Coffee with Mimi: Great ideas come from experiments, educated guesses

Published 6:58 am Saturday, June 9, 2018

In a very popular TV series, “Downton Abbey,” the interwoven story-line included several characters who came and went as the world changed around the aristocratic Crawley family. The story was set in the early years of the 20th Century. Imperial Russia was crumbling, Europe was in disarray and England was tied up in knots with the inevitable ripple effect of those events and the growth of a more educated and independent population in its own worldwide empire.

The Crawleys’ story was representative of many which changed the landscape of England in the last century. The chauffeur married the idealistic and determined young lady of the house who subsequently died in child birth, thus tying the commoner to the family for all eternity. The family adapted, coming to love him as a true son despite his infuriating tendency toward socialist political ideas.

Tom became the conscience of the family while struggling to maintain his own identity and independence. Enter the local school teacher with brash and vocal opinions. She determined to hold Tom to his philosophical base no matter who was within earshot. Tom attempted to smooth the waters between the family and the teacher. The young woman was outspoken, well educated, with a ranging and raging knowledge of current issues.

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Listening to her challenge the Lord of the Manor at a dinner party, one would think she must be a history teacher, well versed in literature with a thorough, modern education for a woman of the times.

She taught mathematics, spelling and handwriting. She must have been pretty good at it as she was offered an advanced teaching position somewhere else (therefore ending her run on the series).

It was the 20th Century. That was just yesterday. How could those three subjects, together, be the core of a teaching position? Was there real world value in those subjects?

Throughout history, education of our children has been a barometer of our lives, of what we consider important. In each place, time and condition we judge ourselves, for good or ill, by the subjects taught in educational settings. What is taught, how it is assessed and how much it costs are the subjects of newspaper reporting, political debates and dinner conversations. Of this I am well aware, having been in a school of one sort or another for 35 years of my professional life. If you consider that I went to school myself for another 20 years, I have been about education all but approximately nine years of my time in this world.

I’ve observed a lot of people in the process of learning and I am not entirely objective.

Thank goodness there were well educated teachers who taught spelling and handwriting and mathematics well into the 20th Century. Remember a world without spell check, keyboards and calculators? Do you honestly think we could have gone from a single prop plane flight of 120 feet in 1903 to landing a manned craft on the moon in 1969 if no one could write legibly, record the process correctly, or add, subtract, multiply and divide distances and ratios?

There is a scene in “Apollo 13” where the NASA scientists are writing, drawing and calculating on paper even with a room full of computers. That famous mission was in April 1970. In the movie “Hidden Figures,” the main character was called upon to verify the machine calculations manually. Computer programming flowed from that knowledge.

The evidence in front of us would support that we do teach what we need to teach, right when we need to teach it. Kids learn, adapt the knowledge and use it to make change. I love to watch people figure stuff out. It’s the “what if…” and “I noticed that…” which intrigues me about learning. I don’t believe in accidental learning or advancements. Just about every invention I can think of came about because someone was thinking, observing and connecting the dots in a sequence of steps, tweaking this and that until a desired outcome is reached and, even then, commenting that “next time…”.

In a 1951 publication called “Your Household Guide,” there are 1,001 helpful hints to ease the tasks of running a household. Many of the ideas are suggestions for improved methods to preserve food and save money. Efficiency was a prime motivator for tips, ranging from cooking fresh pumpkin to best ways to cut cakes and pies.

Homemakers throughout history have recorded and passed down the lessons of experience to manage essential bits of everyday life and then look for ways to make it better. Add salt to this or sugar to that and the flavor or texture or appearance will be better. If you don’t have something on hand, what can be used in its place to accomplish the same, or better, outcome?

Great ideas come from educated guesses or experiments. However, one suggestion in the book really intrigued me.

If you add a banana to a rhubarb pie, the flavor will resemble pineapple. Who would think of such a thing? What led to that discovery? What will be the “next” in that learning sequence?