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Sunday, June 20, 2010

Some skills no longer essential

By Dick Hirsch

I was astonished when I recently discovered that some school programs no longer provide for the teaching of long division. The news upset me for several unrelated but noteworthy reasons.

Perhaps most importantly, it created feelings of both dismay and jealousy. I had a difficult time with long division and I always assumed some members of future generations would struggle as I had struggled. But no; the specialty that frustrated me for so long has become obsolete.

By the time I finally became somewhat proficient, some nerds came along and invented the handheld calculator that could be obtained for an investment of a dollar ninety eight or so, thus making the solving of complicated division problems instantaneous and the need for a thorough understanding of the intricacies of long division superfluous.

It upset me to think that some students of today won’t ever comprehend the process that some of us strove so diligently to learn. They can merely get an immediate answer, carried out to the fifth decimal point, by using their calculator.

Long division, you’ll recall, was the last of the four arithmetical skills to be taught. Addition was basic and once the students had mastered it, they moved swiftly along to subtraction. I was always OK with subtraction, but around fourth grade they introduced an exciting new concept: multiplication. I managed that, too, and I thought of myself as a person with a vast store of knowledge that could be applied in many different pursuits.

Then came long division. I think short division must have preceded it, but I must have been sick that day because I have absolutely no recollection of it. The approach of long division initially required mastery of the semantics of the field of long division.

First you had to learn to draw a half a rectangle. Inside that space you placed the number to be divided. It is still known as the dividend, which can be somewhat confusing to those with investments. Outside the box went the smaller number, which is known as the divisor. By what seemed at the time to be a baffling process, the divisor was applied to the dividend, yielding a result called the quotient. I can still remember Miss Lee, the fifth grade teacher, pointing to the problem written on the chalkboard, turning to the class, and asking for the all-important quotient. Most of the time I had no idea. When the answer finally became apparent, it was often uneven, which I interpreted as a tactic employed by the teachers primarily to confuse and frustrate the students. Whatever was left over was known as the remainder.

For me, long division has become symbolic of all the skills that are no longer essential because technology has made it unnecessary to be proficient in certain specialties. Math is a good example because the tedious work involved with making basic calculations has been totally eliminated.

Spelling is another. I was always a good speller, but today many people say practicing spelling is foolish because the computer will highlight and correct any errors.

One skill that I developed years ago and still use is parking. Don’t laugh. There are people you know who never actually park a car. They pull into a space in a lot or at the curb. Pulling is not parking.

Like long division, parallel parking has become a capability that is declining through disuse. That type of assignment involves finding a convenient location, a space between two previously parked cars, assessing its size, and then maneuvering into that space with a minimum of psychological concern and physical effort.

There was one memorable parking experience years ago that established my reputation and buffed my image in the family. I was driving one of those bulky stationwagons, looking for a space on a narrow street in a tourist area. I spotted a car exiting a spot. I waited, evaluating the space. It would a very snug fit. I checked the rear view mirror and signaled another waiting driver to move on. He didn’t; he was like a jackal, driving a small car and he was waiting, certain I would fail. I pulled into position, turned the wheel, and BINGO! In one mind-altering move I swooped into that space. The family applauded. The vanquished driver drove away.

I have somehow passed on that technique to my children and am pleased to report that I also have a grandson who apparently came equipped with the parallel parking gene. We believe that is an important talent worth perpetuating.



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