I never realized that map reading was important until I took my son over to the local college a couple of years ago and we needed to find a particular building. Right next to the Visitor parking lot there is a large, clear map of the campus and a helpful YOU ARE HERE arrow so we could orient. I stood there studying it for a minute while Michael impatiently said "C'mon, let's GO!"
"Just a minute Dude, I can find the building on this and we'll be there in just a few minutes. It's not a big campus," I said.
He was restless and nervous. Fidgeting. Actually not looking at the phone, which was rare.
Finally I just started walking in the direction of the building we needed, because he was so ancy and bugging me. I looked at the building I thought was correct and didn't see any signs identifying it. I saw a student walking past. "Excuse me honey but is that Building D?" I asked with a smile. The student looked startled, nodded, and walked quickly away. I'm sure she pulled out her phone and texted [SOME CREEPY OLD WOMAN JUST ASKED ME WHERE A BUILDING WAS! WTF?!]
I was focused on where we needed to go and didn't really think about all of this until a good while later.
What I've concluded, after thinking about it, is pretty simple but profoundly disturbing: we need to teach our kids how to read maps.
They can take their smartphones and probably look at the surface of Mars but they can't follow a map without a computer-generated voice saying "In one hundred yards, turn left."
When I was in college and doing a lot of driving I always had maps in the car. If I was going somewhere unfamiliar I used to look at a map and write out all the turns on a piece of paper and tape the paper to the dashboard. That way I didn't have to pull over, look at the map, and then try to remember all the turns. Sometimes I taped it to the steering wheel, in the middle. Easier to glance at.
The other day I was looking through the big built-in bookcase in my family room and I found a nice Atlas of Atlanta, which I recall buying about 2003 and thinking I had really scored a bargain because it was very complete, and the Atlanta metro area is huge and confusing. Now I just Google map where I want to go, and listen for the computer voice to tell me where to turn. Sometimes I argue with the voice. "That's ridiculous, going that way this time of day. The traffic will be horrible," I find myself saying.
[I pondered whether or not to keep the nice Atlas, but I couldn't bring myself to throw it away...]
I remember when I asked my brother for a GPS for the car a few years ago. It was hard to program and not always accurate, and I frankly didn't trust it. I rarely used it.
One day about a year later Michael downloaded Google maps onto my phone. Life changed dramatically. I no longer had to look at anything. I just had to listen.
What scares me about this is simple. What if there's some sort of satellite glitch and the cell phones are inoperable one day, for some technical reason? What if you're going somewhere and your phone simply dies, out of power? How will you know where to go?
Even more scary: what if we raise kids who cannot problem-solve without a computer?!
I remember when I was 16 and got my first driver's license, and ventured out alone in the car for the first time. Scary. I knew routes from the passenger side, where everything was familiar. I didn't know them from the driver's side. I didn't know to watch the lanes so I could get out of my lane before it turned into a "right turn only" lane and forced me to do something I didn't want to do. Re-learning where I needed to go, from the driver's side, was not easy for me.
Map reading was equally frustrating. My brain doesn't do well with spatial relationships.
However, I pushed myself to not give up, to make myself learn how to be competent with maps. I never expected to just press a button and be told a route. That wouldn't been freakishly weird to me. Of course, I was still listening to cassette music tapes at that point, something my kids find laughably primitive.
Michael has a friend who is very very smart, an Honors student in high school. He is finding college to be very challenging. I understand it. In college you aren't spoon-fed the material and given extra-credit opportunities right and left. You have to actually discipline yourself to study. You have to accept the very grown-up reality that life with be what you make it IF you do the hard intellectual work needed. I don't recall any professor at either of the two colleges I attended cutting me any slack for anything. College is make it or break it time. Time to grow up.
There is no mechanical voice telling you what turns to take, in college - or in life. You're presented with choices every day, difficult choices, and you have to step up your game.
You have to learn that sometimes you are going to make the wrong choice, take a wrong turn, and you need to learn how to get yourself re-oriented, and start over. You have to fail, in fact, and learn how to manage that and get over it. There are no trophies for just participating, in life.
We need to teach our kids how to read maps, and then make them get in the car and explore, without using their GPS crutches.
We need to make them sit and learn something from purely being lectured, or reading an actual book.
We need to take away their phones and computers occasionally and say "Here's your task. Learn it. Use your brain and your hands."
I am not a college snob. It's not for everyone. But it's like I've told my kids, whether you go to college or not, you have to accept this about growing up and making your own way in the world: it's about LEARNING. You have to train your brain to always be learning.
I am really thankful that I was a young adult at a time when I really had to learn a lot of things on my own. The first college I attended was academically challenging and I had to learn how to manage my time and study effectively. I couldn't email anyone. I could only call home once a week because calls were expensive and my dad got mad about long long-distance calls. I couldn't Google anything. I had to spend hours in the library, physically poring over the card catalog and pulling books off shelves, and looking through them.
There are a lot of things from the past that need to be abandoned, like the isms [racism, sexist, ageism].
There are also things we need to make an effort to preserve. In a perfect world, if I had the time, I would like to conduct seminars for high school seniors and teach them basic skills - how to read a map, how to cook a meal, how to make a budget, etc. I'd also challenge them to put their phones in envelopes and not look at them all through the seminar. Part of the problem is they are always distracted by their phones. Communication in person, face to face, is becoming a lost art among our young people.
But it starts with maps. Teach your kids to look at an old-fashioned paper map and find themselves, and find where they want to go, and then send them off on the grand adventure.