As background noise this morning, as on most Sunday mornings, I had Fareed Zakaria’s show on. He was interviewing Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman and CEO, and posed an interesting question. Paraphrasing what I only halfway heard: “With all the spell checkers on all the devices we use today, will our children still learn to spell?”
Interesting question. Not a great answer. Schmidt ignored the crux of the question and spouted the company line by saying when he was in school, he had to memorize everything. Now he just looks it up.
Well, that’s all peachy keen, assuming a student has the access, means, and time to look up something. And even then, he can’t look things up if he can’t read and spell.
Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still the basics and these skills need to be learned, memorized, absorbed, injected, inculcated, force-fed or devoured as early as possible for as long as possible. Whatever it takes. The basics must be in the child’s head — actually understood and learned — for those times when he or she has to think and reason without external tools, or power, or resources. Education does not truly belong to the individual until it has been internalized.
Calculators did not negate the need to learn basic math. Kids still need to be able to do mental arithmetic on the fly and to understand the process. Calculators are pretty useless if you don’t know which numbers to enter, in which order, and with which operators. (As one who always struggled with math, I know this firsthand.) Besides, there’s no guarantee there will always be a calculator at hand.
Getting back to Zakaria’s spell checker question — I groaned as soon as I heard it. Spell checkers can be helpful — if you’re at a keyboard and if you’re being checked by a spell checker (or remember to run one), but I’ve yet to see one that doesn’t make mistakes. Big, awful, egregious, horrifying, sometimes funny mistakes. They ignore context, they confuse words, they lack a lot of words, and they flag words that are absolutely correct. Like any other software, spell checkers are written by fallible human beings trying to codify an extremely complex language, and a frighteningly large percent of our population (including the developers) can’t spell their way out of a paper bag.
Of course kids will still learn to spell! They must learn. They won’t have learned their own language if they haven’t learned to spell it. They won’t be able to read and write if they haven’t learned to spell.
Of course kids must learn to spell! If only to know when the spell checkers are wrong.
Ode to the Spell Checker
Eye halve a spelling chequer
It came with my pea sea
It plainly marques four my revue
Miss steaks eye kin knot sea.
Eye strike a key and type a word
And weight four it two say
Weather eye am wrong oar write
It shows me strait a weigh
As soon as a mist ache is maid
It nose bee fore two long
And eye can put the error rite
Its rare le a ever wrong.
Eye have run this poem threw it
I am shore your pleased two no
Its letter perfect awl the weigh