I use science and technology all day and every day, but I don't have the first clue how any of it works. If civilization collapsed in a heap tomorrow, I would be utterly and immediately screwed.
In less than two weeks I will begin my 26th year of teaching. And though one week can wildly diverge from the next in tone and tenor, my workaday life follows the same daily routines as any other. For example:
1) My phone's alarm will wake me up at approximately the same time each day. How the phone works, be it a landline or cellular, I couldn't tell you.
2) I stumble half-conscious into the bathroom, relying on muscle memory to adjust the knobs of the shower to the desired water temperature. Five minutes later, I'm adequately scrubbed. How clean water was able to flow from some underground aquifer to my home where I could then heat it, I haven't the faintest idea.
3) I return to the bedroom and dress, usually in an outfit made of some cotton blend fabric. How those fibers were woven and transformed into clothing I am able to comfortably wear, damned if I know.
4) Now three-quarters awake, I head to the kitchen, where I retrieve frozen fruit from the freezer and milk from the fridge to make my morning smoothie. After drinking that slowly enough to avoid brain freeze (not always successfully), I turn on the coffeemaker and wait. All of these appliances require electricity, which I vaguely realize was generated and transmitted from somewhere. But how never crosses my mind.
5) Now fully awake, but before heading out the door, I use the bathroom. I dutifully push the toilet handle afterward and the debris disappears. How the wastewater was forced into a downward spiral and where it went are two questions I never contemplate. I haven't a clue.
6) Driving to work is next. I assume the car will start, the pistons and cylinders (whatever those are) will fire, and a rectangular pedal by my right foot will thrust me forward at speeds I'm comfortable with, on roads I expect to be relatively smooth. If any of these things don't come to pass, I am helpless.
7) Off and on (oh, who am I kidding — constantly) I access the wireless World Wide Web. Be it googling, searching, posting or streaming, I am dependent (to an unhealthy degree) on the ready access of information for either student learning or my personal use. How these bits/bytes of data and images fly unseen through the air directly into my devices is a total mystery. Magic, maybe.
There is a particular concept I have discussed with my students much more in the last few years than I ever did in my first 20 as a teacher. In my defense, the concept is as sexy as a turd and just as dry. But without it, homes, towns, cities, nations, eventually civilizations decay and decline. The word is … infrastructure.
Infrastructure: the basic physical and organizational structures and facilities (buildings, roads, power supplies) needed for the operation of a society.
See? Not sexy. We have all heard of infrastructure, but we bleeped over it in high school, didn't comprehend it until adulthood and take it for granted our entire lives. And why shouldn't we? Electric devices are plugged into outlets and are powered. Fuel is pumped into cars and they go. Faucets are opened and water pours out. Buttons are tapped and messages fly out wirelessly to be instantly received somewhere else on Earth. It all just works.
The folks who build and maintain our infrastructure are heroes of our civilization. It's not just the "giants" who make it into history books. Sure, I'm inspired by the words and actions of people like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, but I've also never failed to be impressed and humbled by people who know how to frame up a house, wire a street, pave a road, dig a well. I don't know how anything works, but I'm smart enough to admit that we would be nowhere if not for the people who do.
We need to celebrate these people more often. Athletes, entertainers, social media influencers, reality TV stars, politicians — these folks get far too much of our attention (not to mention money). If they all went away tomorrow, we wouldn't miss them for long.
But lose the plumbers, the electricians, the heavy equipment operators, the engineers, the textile manufacturers? Heaven help us, because the Kardashians sure won't.
Eric Bergman, of Minneapolis, is a middle-school teacher.