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To Be? Or Not To Be. That is the...... Gozornenplatt

Newhart's routine made possible without apes or typewriters

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, October 11, 2006.

Back in the day, and I ran a Ticket office here in Boulder, I insisted that during the application there be a math test. This was in 1988, when computers were not what they are now, and I didn’t trust them. My worst imagined scenario was the computers going down and a bunch of math illiterates incorrectly trying to compute taxes and service charges on ticket prices and running them through the separate credit card machines incorrectly, or being unable to handle large cash transactions, or just freezing if the machines didn’t work.

Most applicants were pretty good at this, being highly educated Boulder, and for that I was thankful, but I had con-artists tell me it wasn’t necessary for them to take the test as they were CU math majors. Some actually were……….and some actually passed my test. But not all. My dissing of CU became quite serious at that juncture.

I eventually got a mix of competencies with good people who were good with other people and who could do everything I was expected to know when I left high school, and the ticket office hummed. Most of them were immediately elevated out of my office into the managerial and owner’s offices when their own hires fizzled out. Of course, I was so pleased.

Skipping ahead and over the next few years, while I was on criminal probation I had to work a series of low end warehouse and office jobs that required record keeping and I became aware that lousy handwriting was no longer the stigmata of upper class doctors and lawyers, but of all classes. Very few other than women wrote longhand at all, and it was painful to describe to the men why writing longhand was better than block letters: it was faster, less tiring, more readable. That is, with some practice. As it stood, even the block letters were pretty bad. And slow. It took them forever.

Today, in the Washington Post, there’s an article about the decline of handwriting, and since it agrees with me, I’m inflicting its conclusions upon you.

When handwritten essays were introduced on the SAT exams for the class of 2006, just 15 percent of the almost 1.5 million students wrote their answers in cursive, the rest did it in block letters. This isn’t surprising since elementary school barely devotes ten minutes a day to what I consider an important and necessary skill. Go figure, it seems that SAT essays written in cursive had slightly higher average scores than those written in print, so there is real world penalty to bad handwriting. Although there is great disdain for learning cursive writing, there is great admiration for those who can do it. Even if, most students defensively point out, everything today is typed, most of them aren’t good typists, either. So it’s not substitution of one skill for another.

Research shows children without proficient handwriting skills produce simpler, shorter compositions, from the earliest grades, continuing the dumbing down of information exchange. It’s known that the tongue and the fingers share the same part of the brain, and the neurological process that directs thought, through fingers, into written symbols is highly sophisticated. “Several academic studies have found that good handwriting skills at a young age can help children express their thoughts better -- a lifelong benefit.” And since the mind works faster than the body, the ability to get it down fast is important.

Coherent writing is just coherent thought with a motor skill. If, however, you don’t have that skill, or it will take too long to execute, you rethink the expression of the thought to make it simpler and shorter, and possibly less accurate. A professor experimented with a group of first-graders who could write only 10 to 12 letters per minute. “The kids were given 15 minutes of handwriting instruction three times a week. After nine weeks, they had doubled their writing speed and their expressed thoughts were more complex. He also found corresponding increases in their sentence construction skills.”

A group of second-graders were taught writing by forming letters on individual chalkboards, first with a wet sponge, then with a tissue, then in chalk and finally on paper. It’s predicted these kids will produce far more legible writing. But there is more to it. Do you really want a typed love letter from a lover? Does text messaging fill the void left by the absence of handwritten letters? Would a condolence note printed out mean as much as a handwritten expression of shared grief?

And when the power goes out and you need a note to attach to Lassie’s collar, or to write to your first grandchild, it would be nice if you could do it and, in years to come, descendents could read it.