Back in June I wrote about the revival of the abacus or soroban in Japan. This subject fascinates me in part I think because it reaffirms two appealing philosophies:
- The integration of mind and body. What we do informs the shape of our mental processes. Likewise what we think informs our physical being.
- Sometimes progress in one area leads to regress in another. The technological innovation that brought us the calculator robbed us of the valuable mental training that comes from regular mental arithmetic.
(As another example of #2 I was recently given a Chemex coffee maker — one can’t imagine a simpler coffee-making device, and yet for someone who values good-tasting coffee it outperforms electric coffee makers that tend to be vastly more complicated and expensive.)
Now NPR reports on the resurgence of the abacus in modern Japan. Advocates think it will help schoolchildren develop focus and improve their connection to the mathematical concepts being studied.
‘Silently, a third-grader named Sho Uchida races through a written worksheet of arithmetic problems — without the aid of his abacus … his fingers dancing across the page.
‘Hanaka Iwai says being able to conjure up and manipulate a mental abacus is a skill known as anzan.
“Anzan enables you to visualize the beads in your head. … you can literally carry the device in your brain,” she says.
‘The system is so intuitive, teachers say, almost any child can master it in a matter of months.’
I like the punchline — “a matter of months.” To those of us who like to master things quickly, the idea of spending months on learning how to use an abacus sounds a little daunting — yet another confirmation that we need to cultivate these kinds of skills rather than curate them.