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Jack Zaleski, Published September 07 2013

Zaleski: Spinning myths of the good ol’ days

I am of the generation that, like every generation before mine, pines for the good ol’ days – or, to put it more honestly, the myths of the good ol’ days.

The myths came into focus recently when schools were closed because of unusual August heat and humidity. The holier-than-thou crowd pontificated that “they never missed school because it was hot.” And “these kids are so pampered.” And “the great writers and scientists of the past certainly went to school in buildings that weren’t air conditioned.” And, gosh darn it, “we didn’t have air conditioning.”

True enough. But so what? Comparisons of then and now collapse under the weight of change. It’s no longer simply about readin’, writin’ and ’rithmetic. The complexity and pressures of a 21st-century education make the school curriculum I negotiated look like a happy splash through a shallow academic pond.

A few months ago at a family gathering in New England, I examined a math book that belonged to the seventh-grade child of a second cousin. It was a bit of a shocker.

The calculations, problems and theorems – illustrated with detailed color diagrams – were stuff I did not see until high school. I was a fair math student, but the seventh-grade book challenged me. The young student pulled out her magical

iPad (or whatever it was) and calculated solutions to a couple of problems, while I tried them with pencil and paper. I was impressed with her skill, and humbled by my incompetence.

“You know,” I said to her, “if I had my slide rule, I’d have done better.”

“Your what?” she said.

“Never mind,” I said.

The book I used in 12th-grade advanced biology was a college-level text. It gave me an edge in freshman zoology class in college. Nevertheless, compared to today’s genetics-based life sciences books, it was primitive – a Model T, while today’s text is a Prius.

It’s the same with the entire body of knowledge schoolkids are expected to learn. Whether it’s history, chemistry, language or math, there’s just more to learn; and it’s more complicated and comprehensive than it was a generation or two ago. Technology and a communications revolution have changed learning, teaching and the applications of knowledge. Think of that well-worn slide rule gathering dust on the bookshelf. It’s an artifact.

So, give the kids a break when school buildings heat up like ovens. They’ll do just fine, thank you. They’ll make up the time on the school calendar. If history is any guide, they’ll do better and be smarter than their parents and grandparents. And when the time comes years from now, this new generation will happily spin the myths of their good ol’ days.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.