The Silence Of The Hands

Copyright © by Len Holman, 7/16/11


  My handwriting is execrable.  It’s more curse than cursive, even with all the blood, sweat, and tears I gave during my formative years to learn to sculpt the letters, the humiliation I endured of going to the chalk board and not being able to remember what a capital “q” looked like, the disappointment I suffered when I finished a handwritten page and discovered that the earnest, tight-fisted grip on my pencil produced, not flowing script, but a foreign language which even I couldn’t read.  I wish I were going to school in Indiana right now, because that state’s board of education has told teachers they can stop teaching cursive if they wish (of course this will be up to local school districts—not teachers)—or can continue to do so.  Handwriting is in the curriculum in grades 1-3, with cursive being taught in grade 3. 

  Keyboarding is also taught in elementary school.  Officials are quoted as saying that a “healthy mix” of handwriting and keyboarding skills is important.  It’s not clear that saying a school district doesn’t have to teach cursive and also saying cursive and keyboarding are a healthy mix are compatible things, or that it even makes sense.  If cursive and keyboarding are a healthy mix, then taking one of the ingredients out of the juicer is, by definition, less healthy—if not toxic.  There are several questions this decision raises, the least of which is the mind-set of the Hoosier state.  Do they think cursive is the work of the devil?  Have they decided that the 21st century is going to be cursive-free and keyboard-rich and therefore to prepare students for the future, handwriting is not going to be important? 

  It certainly appears that the trend in communicating is not cursive (who writes letters anymore?) or even keyboarding, but touch.  More and more electronic gear uses touch screens, and even before we have gotten too far along the touch-path, we’re starting to see voice-activation—so maybe Indiana should junk even the keyboarding and teach their small children how to speak with, and interact with, our machines.  Some state—given the absolute lack of trust and/or commitment to federal guidelines in the land—will be doing this in the not-so-distant future.  It’s not as if handwriting is essential to a civilization becoming, or staying, great.  Arabic, the language of a once-rich civilization, has only 26 letters, no caps, and no printing.  It’s all script, so if one wants to write, one has to form letters in a flow.  It can’t be printed.  Greece got on quite well for a very long time with most of its inhabitants not being able to write at all.  Socrates, Jesus, and the Buddha didn’t write anything on their own.  In fact, Socrates thought that writing philosophy ruined philosophy’s intent.  What about printing?  Will Indiana’s children learn to print?  They would still have to learn the alphabet, but that may also be a disappearing skill.  Chinese youth are forgetting their ancient script, but are saved by an app on their smart phones, which supplies the forgotten character.  Soon, no kid will need to print or write.  But does this mean no kid will need to learn to read?  Why should they?  They will speak into their machines; the machines will write it and send it wherever it needs to go; and everyone is happy.  But how will the sender know that the message is accurate?  The machine (phone, tablet, computer, etc.) will read it back aloud (the user can choose the voice he or she wants the machine to use—think of the possibilities:  Hannibal Lector’s voice saying, “Hello, Clarise, this is the message you sent.”)  If all this comes to pass, will it be a bad thing, or just another step in our cultural and mental evolution?

  Before writing, there was memory.  Homer’s lines were recited over several days for all the Greek villages the chanters visited—thousands of lines--from memory.  No doubt when writing became a tool to use, there were those who lamented that the world was going to hell.  When I was teaching “at risk” kids—students who were 17 or 18 with just a few credits and very little chance of graduating high school—I was stunned to discover that few, if any of them, knew their multiplication tables.  The whole staff took postures of various kinds of outrage, but as one kid told me:  “Why do I gotta memorize ‘em when I can look ‘em up?”  He had a point.  After all, in this very complicated world, with factoids, information, images, misinformation, liars with agendas, and disinformation abounding, looking for answers is what most schools say is part of their mission:  “developing life-long learners.” 

  Not “developing life-long memorizers.”  There will always be memorizers and hand writers and people who can read script and printing.  The rest of the population will get along just fine without it, I guess.  I prefer a real book to one on an electronic reader, but there is no rational reason to eschew the one for the other.  I grew up with books and maybe that’s why I prefer them.  The pen and pencil manufacturers will have to find another gig, but I see a person somewhere inventing a pencil-like tube which scans words, turns them into speech, transmits them to a pen pal in Perth and vocally transmits any response. The good news: no eraser bits all over the paper.  More good news:  green-minded people will see a sharp fall in paper use and fewer trees being logged.  The bad news:  a division between those who can read and those who can’t.  Is this important? 

  This is but one example of the beginning of the fracture of the union, with states deciding what immigration policy they will pursue, and what to teach in schools, and it’s not over.  Not by a long shot.  What prevents a state board of education from mandating or “suggesting” that schools eliminate black history or any history which puts the state or the state’s heroes in a bad light?  What prevents a state from deciding, in short, what a kid will learn and what a kid doesn’t need to learn?  Does the Secretary of Education have a couple of battalions to send into Texas or Georgia to enforce a particular edict of the federal government?  If a state wants Mark Twain off the shelves, who’s to say “no”?  There will be lawsuits, of course, but this is a small skirmish in the on-going war for the core of America.  It’s not about America’s hands, it’s about America’s heart.


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