How Computers Wrecked What Really Mattered by
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Here’s what I don’t miss from my pre-computer life: Maps (I never could read them), encyclopedias (so much faster to do a google search), dictionaries (bless spell check and quick online definitions), cutting and pasting (literally) to add graphics to newsletters, and typewriters (love to be able to easily edit my work).  Beyond that, there are things I really do miss: Beautiful pens, actual phone conversations (although the pandemic has resurrected these to a certain degree), and time to focus on what really matters rather than staring at a computer screen.

The more computer savvy I became, the less contact I had with those little humans who mattered so much to me.

The latter became most problematic over my years as an early childhood administrator. In the pre-computer era, I was rarely in my office during school hours. I had time to visit classrooms and knew every child and family by name. There was plenty of time to meet with parents, observe children with challenging behaviors, and offer a friendly smile to all. Once computers entered the equation, my work became harder and more removed from the children and teachers.

Back in the days before Excel spreadsheets, budgets were very simple. In fact, in my first job as the director of a church-based preschool, the only thing we kept track of was expenses. I asked my father, who was a CPA, with help straightening out the ledger handed to me by my predecessor. He was shocked. How would we know if the preschool was running at a profit or a loss? Once I added income to the other side of the ledger, I discovered we were making a nice profit. Perhaps the church didn’t want us to know this?

By the time we started Cherry Preschool in 1992, we had an old, donated IBM computer and a new program called Quicken that helped us keep track of the numbers. Quicken was soon replaced by Quick Books, but not before a sad and time-wasting effort to manage our finances with a program called Peach Tree Accounting Software. My office assistant wasted countless hours trying to master this program, hours that would have been better spent on more important things related to actually running the school or with her family, as she struggled with this on her own time as well. Once we hired a part-time bookkeeper, who put everything on Quick Books, we thought we were in good shape and could get back to the business of educating young children.

That was a false assumption. It was now possible to keep track of more things in this early era of computer literacy, so the Department of Children and Family Services started demanding more and more data. For example, we now had to keep track of every immunization for 250 children as well as every workshop attended by 30 teachers. Excel had a basic flaw for an organization with several people managing data. It was easy for one of us to make an error, especially since we were all self-taught, and wipe out all of the work we had done. So, it was off to purchase software specifically designed to manage and safeguard student and teacher data. Again, countless hours went into transitioning all of our information into this expensive system and figuring out how to generate the reports and class lists we needed.

The point of this saga is that by the time I retired as program director, there were three of us in office administration as well as the part time bookkeeper. All of us had become computer dependent for our jobs, and much of the time, we were all glued to computer screens rather than doing the important work of direct contact with the children and teachers. When I could no longer remember the names of all of the children and families, I knew it was time to leave. This was what mattered to me, but I didn’t have the time to do it as much as I should have.

The more computer savvy I became, the less contact I had with those little humans who were the reason I chose to be an early childhood program director. My work had not only become much harder. It had also become less meaningful.

I invite you to read my book Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real and join my Facebook community.

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. John Shutkin says:

    Thank you, Laurie, as I think you have really hit upon what has been lost in the computer era: human contact. This is not some form of mere nostalgia on your part; as you note, such contact was the raison d’etre for your commitment to early childhood education. Obviously, there have been positive trade-offs, but equally obviously, we are not going back, and this is a true loss that you have noted.

    On a side note, your story reminded me of when, years ago and early on in the computer era, one of my colleagues fretted that we were all going to have to learn Fortran. In one of my few prescient, if cynical, moments, I pushed back. I said that we were all too lazy to learn it and eventually the computers would dumb down to us. And that is what happened.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Yes, John, eventually there is usable software for everything. But see my comment to Marian. Progress is good, but there is a downside. As Robert Putnam said, more people may be bowling, but they are “Bowling Alone” (his book on the decline of civic engagement) He makes some excellent points about our declining social interactions. I wonder if this is part of the age of Trump — not interacting enough with people, leading to not seeing them as fellow human beings.

  2. Marian says:

    This is sad but true, Laurie, as I’ve noticed over the years less and less interaction with people, even though I have a profession that requires a degree of solitude. This must have been so painful as a teacher, having to spend time in front of a screen rather than with the kids. How are we teaching (or not teaching) our children to interact? While I love that a 12-year-old can help me with my cell phone, I worry about their people skills.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I agree, Marian. When I see my grandkids with their faces glued to their phones or iPads and ear buds in, and I have to wave my hands or point to their ears to get them to engage with me and have a conversation, I worry.

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    You perfectly describe the mixed blessing of what computer software has to offer. One needs to know what you are doing, as it is easy to make a mistake and wipe out all your hard work, but, when used well, they do make administrative work much easier. In fact, one really can’t live without them now. They grow more sophisticated and we need to be able to keep up. Or give up.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      You are right, Betsy, that computer software makes it much easier to manage data. But for me, the consequence was that more and more data were expected, leaving less time to do what I valued so much about my job.

  4. Fascinating story about the pitfalls of computerization, Laurie…supposedly time saving, but really?? I work for an accountant and can’t imagine life without tax programs, spreadsheets and QuickBooks, but time saving? I’m not sure, maybe in terms of calculating, but not in the long run, because there are multiple interim steps that never existed before. Still, I wouldn’t go back!

    P.S. Beautiful pens are now collectibles. Check out the Goulet Pen Company: https://www.gouletpens.com/collections/fountain-pens

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Accounting programs drove my father to an early retirement as a CPA. He could never master them (or perhaps was too stubborn to try). I think the more we can do technologically, the more we are expected to do. Our time is sucked up by things that don’t really matter all that much.

  5. Suzy says:

    Running a preschool and not having time to spend with the children because of all the computer work required seems like the epitome of what is wrong with our computer-oriented society. Now, of course, personal contact is in even shorter supply because of the pandemic, and I am so thankful for Zoom, which gives us at least the illusion of personal contact. Pros and cons.

  6. Laurie, less time for human interaction is indeed a sad consequence of our dependence on technology.

    My son, now in his 40s, went to a wonderful nursery school at Central Synagogue in Manhattan in those pre-tech days. Mary, the director, was a nurturing educator and the gentlest of souls. When I read about you and your passion for the Cherry Preschool you reminded me of Mary!

    I was on child care leave during Noah‘s 3 years at Central, and volunteered to establish a parenting library at the school. Thus I was a fly on the wall observing Mary as she interacted with the kids, the parents and the teachers.

    Years later when Noah was in high school we learned that Mary was retiring, and there would be a farewell tribute honoring her at the synagogue, so of course we went. We hadn’t seen Mary in at least 10 years, and we approached her at the end of the program planning to re-introduce ourselves.

    But before we could say a word Mary reached out to us. “How wonderful to see you, Mrs Lehrman and Noah!”, she said.

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