5.16.2012

Five Things We're Forgetting

Technology has made our lives easier, but it's also made us dumber when it comes to certain basic skills. Not that I've ever been the most hardcore DIY survivor type, but I've even found myself slipping in certain key areas over the years as I've surrendered to all of the trappings of the digital and silicon age. However, there are kids growing up now who will never have these skills to begin with. I imagine it's the difference between being born on an island and finding your way off versus being born in open water with no concept at all of land.

I don't think I'm being curmudgeonly with my concern. Okay, I get that we've all gradually lost the skills of some of our forefathers over the generations. Most people today don't know how to hunt and dress their own wild game or grow their own vegetables or put horseshoes on a horse, because we've replaced horses with cars and the hunting and gathering rituals of old with trips to the grocery store. 

Of course, we might one day soon see a time when we're called upon to learn even those primitive skills again, whether we like it or not, so it's probably not a bad idea to have at least a working knowledge of such things. But the things I'm listing here are skills that are so very basic--like kindergarten basic in most cases--that the loss of them in future generations really does frighten me a little. And here they are: 

Anyone still have one of these?
1. Remembering Phone Numbers: If you are under the age of, say, 21 and have memorized the numbers of all the contacts in your phone (at least the important ones like your parents/kids/spouse/closest friends), then you're a very rare bird. Most of us who have had cell phones for at least five years are probably crippled beyond recognition in this department. I used to pride myself on being able to store phone numbers in my head like a savant. I knew the numbers of most of my relatives and friends and local businesses that I called most. And when I first got a cell phone, I swore up and down that I'd never become a slave to the speed dial, because I didn't want to forget people's phone numbers. And the earlier cell phones made it easier to do that, because programming the speed dial in them was a pain in the ass. But the more advanced phones became, the easier that got. And the easier that got, the less I was dialing actual number keys. 

And what's the first thing you remember happening when we lose our phones and the contacts aren't backed up? We kind of freak out, don't we? That little pocket computer is basically an externalized part of the brain that used to hold all that information pretty much intact. Or, at the very least, we'd sometimes have paper address books. I can't remember the last time I saw someone other than my grandmother use one of those bad boys. 

Can you imagine these shoes with velcro?
2. Tying Shoelaces: It was always a rite of passage for any kid over the age of five or so. Learning to tie that special knot meant you were one step closer to being an adult. I can tell you now that my daughter does know how to tie her laces while my son never perfected it. Not for lack of trying, mind you. He's had a few pairs of lace-ups, and he CAN get them tied eventually, but it's not just a quick job for him like it was for most kids his age back in the day. Something happened that in the short span of years between when it was time for Natalie to learn and when it was time for Elias to learn. Nearly every boy's shoe we could find in the stores was fastened with velcro. 

It isn't like velcro is a new thing. It was all space age and awesome when I was a kid. But at some point, it became a monopoly. It was only when the kids started school that I realized how widespread this phenomenon was. MOST kids didn't know how to tie shoes because they'd never learned, because their shoes were all  fastened with velcro. How many kids approaching their preteen years don't know how to tie a pair of shoelaces? How about the ones who are coming up through preschool now? I shudder to think.

The dreaded cursive Z. Oh how I hated you.
3. Writing in Cursive: I'll just make this clear. I hate writing in cursive, so I don't. But at least I know how. The main reason I don't like doing it is because I write left-handed, and the art of teaching cursive has always been geared toward the right-handed sect. Nowadays, a lot of schools aren't even teaching it. We're doing most of our writing on keyboards now. Some say it's obsolete. Does it bother me? Yeah, actually. Even if you grow up to never use it in your daily life, you should still know cursive for the simple act of being able to read and understand it. Historical documents are in cursive (i.e. the  Constitution and Declaration of Independence). People who have no concept of it will think they're reading a foreign language. Most people's signatures are created based on a use of cursive, because cursive signatures are harder to forge. Learning to write in script develops fine motor skills, the same ones they use for things like buttoning buttons and (see above) tying their shoes. Loss of fine motor skills over time could be detrimental to industries that count on it. Would you really want a surgeon whose hands operate like they're made out of LEGOs? But let's forego the practical issues at hand here. Forgetting to teach cursive rips out the opportunity for a kid to learn a skill that they might find to be fun, challenging, interesting or even beautiful. It may not be a tool they continue to use, but they should at least be given that opportunity. 

4. Reading Maps and/or Giving Directions: Why break out the Rand McNally when most modern cell phones have GPS apps, or you can pick up a TomTom for less than a hundred bucks these days? Plug in your address and listen to the talking robot tell you which way to go. Even when Mapquest was all the rage with getting from Point A to Point B, it still forced people to actually read each step of a route, and sometimes consult a map in conjunction with it when things went wrong. And honestly, I've been steered in the wrong direction by Google Maps (via the GPS app on my phone) so many times, that I've come to hate using it. However, when we drove across the country on our move from Washington state to Ohio, we didn't have the use of our phones or any data service for about 3/4 of the trip (states like Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota don't roll that way). And the GPS unit we had at the time didn't have the best maps pre-installed. However, we had a Trip Tick from AAA as well as a trusty road atlas, and I'm proud to say that we never once got lost. Teaching kids how to read maps is as important as ever, because you should always have a back-up plan, especially for longer trips. 

Why isn't the popcorn bucket over her head yet?
5. Social Skills and Manners: Let's face it. The internet and texting are ruining these skills for our kids. They're also ruining them for most adults. It's easy for those of us who grew up without the internet to think it won't be that bad. But I have trouble not imagining a future when today's kids grow up without the ability to  to express themselves based on thoughtful and meaningful interactions they've had in their lives, through in-person or even long phone conversations. And what about empathy? The internet has a way of erecting an empathy barrier between people. Look at how people talk to one another on forums or comment threads on news articles, etc. It isn't only kids doing that, sure, but I think the problem will only become worse as those who come of age in today's world have less and less context with how to interact with people.

Even now, I struggle with talking on the phone. I used to do it all the time, but now I avoid it if I can. I don't know if this is because my introverted brain has been waiting for technology to catch up with my preferences, or if the technology itself has changed them. 

And then there's the whole cellphone etiquette issue. Do I find it a sad commentary that the admonitions before the start of any movie are namely about people putting their damn phones away for two hours? Or how a group of people can rarely sit in the same room together without pulling out their phones and goofing off with them? 

Of course this entire topic could take up a thesis or a book. I'm not here to be some kind of doomsday prophet. But I think it's important to at least speculate on where things are headed as things continue to change and evolve (or devolve) for humanity.