The handwriting’s no longer on the wall…

So I was chatting with some friends recently, and the subject of handwriting in school came up. It turns out that many school districts across the county are now eliminating teaching cursive handwriting as an essential skill.

I’m not sure what the real reasons for this are, but I can think of a few right off the top of my head.

First, in today’s computer-driven society, where even our watches are becoming machines that put Dick Tracy’s wrist radio to shame, keyboarding skills have become paramount. Back in the stone age, we used to call it typing, but that was when there were machines called typewriters in which the typist rolled in a sheet of paper, held their hands at just the right angle, and then typed. At 40 words per minute if he or she wanted to pass Typing I.

By that time, “typewriter” referred to the machine, an not the person who was using it. As Lorenzo Rank but it in his “Oswego” column in the March 11, 1898 Kendall County Record: “Bessie Armstrong, now one of the stenographers and typewriters, came home from Chicago to spend Sunday.”

When I took high school typing, handwriting was still an essential skill that elementary kids spent a lot of time learning. Most elementary classrooms had depictions of correct upper and lower case cursive letters on cardboard strips up above the blackboard so there would be no excuse for failing to create a proper capital letter Q.

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

My first ink pen in second grade was a plastic one with a steel nib, just like the middle one here

I learned cursive in second grade out in our one-room country school, first with pencil, and then graduating to (just like the big kids!) pen and ink. The ink pens we learned on were plastic dip pens with steel nibs that had to be dipped in an ink bottle every few letters. The wet ink then had to be blotted so you didn’t accidentally drag your shirt cuff through it and smudge your masterpiece. Ink blotters, in fact, were a major advertising medium during that era, with all sorts of businesses giving them out for free.

In the middle of my third grade year, when we moved into town, I was mildly shocked, and somewhat insulted, that my classmates were all still a) printing and b) writing in pencil.

The kids in country and town schools through the last of the 19th Century and start of the 20th, learned using the Spencerian Method invented and popularized by Platt Rogers Spencer. That was replaced by the Palmer Method developed by A.N. Palmer and spread nationwide in Palmer’s Guide to Business Writing, in which, by the way, my mother was an expert. She learned it in grade and high school and perfected it in a business college course.

Our school handwriting was very similar to Palmer’s, and was practiced daily.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

The cartridge pen allowed the look of a fountain pen without the muss and fuss of carrying a bottle of ink around in your pocket.

For reasons lost to the mists of time, we weren’t allowed to use ballpoint pens for some years. Fountain pens were fine, but the things leaked. So it was a lifesaver when the Shaeffer company came out with their cartridge ink pens. No filling from ink bottles any more, just buy a small box of plastic cartridges at the drug store and you were good to go. But eventually, the value of ballpoints penetrated the educational system. Our handwriting was a lot less messy, the blotter makers went the way of buggy whip manufacturers, and all was good and right with the world.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, from my senior year of high school, tells me so.

All the cool kids in high school used Shaeffer Pens. I know that because this advertisement, that dates to my senior year of high school, tells me so.

Then, as I noted above, some of us learned typing in high school, which proved a very valuable skill. It was also challenging. We learned on standard QWERTY typewriters, but with the exciting modification of blank keys. The keyboard layout was printed on a poster above the blackboard at the front of the room. And no, I don’t remember why our typing room had blackboards.

For some of us, typing was, literally, a life-saver. A friend of mine, drafted into the U.S. Army during Vietnam, was appointed to clerical duties in his engineering company because he could type. It didn’t stop him from hunkering in a bunker and shooting up the bad guys with an M-79 grenade launcher during the Tet Offensive, but to a great extent, it kept him out of lots of other potentially fatal situations.

Typing was also a money maker during college, since the skill wasn’t universal and by that time, term papers were required to be typed in many classes.

Typing didn’t become keyboarding until the computer age dawned. In another interesting tern of events, “computer” had also once been the name of a person’s job, just like “typewriter.” But starting in the late 1970s, computers began requiring keyboards to input data. By the 1980s school boards all over the country were coming to the conclusion that all this computer stuff was something more than a technological flash in the pan. And by the 1990s, “keyboarding” was starting to be considered a basic skill, right along with handwriting.

And then came laptops, smart phones, tablets, and all the rest of the revolution we’ve been living through the past few decades.

Now, it appears, keyboarding has overtaken handwriting, as have more esoteric skills such as texting using nimble thumbs, which all the cool kids know is the rage these days.

Which brings us to the second reason handwriting is disappearing as a skill taught in school—which really has nothing to do with technology, and, when you stop to think about it, not much to do with improving education, either. Handwriting is simply not conducive to modern testing. And the modern mania for “high stakes” testing has pretty much left skills like handwriting in the dust. If it’s not on standardized tests, it is not, for the most part, taught.

So gone is handwriting, and so are lots of other things, like local history because giant testing companies owned by conglomerates overseen by distant financiers understand they can’t be shoehorned into a nationally-normed test. Education, of course, is not the goal here; making money is. For years, the folks who’ve been vacuuming up everyone’s tax dollars have been trying to figure out how to get at that huge pool of property taxes that support local government. With the ‘education reform’ movement, charter schools, and the Common Core, they figure they’re good to go.

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2 Comments

Filed under Frustration, Local History, Nostalgia, Oswego, People in History, Semi-Current Events, Technology

2 responses to “The handwriting’s no longer on the wall…

  1. I was one of the victims taught the Palmer method. No matter how hard I tried, my grade school handwriting only looked good if I wrote e x c r u t i a t i n g l y s l o w l y, too slow for any practical use other than creating something to be admired. Good handwriting seemed to have lost its cachet in my late grade & high school years, and my own style deteriorated even more. Of course, my poor penmanship qualified me to become a physician. Somewhere along the way my father bought a typewriter & taught himself touch typing, I gladly taught myself the same thing on the same machine, this happening when I was about ten. What a relief! No longer would my written words be judged / misinterpreted, but would in fact look the same as anyone else’s typescript.
    Decades later in the emergency rooms where I worked after getting my MD, patient charts were expected to be handwritten by a physician using a ballpoint pen, and, oh yes, “press hard you are making three copies”. I used a typewriter when I could, otherwise my writing hand would become very stiff and sore by the end of a 12 hour shift. Somehow the handwriting of the nurses always looked better, and they never seemed to get sore hands. Other physicians seemed to deal with the issue by writing as little as possible, although this posed them considerable medical-legal risks.
    Luckily the Osborne 1 luggable (and affordable) computer came on the market in 1983. I bought one and taught myself word processing to expedite the whole chart creation process. That and all the associated computer paraphernalia became tax deductible. What a blessing, no more writer’s cramp, and the repetitive nature of chart writing became so much less tedious.
    Modern ER physicians now tend to dictate their charts, a few lucky ones even have “scribes” to create documents on the spot while the physician busies himself saving lives. These advances occurred after my time on duty was over.
    I still hope for better penmanship. In my old age I have returned to college as a senior student (auditing, for no credit, paying no tuition). I have taken up the study of Mandarin Chinese, one of the most difficult languages in the world to understand and particularly to write. I now write Hanzi characters with a Flair pen (closest thing to a Chinese calligraphy brush), and still write e x c r u t i a t i n g l y s l o w l y. I have also taught my computer to write Chinese, when writing speed is more important than getting admiration for good penmanship. 祝

  2. I won an actual penmanship award for my cursive handwriting in second grade at the Wheatland Plowing Match. It’s been pretty much all downhill since then. Frantically taking notes in longhand during more than 30 years as a reporter didn’t help, either–I found I could barely read my notes, particularly after especially long school board meetings. My cassette, and then micro-cassette, recorder saved my bacon many a time.

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