Friday, September 11, 2009

Slide rules ok?

I suppose you have to be “of a certain age” to remember slide rules, though of course that would all depend how certain your age is. It would probably be more accurate to say that people of an uncertain age would definitely not have come across them.
What was a slide rule? God only knows. It was something that we wrestled with in Maths. And not only wrestled with – we fenced with it, rapped people over the knuckles with it and it was great for propelling an eraser through the air at great velocity.
Basically, it was like a normal plastic ruler, split lengthways in three. The middle length could be pulled out, though not all the way, as this would have left you with three separate bits of ruler in your hand. There were markings and notations on all three lengths of the rule and the theory was that you could do long and complicated sums by extending the middle piece outwards until two notations coincided.
Clear? No, it wasn’t particularly clear back then neither. I remember our Maths teacher going prematurely white-haired with the stress of trying to get thirty unimpressed teenagers to use the contraption with any degree of accuracy. A whole autumn term he spent on it and we were still none the wiser.
You could do weird and wonderful sums on a slide rule, in theory. It was supposed to be great at doing multiplication and division and I’m sure that whoever invented the damned thing could use it efficiently enough but whenever we got homework on working out multiplication on a slide rule, I simply worked out the answer on a piece of paper and wrote it down.
The slide rule obviously lent its name to the slide rule pass in football, evidently because it was very accurate but I always got more accurate answers from writing down the sum on a piece of paper. However, the piece of paper pass never found its way into footballing terminology, much to my disgust.
Of course, I tried to get my Dad to explain how it worked but he simply snatched it off me gleefully and used it to retrieve a 50p piece that had rolled under the fridge.
Aside from multiplication and division, slide rules were also great for working out logarithms. Apparently. Of course, if I had ever been able to grasp the concept of what exactly a logarithm was, I might have stood some chance. For years I thought it was a type of small mammal that lived in forests. Even when it was semi-explained, trying to work out a mysterious and incomprehensible formula on a piece of equipment that was primarily used for flicking squares of jelly onto the classroom ceiling was something of a bridge too far.
As it transpired, although we spent weeks trying to get our heads around this bockety ruler and even more weeks using the slidey part as a guillotine on unsuspecting insects, we never had to use the damned thing in the exam. We had to choose five questions out of eight and so everybody plumped for probabilities and sub-sets and avoided the slide rule question like a dose of ricketts. I am sure the teachers employed by the examination board to mark the slide rule question never had such an easy summer.
Remarkably, and I use the word with the utmost sarcasm, I have never had recourse to use a slide rule since slouching out of the school gates for the last time thirty years ago. More than that, I have never set eyes on one and never actually heard of anybody using one. Do they still exist? Has their usefulness been superceded by the pocket calculator? Does anyone in the world still use a slide rule, except to make passes?
All of this brings me around in my usual long-winded way to the point I am trying to make – what is the point of education in an increasingly technological world? Just as we wasted weeks of our lives messing about with slide rules, what is the use of learning Hamlet’s Act III soliloquy off by heart, when we can Google it just as easily? Have I ever quoted it for anything other than comic purposes in the past thirty years?
Where does potassium live in the periodic table? I’m not sure. I believe he had a row with sulphur and moved around the corner but if I really wanted to find out, I could look it up on the computer.
My Dad always maintained that it wasn’t what you learned that was important; it was the fact that you could show future prospective employers that you had the ability to absorb a lot of information on a particular subject and then were able to regurgitate it in a pressure situation.
In that case, why not introduce school subjects that are interesting and relevant? How much more enthusiasm would a boy show for a homework question on the Charlton / Dunphy antagonism in Italia 90 than for the importance of the anchovy to the people of Peru? How much more creative would an essay on Eminem be than on Milton?
Aside from that, I’d say in this day and age, prospective employers would be far more interested in your time-keeping, absenteeism and reliability than in your ability to reel off the notable dates in Charles Stewart Parnell’s life when called upon to do so. In most jobs, you are simply shown what to do and you do it. In this respect, the school roll call would be a much more useful evaluation tool than a grade in a biology exam.
Basically, education has not kept pace with information technology. Children in Greece are being taught on e-books whereas our children still hump three tons of expensive books in and out of school every day. Our curriculum does not reflect the technological advances of recent years. The information is at our fingertips and unless we are training people to survive in a post-apocalyptic world, what is the point in trying to stuff it into children’s brains?
And it doesn’t take a genius with a slide rule to work out that without the need to spend years learning useless information by rote, the available brain space could be turned over to more artistic and creative endeavours, which in turn would produce the individual thinkers that we badly need at the moment.

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