Friday, September 7, 2012

It all adds up to what?

Back when I was in school we spent quite a bit of time drilling our multiplication tables. We learned long division. There were no calculators allowed in the classroom. You didn't come across any touchy-feely word problems. The teachers' goals weren't to massage our egos and pump up our self-esteem and feelings of self-worth. The name of the game was mathematics.

Today, of course, we couldn't possibly allow our children to have to figure out how to multiply or divide on paper. None of that moving the decimal point to the left. Forget about carrying over. Today's generation was raised on computers and that's what they'll be using the rest of their lives. Pencils and paper - that's so yesterday.


The other day I was in a rush when I went to Staples to pick up some file boxes. I thought I was grabbing what I needed - until I got back to the office and realized I got the wrong size. So, the next day I headed back with my boxes and my receipt so I could exchange them for the right sized boxes.

I headed back to the corner of the store and found what I needed. Then it was back to the register.

The boxes I bought the day before were $18.99. I had my Staples' reward coupon and I ended up paying about $10. The boxes I meant to buy cost $19.99. I would owe a shade over a dollar (with tax).

Imagine my surprise when the cashier (or whatever they call them over there) told me I owed almost $10. I told him the boxes I was bringing back only cost a dollar less than what I had in hand. I told him to look at my receipt. I told him I shouldn't owe but a little more than a dollar.

He tried to explain how I owed $10. So I asked him about the coupon I used the day before. I asked him if it had just vanished into thin air. He kept trying to explain to me that I owed a lot more money for the boxes.

He had absolutely no clue as to what he was doing. He was so used to scanning items at the register that he had lost the ability to do the most rudimentary math. He had lost the ability to think logically. He looked at me like I didn't know what I was talking about.

Then it struck me how when we rely on an electronic device to do our math for us that we divorce ourselves from the numbers themselves. The numbers no longer represent sets of objects and relationships. They're just  blips on a screen. And when we become dependent on those blips we somehow lose the ability to know how to deal with a curveball when it's thrown our way.

Learning multiplication tables and long division can be awfully hard. It can be awfully boring. In our short attention span culture it's just not the way we do things. Kids sometimes have a hard time grasping the concepts. They might get red marks on their papers.

But they might just learn that math is more than numbers.

And these folks are going to be in your jury panel the next time you stand up to begin your voir dire. Scary, huh?

UPDATE: I went back to Staples today after leaving the courthouse and the cashier manning the booth today knew exactly what to do. I walked out with my new boxes after paying $1.08 extra.

1 comment:

Thomas Hobbes said...

I think the Staples policy is that once you redeem points you cannot get cash or credit back. If that's the case, perhaps the coupon did vanish into thin air and you did owe the larger amount.

Just sayin' . . .