Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Our writing shouldn’t be allowed to just disappear

From the Ottawa Citizen: Our writing shouldn’t be allowed to just disappear
As children return to school following winter holidays, most of us in Canada have a comforting sense of security that they will receive the best of education. But should we assume it will always be that way?

To the south, most U.S. states have adopted the new Common Core State Standards for English. This allows schools in each state to stop teaching kids how to write cursively. The rationale is that with the prevalence of computers and cellphones there is no longer a need for children to learn how to write. Sound incredible? In Indiana for example, Grade 2 students will no longer be asked to move from printing to writing. Time can be spent doing more important teaching.

Decades ago, Isaac Asimov wrote a prescient short story about a sensation who mystified his community because he had the ability to do simple arithmetic without the aid of a calculator. The notion being that humans had lost memory of any capacity to do such brain calculating. His point was, “What are we coming to?” Well, now we’re there.

There is something troubling if not downright scary about kids growing up without being able to write. An adult society that no longer writes, where no one knows how to do it.

Weird idea, isn’t it? But it’s more than that. It reveals how slavishly and uncritically we embrace every technological development and all the consequent ramifications. New instantly equates to better. New means “gotta have it.” The younger generations have been born into this normative thinking and awareness. Those 40 and older know different times and different understandings of life. They can compare.

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, the iconic 92-year-old American poet from the Beat Generation of the ’50s and ’60s reflects that back then the emerging ethos was to “Be here now.” The idea being to be present in one’s mind and body and fully aware of life around and within self. Now, Ferlinghetti observes it is “Be some place else” as he sees drivers, pedestrians, couples at dinner all engrossed in cellphone activity.

So, what does cursive writing contribute that makes it valuable? Well, it slows us down and makes us concentrate. It puts physical texture into our communication. The letters and words and sentences, the paragraphs and pages flow from our minds to fingers to the page and our ideas and souls stay in the ink on the paper and then find their way to someone else’s hands and eyes and mind and soul. We open letters with our hands, touch the paper, let the words and feelings soak into us. We connect with the being who wrote to us. We read and re-read, we fold the paper and keep it for later, maybe for life. We keep that communication, the intentions of the writer, and it retains meaning for us. It makes us more than what we are. It is the tangible and tactile antidote to aloneness. The soldier in a foxhole or a bunk clutching the paper holding his sweetheart’s love words.

With technological communication — emails, text messages, we read quickly, gather in only a fraction of the import and move on to the next item in our inbox. There is no intimacy, no deep pondering or absorption. It’s all flat and quick. It disappears.

When my uncle died 10 years ago, we went through his things and found a suitcase of old letters. Writing from his mother, his sisters, his brothers. And I keep them now. No one will go through all the old computer files even if they haven’t been deleted. No one will keep them. They are machine ilk, not flesh and blood ilk.

Does it matter if we stop teaching kids to write? It’s another detachment from being human with one another. Another detachment from developing awareness and power within self and it’s a diffusion of intimacy. It’s a message that exposes the shallowness and ignorance prevailing in educational leadership. A message which draws kids farther into the abbreviated world of emoticons and consumerism.

Cursive writing is connected to the same area of the brain as art. It’s expressive. The very image of a kid in class passing a note to someone else without the teacher seeing suggests the personal, human world of touch. Yes, printing letters is still physical on paper. But it’s more cumbersome, less individualistic, and surely printing will be next on the list of deletions from school curricula.

Gandhi and the wisest of those who followed in his footsteps spoke about technology. They saw how it needed to be understood — as a tool to make one’s life easier and advance efficiency but not to detract from humanity. They saw technology that replaced human workers as negative because all need jobs. They saw technology which improves the worker’s plight as positive.

They might have thought similarly about the devices which help our communication to be quicker but less deep, less complex, less personal and human.

Calvin White is a former high school counsellor and author of The Secret Lives of Teenagers, due in 2013 from Key Publishing Company.

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