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Thursday, March 3, 2016
My Concerns: Independence and Independent Access
Today’s post is a sequel to the one preceding, as I continue musing on the value of handwriting. I will try very hard not to beg the question or to exaggerate the case to be made in favor of cursive script. I'm also including some sunny winter scenes to sweeten the pot.
Why do we put a high value on health, other than the fact that being sick is usually no fun at all? Aside from the yucky aspects of illness, don’t we also love to feel strong and healthy, in large part, because it means we can do things for ourselves, because we’re not dependent on others when we’re healthy? Getting old brings changes much more serious and unwelcome than wrinkles and sags, white hair and dry skin. There is the inevitable losing of strength and energy, the dreaded “slowing down” -- in short, not being able to do all the things one took for granted when young and strong. That’s what makes old age such a drag!
And human independence goes way beyond the physical. Americans generally consider a driver’s license, a valid passport, plenty of money, and freedom from debt as possessions and states to be desired. Being grounded as a teenager, going to jail or prison as an adult – the punishment in each case is loss of freedom and the curtailment of choices – but crushing student debt, burdensome mortgages, and payments on credit cards and/or new cars also place restrictions on independence.
Are you with me so far?
Okay, how about this: I can’t help believing that real, sustainable, and continued intellectual independence and efficacy demand an ability to function in the absence of electronic devices. I’m not arguing against ever using the devices. How could I do that and not be a complete hypocrite, given that I composed this essay on a laptop device and uploaded it to the Internet? My argument is, rather, that we should not become so dependent on them that we are helpless when the power goes out. We need basic competencies.
For a long time, parents and grandparents have been worrying that children relying on calculators are not learning basic skills in arithmetic. Well, why should they? They have calculators, so why should they bother calculating in their heads or on paper? Isn’t learning to do that a waste of valuable time?
Math skills make a good subject for me to defend because math was always my weakest academic subject. If I could, I would have avoided it altogether after third grade.
But now, as an independent adult, I don’t have to trust blindly in a cash register total or what a clerk tells me “the computer says,” because I can estimate the cost of my selected items before I got in line. I don’t even have to take a calculator with me to the store and hope the battery doesn’t go dead, either, because I learned addition and subtraction, multiplication tables, and estimating (that last, for me, the most difficult) back in my school days. I do it in my head. Estimating did not come naturally to me, and my math anxiety, supplemented by innate stubbornness, resisted it for a long time. Why look for approximate answers when I could do the calculation and get an exact number? Now I estimate on a daily basis and am thankful to have the skill. I have three avenues open to me – mental estimating or exact calculation, calculation on paper, or resorting to a calculator. Isn’t that range of possibilities preferable to dependence on the electronic device?
My mother learned shorthand when she was young, and I never did, but I did learn cursive handwriting and also developed my own idiosyncratic abbreviations for note-taking in college and graduate school. Relying on someone else’s notes would have made me very nervous. How could I know another student had understood the lecture or captured all the important points? In all honesty, I admit that I only took a typing class in high school because my parents insisted. Moreover, having that skill as “something to fall back on” – their argument -- worked against me for a long time: I kept falling back into jobs I hated! But finally I got it together to finish an undergraduate degree and go on from there, and being an excellent typist still serves me well.
Touch typing, that is. All fingers employed. One hundred and twenty words a minute. No two-thumbs texting or pathetic hunting-and-pecking with forefingers!
I won’t reiterate here all my reasons for valuing books on paper a topic I’ve covered before (most recently here), but I do apply similar reasons to my case for handwriting. That is, I value it not simply out of nostalgia or because I grew up writing by hand or because ink is retro and cool, but because I can write on paper wherever I am, without an expensive device, without charging cords or batteries, without rare minerals having been extracted from the earth and without sending plastic and worse to landfills, and because I needn’t trust in a “cloud” to store my words or a sophisticated system to transmit them. With pen and paper, I exercise independence.
Blogging would not exist without the Internet, and those of us who participate obviously use electronic devices to share our thoughts. Blogging takes place only by virtue (!) of a virtual world. But my entire life would not be over if my online life came to an end. The truth is, I like being offline at home, and I like being disconnected when I’m out walking with my dog. That, of course, is a matter of preference. Perhaps others would feel their independence – their powers – diminished in the circumstances I find so freeing. I get that. I do.
But that’s my point. I can go back and forth. And that, I think, the ability to live in different worlds, to use different tools and media, as circumstance demands or as preference indicates, is the greatest degree of independence possible.
What does it matter, one of my readers responded (on my Facebook link to the earlier post), the form of communication young people use, handwriting or texting or some other digital means, since all are ways to communicate. True, but to me this is like asking why learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and estimate if you have a calculator. For that matter, given the availability of audio books, why be bothered to read? Why not just listen to someone else doing the reading?
As for me, I’ll listen now and again, but I would certainly not trade literacy for listening. Neither would I give up handwriting (or touch typing) and be confined to poking my fingers and thumbs at a tiny screen.
Here’s another thought: Most Ph.D. programs have traditionally had foreign language requirements. Some gave that up to allow computer “languages” as substitutes, which seems suspect and squirrelly to me in most cases. A language is not, after all, a code. The intention of the original requirement was to ensure an ability to read important texts in their original language; a secondary benefit that comes with second-language acquisition, however, is the realization that many of the concepts we take for granted in our native language are not universal. Different people divide the world up differently. They see the world differently. It’s important to learn that. It’s the difference between learning to converse and read and write and think in a second language and having to rely on a program or “app” to translate for you.
So as far as the ability to read historical documents is concerned, what if future students of history were required to learn cursive handwriting in the same way they might be required to learn Latin or French or Russian? As a specialized professional skill? I can imagine the day, not far in the future:
LANG 350: “Cursive as Foreign Language”
And for many people, if an ability to read historical documents is all that’s at stake, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with the vision. Well, here’s what’s wrong with it from my point of view, and it’s the same thing that’s wrong with giving up on learning second languages (or learning to read, for that matter) because “smart” machines can do the work for us:
Having the machines should make our worlds bigger, not smaller; enlarge our access to the world rather, not shrink it; give us greater flexibility and choice and independence. Not stunted brains and overgrown thumbs.
And I’ll stop now to ask, as the scary truck driver asked a hitchhiking friend years ago, in an ominously threatening tone of voice after subjecting her to his extreme political views, “Agree or disagree?” If you disagree with me, though, that’s fine and dandy, because I’m enjoying thinking about the pros and cons of cursive writing on this winter’s day. It’s a pleasant mental vacation from the season’s national political campaigns and primaries, isn’t it?