26 July 2011

Encounters with Functional Illiteracy – The Butcher’s Counter

This morning, I stopped by a local grocery store in order to pick up the basics for dinner for the next two nights.  That amounts to meat to put on the grill and frozen vegetables.  I was greeted by a young man working the butcher’s counter; he was perhaps 18 years old, maybe a bit younger.  In any case, he was certainly young enough that his high school level mathematics should have been still tucked somewhere near his recent experience at the grocery store and his common sense.

I chose two steaks.  The young man put them on a standard foam tray, the kind ubiquitously found in meat and poultry departments everywhere, and placed them on the electronic scale.  The steaks weighed in at a pound and a half.  I glanced down and noticed the price: $11.99 a pound.  So, $18 in rough numbers.

When the electronic scale spit out $3.25 at the young man, he simply hit a button, wrapped the steaks in clear wrapping, carefully set the printed price tag on the wrapping and handed me the steaks while kindly asking if I would like anything else.  I said no, took the steaks, and walked away.  I made it three feet before my conscious and curiosity (thankfully) got the better of me.

I returned to the counter – I was the only one there – informed the young man that I thought he had made a mistake and asked him if he was sure he put the correct price on the steaks.  He looked confused; he asked how much I wanted to pay.  I informed him that the steaks were supposed to be $11.99 per pound.  He took the steaks, put them back on the scale, punched in some numbers, and magically came up with another amount, which was again far less than the $18 I expected.  I verbally prodded him to do a little “math in public.”  $11.99 per pound, 1.5 pounds.  He looked at me confusedly and asked again how much I would like to pay.  I informed him that $18 was close to the correct price.  Somehow, he managed to punch the correct numbers into the scale to produce a total close to that.  I thanked him and walked away.

What I find sad is that this young man appeared to be functionally illiterate when it comes to numbers and simultaneously unable to detect errors that, due to their magnitude, should immediately make one question things.  Yet he plodded along, punching numbers into a computer, accepting whatever numbers the all-knowing computer returned to him, and pleasantly going along with his job – oblivious to what the numbers mean and unable to reach a correct answer without the “expert” knowledge of an electronic aid.

Sadly, this young man’s situation is not isolated.  I wonder how he was taught math in grade school; I wonder if he was required to memorize multiplication tables, write simple arithmetic equations in endless repetition.  Probably not.  Doing so would be to use outdated methods in a modern time, or so some would have us believe.  Yet “repetition is the mother of pedagogy;” those foundational elements learned by heart are not easily forgotten.  The young man in this case, and many others besides, would have greatly benefitted from such outdated methods, methods which allow for greater, deeper, more reliable building of knowledge as one grows older.


Anonymous said...

You are very fortunate to have survived your close encounter with a "Basement Dweller"!!


Bob M. said...

And the steaks were pretty tasty. Good hearing from you, Jack. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

"Good on you" for being truthful. Honest steaks taste much better:) How sad to hear of the man's knowledge deficit. Unforunately, the ease of technology can be at the expense of losing basic skills (e.g., counting change back, person-to-person conversation, good penmanship, etc.). As with almost everything, I guess there are pros and cons. Colleen