserves to be googled! However, I am well aware of the trends and mantras amongst education scholars and fashionistas of the preceding 30 years: student-centeredness, 20th (now 21st) Century approaches to learning, the provision and application of information and communication technologies (ICT, for those in the know), inquiry-based approaches, teacher-as-mentor, learners (as opposed to students), flipped classrooms, flexible learning spaces, among many others. All of these are reactive to a dark age of “traditional” education in a murky yet not so distant past: oversized populations of students sitting row by row silently, watching, listening, and note-taking in front of all knowing teachers filling their minds with knowledge and facts, assessing them on their ability to retain what they are told against impersonal and detached metrics, and applying techniques devoid of anything that would engender critical thinking or the ability to inquire, discover, learn, evaluate, and understand. The thing is, I cannot pinpoint where, at least in my own experience, this traditional approach to education has ever existed.

All of these are reactive to a dark age of “traditional” education in a murky yet not so distant past: oversized populations of students sitting row by row silently, watching, listening, and note-taking in front of all knowing teachers filling their minds with knowledge and facts, assessing them on their ability to retain what they are told against impersonal and detached metrics, and applying techniques devoid of anything that would engender critical thinking or the ability to inquire, discover, learn, evaluate, and understand. The thing is, I cannot pinpoint where, at least in my own experience, this traditional approach to education has ever existed.

And why would that be? Stay tuned!