"I'm Not a Calculator!": Math Trouble in a Restaurant


I had a disturbing experience a few days ago at a Steak 'n Shake Restaurant near where I live.  Having eaten the fare and been glad of the experience, I approached the cashier's area to pay my bill and leave a tip.  Ahead of me were two teenage girls, one of whom was just being handed the cashier's receipt to fill out, and she paused over the task, pen in hand.

And she paused.
And she paused.
I'm guessing that close to minute passed while she was frozen (a long, long time for nothing to happen), and then she looked up at her friend, as if for help, and, getting none, went back to the paper in front of her.  Hesitantly she wrote the number "1" on the tip line, and then froze some more.  Embarrassed for her, I looked away.  What was going on?  Why didn't she leave the tip and then go so I myself could pay and leave? 
She still paused.  I saw her shoulders quiver.  Clearly it was a moment of major angst for the poor girl (around fifteen years of age I would guess).
People had piled up behind me, and the manager, seeing the line, jumped in and called for the next person (me) to come over to his register.  I did that, filled out the receipt, and turned to go.  By this time the two girls had finally finished at their register, and they were ahead of me as we went out the door.  As we exited the one who'd been pausing said to her companion, "Why don't they give you a calculator?  I'm not a calculator!  How am I supposed to know what to write down?"  Her friend commiserated with her, murmuring, "I know!  They expect you to do math on the fly!  That's bad for business."  "You're right—I won't ever come back here again!"

Well, businesses be warned: better include the tip in the check amount because some people today can't handle the math of doing it themselves.

Old fogey that—admittedly—I am, I find this depressing, and I sincerely hope it's an aberration and that most people of that age could fill out the tip line without immediately needing therapy.  I sincerely hope that's true, but I worry it's not.  In my law school classroom I've noticed over forty years of teaching that the students don't have the basics they once had, and that I spend more of my time instructing them in matters they should have brought to law school with them (for example, how our government creates laws, what are the three branches of government, the difference between the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, etc.).  On the other hand I'm aware that Socrates supposedly complained about the incompetence of the youths of his era, an observation echoed year after year ever since. (Socrates also is famous for saying that "The only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance.")

Socrates Giving Advice
So I don't know what to think.  Blog readers, help me out here.  Please leave your comments on this in the Comments area below.  Is my Steak 'n Shake experience out of the ordinary, or, in 2012, are our young people not getting basic knowledge (or is arithmetic no longer worth memorizing)?  I should mention that I realize that in this complex era students face a very different world than I faced as a teenager.  There's simply a dazzling amount more information (this is the information age) that they must consume in order to function these days, hugely greater than what high school students in the early 1960s (my high school years) had to master. 

But still—can't compute the tip on a restaurant tab without a calculator? 
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


  1. Dave LautermilchMay 24, 2012 at 5:47 PM

    Of course not unless trained to use their cell phones as watches and calculators the kids today cant figure a tip or tell you the time!

    Dave Lautermilch

    1. This is sadly true. Most phones now have "tip calculators" as well as regular calculators because apparently figuring out which buttons to hit has become too taxing. While the phenomenon of people unable to calculate simple tips is distressing, what I find even more troubling is when I see young people decline to leave any tip, or leave one that basically is just change (like leaving a $20 for a meal that cost $19.50). This illustrates not bad math but lack of respect and understanding far more troubling and difficult to reverse than simple mathematical issues.

    2. I'm laughing about the 'cell phone as watch' comment. I am one of the oldest people in my office and I know that because if we ever need to check on the time, all of my co-workers reach into their pockets to check their phones. I, of course, feel smug that I can always beat them to the punch with just a twist of my wrist.


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