Retaining old skills whilst learning new

Lesley Tither
Published on: 26th February 2014
It's been seven years since I moved to rural France from the UK. One of the nice things I find here is that there is always lots going on. My local library is lively and thriving; recently they ran an initiative to help older people in particular to learn about tablets and i-pads.

It was wonderfully done. A group of librarians prepared a whodunit, with all the clues stored within applications on the tablets available at the library. There was an introductory evening to explain the challenge and of course, being France, there was food and wine available.

We worked in teams and were given details of the alibis provided by the five prime suspects in a theft case. We then had to check their alibi against the information yielded by browsing the apps on the tablets.

I was particularly inept. Carpal tunnel syndrome means my fingertips are not all that sensitive for using a touch-screen. So I decided to go back to the library to see if I could manage a bit better by myself. I went on a Wednesday afternoon, and as French children currently don't go to school on Wednesdays (although that is under review) I was soon joined at the table by a young girl of about ten.
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She chatted away to me quite happily, in the manner of most French schoolchildren. She could see I was totally hopeless, so every now and again she would kindly lean over, touch the screen or twirl some control or another to make the thing do what I needed it to do. We all know the saying used by those of us of the older generation: 'If you need to programme your DVD, or change the ringtone on your mobile, ask a teenager.'

But it crossed my mind that if the girl and I went outside, would she be able to tell me the names of all the trees we could see? Or the birds? Or the plants? Would she know which plants were good to eat and which were poisonous?

Because I could tell her. In French, too. One of the first things I did after moving to live in France was get all the nature books I could find and learn such things. I'd been on guided walks with herbalists and healers to learn traditional skills, like how to prepare an infusion from ash leaves for rheumatic conditions. It works, too, wonderfully.

I learned which of the snakes which live in the wild part of my garden in great number are venomous and which of the many lizards I saw I could safely touch without harming either them or myself and which were likely to give me a nasty bite.
Perhaps my new young friend has a grand-parent who still teaches her the old ways which are so important in this region. Which vegetables to plant on which phase of the moon for the best harvest.

Which mushrooms from the woods are safe to eat. Which plants will give you a free and tasty meal when your budget is low.

Although she probably was only about ten, she could certainly show them what to do with modern technology, with her eyes closed. I just hope someone in her family is making sure there is still time in her young life to learn the old skills, before they are lost and gone to us all forever.

In a rapidly expanding and modernising world, of course the young people need to learn information technology, just to keep pace. But I do hope that concentration on new skills does not signify the subsequent loss of old traditions and knowledge which may, at some time in the future, be of vital importance to us all.
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