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Chris Belland's - "Hindsights & Insights"
Sunday, April 1, 2012
The 'old vay is best' -- or so said Willy Engel about the new best thing

I am starting to believe this is true of many things, like education. Of course it begs the question, who was Willy Engel?

Willy Engel has nothing to do with the subject of this column except for his prescient statement made to me many years ago. Mr. Engel was a first-generation German immigrant who worked for my uncle, an architect, and later for me as a just-out-of-school college kid fixing up buildings in Miami.

From him, I learned about one-third of what I know about construction; the other two-thirds I learned from my mother growing up and my brother, Fred, when we worked together here in Key West. But, not to digress, Willy Engel, as I said, was from Germany and had come here just before the war from Bremenhoffen, where he had become a master cabinetmaker fitting out luxury trains.

At first glance, you wouldn't think he brought much to this country but, in fact, he brought an Old World mentality that I will never forget. Except for the more common tools, for the most part Willy Engel made his own. Whenever we would do something and I would suggest a faster way to do it, such as using Sheetrock, he would look at me with a grizzled eye under his cap, squint, and tell me, "Old vay is best." What he meant was, the old way of doing things with a craftsman's care and attention to detail was best because, in the long run, it would last longer, look better and cost less.

What does this have to do with education? I am coming around to the opinion that, "old vay is, (indeed) best." When I grew up we first learned to write in block letters and to do mathematical manipulations by reciting times tables. All this, of course, was a prelude to literature and higher mathematics. It made us think and work for the results.

I heard recently that one of our local schools will be equipping all the students with iPads, which might be a wonderful thing but, at least to me, not if, at the same time, they are getting rid of their books.

I have discussed education on many occasions with my daughter-in-law, who is a teacher, and some other friends in the profession. I received an article from her about a system of learning called The Waldorf Schools that really made me think.

The schools' primary concentration is where you would never guess it to be, Silicon Valley, for these schools totally eschew using any kind of gadgets, meaning iPads, computers, or even calculators to teach the younger grades. Their philosophy is: "Teaching is a human experience. Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking." When they teach fractions, they cut a pie into enough pieces for all the class and, as the pie gets smaller, they begin to understand more and more what a fractional piece is.

More than that, the school has a philosophy that engagement is all about the human contact, not just with the teacher but also with their peers. A great percentage of higher up executives in the valley send their children to this school which, at first, I thought was either disingenuous or hypocritical. Then, what one of the teachers said made me really think.

It had to do with the fact that learning computers is being dumbed down to a point where it is "like learning to use toothpaste." The technology is being made to be "brain-dead easy" to use. Anyone picking up an iPad or computer for the first time, almost instantaneously can use it by intuition. So, what is the rush?

By using these traditional teaching methods at this quite "novel" school, they are using methods of learning from "the old vay" that forces students to think while they act, instead of having esoteric functions in writing and mathematics done automatically for them.

The serendipity of life always amazes me. Almost the day I received this article I was going by a school in Swampscott, Mass., and noticed on the sign it said, "Swampscott High School" and on the next line, "Senior Citizen Center." I came to find out that this was done with a purpose. The high school and the town's senior center are, indeed, on the same campus. The high school students and senior citizens even eat in the same lunchroom, and guess what? The senior men and women who have had careers in business and sports bond with and mentor the kids after school, coach them in sports and help with homework. According to a friend of mine who lives in Swampscott, everybody loves it.

Isn't this "the old vay" too? Hasn't most knowledge through the centuries and generations been passed from elders to the young of the community? Today, we warehouse our old folks like something that is irrelevant with nothing left to offer. Old people are supposed to go somewhere and just die, when, in fact, they have years of experience and knowledge they are eager to share, and who needs it more than young people who think they already know everything? What a glorious idea.

No, in the headlong rush to be a technical society, I fear we are losing much of what got us to the high state of our society and economy. As I watch groups of kids sit around and stare zombielike at small electronic devices in their hands rather than talking or interacting, it is clear to me that something important is being lost. When I see the societal separation of the old from the young, I fear the failure of the new generation's ability to cope with what for them will be new problems, for it is certainly true that if you don't learn from history, you are bound to repeat it.

Maybe we should listen to the long-ago statement from a German carpenter that perhaps some old ways are best, instead of listening to the siren song of someone we have never met trying to sell us the new best thing.

Chris Belland's Hindsights & Insights column appears here on Sundays. All of his previous columns are available on his blog: hindsightsandinsights.blogspot.com. Contact Chris at cbelland@keysnews.com.