The Good Old Days

meccano close-up

My four-year-old and I have been regularly tuning in to James May’s Toy Stories on BBC America.  Truth be told, I watched all of the episodes myself and now we have been watching the reruns together.  She loves Thomas the Train so we started with the episode on model trains and have since made it a weekly ritual.

Each week, James May, of Top Gear fame, takes a different toy that was popular before the advent of video games and reintroduces it to the British public through a large scale stunt.  Examples include building a full-scale house out of Lego, a 3-mile-long slot-car track following one of Britain’s first racetracks, and a 10-mile-long model train track following an old seaside rail route.

A Meccano bridge.

A bridge made of Meccano.

Most recently, we watched the episode on Meccano, a toy construction set made of metal strips, nuts and bolts, and assorted gears.  I had a set as a kid and it was a real challenge.  To be honest, I was more into Lego, but later became much more interested in Meccano-like nuts and bolts.

One of the Meccano aficionados that May talks to points out several reasons that the toy is no longer as popular as it was around the world wars when, perhaps not coincidentally, the world looked much more like Meccano.  I have paraphrased them, if not quoted them directly, below:

  • Mecanno is metal.  Today’s medium is plastic.
  • Mecanno is angular.  Today’s things are compound curves.
  • You can repair it by changing out one of the bits.  Today we replace whole units, which are designed to be disposable.
  • He concludes, “It is out of kilter with modern life.”

As an educator who likes to adapt technology to my needs and the needs of my students, I am a bit discouraged by the fact that most technology has evolved along these lines.  Not long ago, machines and even computers were designed so that the user could repair them if necessary.  Now things are designed so that they are easy to use, but we are discouraged from “looking under the hood.”  Even computer games, programmed by the user a generation ago, are now typically very difficult to adapt and modify.

What are we losing by not tinkering with things and learning how to repair them ourselves?  What are the implications for our students if we tell them, “Just use it, don’t worry about how it works?”

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

May crossing the Meccano bridge.

One of the saddest parts of the Meccano episode, at least to me, was when May visits the new Meccano factory to reveal how their new toys incorporate remote-controlled cars and robots to which Meccano pieces can be attached.  In fact, one of the Meccano designers argues that today’s kids need to have simpler toys.

Clearly, I’m a person who likes to make things.  I’m not saying everyone should make their own houses, cars, and food (though I like to).  But by conceding that we can not or should not, what are we losing?  And by relaying this message to our children and our students, in what ways are we limiting them and their curiosity?

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